Tag Archives: Hymns

Review: Olney Hymns

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: John Newton was the Anglican minister at Olney after being cast away as a mutineer on the African coast and sold to black slave-traders. He later became one of the champions of the abolition of the British slave trade.

William Cowper became famous in his own right through his long poem The Task. Although Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” the most famous hymn ever written, Cowper wrote many of the more famous ones. Several of these are still regularly sung today, whether in older or modern forms.

When: Olney Hymns was published in 1779 in the context of an (local) revival of religious fervor and commitment in England. This revival, with the abolitionist Clapham Sect at its center, led to many of the most well known Christian efforts against the British slave trade.

Overview: Olney Hymns is one of the most famous hymnbooks ever created, and is connected to an evangelical revival that was occurring with John Newton, William Wilberforce, and William Cowper in the middle of it. Most famously, it is the hymnbook that introduced “Amazing Grace” (and several other classics) to the world.

(An aside: Hymnbooks were used differently back then; the tunes were memorized, and any hymn could be sung to any melody with the same number of notes. So the original tune used for “Amazing Grace,” for instance, is not the one we sing now. If you want to prove this, try singing the first hymn in the book to the same tune as “Amazing Grace.”)

Meat: I have read several classic hymnbooks in recent years, but this is easily the best. The poetry is simple and exemplary, and for the most part, it makes great devotional reading.

Many hymns that we still sing in one version or another are traced back to this classic book. I had been singing “There is a fountain filled with blood” for years before I knew it was written by one of my favorite poets, William Cowper.

Bones: Interwoven with what we consider classic hymnody are expressions of self-loathing and near despair. Newton and Cowper were prone to “worm theology” and sometimes make very little of themselves. (“Save a wretch like me.”) This is concomitant with their Calvinism and was part of the worship of several centuries of Calvinists; today, though, we find this self-deprecation to be self-focused and destructive to the atmosphere of worship.

I should add, the original index, with a title, and the first line, and a paired Scripture, is pretty confusing to modern readers. (This requires three indexes!) And different editions number the poems differently to boot.

Best Poems: 

Walking with God (“Oh! for a closer walk with God,” Gen. 5:24)

Joy and Peace in Believing (“Sometimes a light surprises”)

Light Shining out of Darkness (“God moves in a mysterious way.”)

Praise for the Fountain Opened (“There is a fountain fill’d with blood,” Zech. 13:1)

Old Testament Gospel (“Israel, in ancient days,” Heb. 4:2)

Faith’s Review and Expectation (“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound,” 1 Chron. 17:16-17)

In Heavenly Love Abiding

In heavenly love abiding,
No change my heart shall fear;
And safe is such confiding,
For nothing changes here:
The storm may roar without me,
My heart may low be laid;
But God is round about me,
And can I be dismayed?

Wherever He may guide me,
No want shall turn me back;
My Shepherd is beside me,
And nothing can I lack:
His wisdom ever waketh,
His sight is never dim;
He knows the way He taketh,
And I will walk with Him.

Green pastures are before me,
Which yet I have not seen;
Bright skies will soon be o’er me,
Where the dark clouds have been:
My hope I cannot measure,
The path to life is free;
My Savior has my treasure,
And He will walk with me.

Anna Waring, The Methodist Hymn-Book, 1904.

4 Book Recommendations for Christians in Grief

The Christian After Death (Hough)

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My friend Daniel kept this book by his bedside for years while his parents were struggling with illness. Daniel had become so accustomed to nursing his parents, that he would only sleep for a few hours at a time.

This book is my first recommendation any time I get questions about the afterlife and what the Bible says about it. It is a book of sermons; they are not creative or breathtaking, but they are scriptural. Rarely do I read something so straightforward and biblical—especially on such a difficult topic.

The book itself is organized around twelve common questions about the afterlife. The book was so good, I’ve scanned it and made it publicly available.

The Hero in Thy Soul (A. J. Gossip)

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Along with several others who are out of print and nearly unknown today, A. J. Gossip was selected for inclusion in the set 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, and this is one of only two sources I have on his life—the other being his obituary. He held a number of pastorates in the Free Church of Scotland, but he was not a very famous preacher until his wife died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1927. Within days of her death, he was in his pulpit preaching Christ’s triumph over the grave. That single sermon—titled “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?”—brought him worldwide fame.

The sermon was printed in a volume of sermons called The Hero in Thy Soul: Being an Attempt to Face Life Gallantly. Gossip wrote in the foreword:

“But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” was the first sermon preached after my wife’s bewilderingly sudden and undreamed-of death. The office-bearers of Beechgrove Church, Aberdeen, included it in a memorial booklet issued for private circulation. It has wandered so far over the world, I have received so pathetically many requests for copies from people in sorrow, that I have included the sermon here… I have not had the heart to work over it; and it is set down as it was delivered.

His biographer in the 20 Centuries series writes that Gossip lived through tough economic times in Scotland, and had been a chaplain during World War I. Years before his wife’s death, he had buried a unit of a hundred soldiers, whom he had known personally. In The Hero in Thy Soul he has a wealth of encouraging words for Christians struggling through grief and hardship.

The tone of the book is not somber; the sermons swell with chivalry and courage. Gossip was a modest preacher and did not preach in the greatest pulpits of the time. But his sermons are among the best devotional books you will ever find. They show, like F. W. Boreham or James S. Stewart, the power of a preacher who draws the best material from the wells of past literature.

Poems on Various Subjects (Wheatley)

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Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American female to gain publication in the United States. She was sold into slavery at age 7, but the Wheatley family encouraged her in her education, so that by the age of 12 she could read Classics in Greek and Latin. She had a custom of writing consolation poems for families that lived through tragedy, including the families of some high-profile preachers such as George Whitefield. These elegies compose about one-third of her published poetry.

Her work is not hymns, but poetry. Some of these poems take on more Classical or academic themes, lost to a modern reader, but many of them are filled with worship. Worship songwriter David Crowder loved to draw from the great worship songs of the past, and he quoted from one of Wheatley’s most famous poems:

To him, whose works array’d with mercy shine,
What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!

Wheatley was paraded around London society and even visited George Washington in 1776. She died at only 31, having proven the dignity and capability of her race that was so long oppressed. Wheatley’s gift for helping others see through their grief still bears fruit to this day.

Faber’s Hymns (1894) (F. W. Faber)

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Frequently quoted by devotional authors of every creed and color, F. W. Faber was a prolific author of devotional books in his own right. Faber’s first publication was a defense of the Reformation—after which he became Catholic, and he wrote many books on strictly Catholic topics that would bore or agitate a Protestant reader.

His poems and hymns, though, were highly influential among Catholic and Protestant audiences. A. W  Tozer has been the greatest reviver of Faber’s works in recent times.  In his classic book on the attributes of God, The Knowledge of the Holy, Tozer quotes F. W. Faber a dozen times. And when Tozer selected poetry for his Christian Book of Mystical Verse, he included many of Faber’s most famous hymns about the character of God. Ravenhill was fond of quoting this verse from “Jesus, My God and My All”:

O Jesus, Jesus, dearest Lord!
Forgive me if I say,
For very love, Thy sacred name
A thousand times a day.

Among Faber’s other favorite themes are death, grief and eternity. Other poems like “Dryness in Prayer” and “Distractions in Prayer” are easily relatable for Christians dealing with grief. He writes long and often on the desert experience of Christianity.

The best edition I have found of his poetry was published in 1894. I honed this edition down, deleting some of the material that is less appropriate for devotional reading. The result is the Kindle edition published in the Amazon store. I hope that it encourages many who need a new vision of God’s goodness in the midst of grief.