Olney Hymns, 1779

Nominated by: The Revd Andrew Pritchard-Keens

This little book has ensured that the attractive market town of Olney, in north Buckinghamshire, is known across the world.  Olney Hymns was written jointly by its two most famous inhabitants – the poet William Cowper (1731-1800), and Rev John Newton (1725-1807), the former slave ship captain who became a prominent evangelical clergyman and abolitionist.  Newton had moved to Olney in 1764 to be Curate-in-charge of the parish church of St Peter & St Paul, his first full-time post in the Church of England.  Cowper and his companion Mary Unwin followed in 1767, as they wished to live under his ministry.

Olney Hymns contains some of the best-loved hymns in the English language. ‘Amazing Grace’ of course, by Rev John Newton, which has become an unofficial national anthem in the USA:

  • Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion city of our God (Newton)
  • God moves in a mysterious way (Cowper)
  • How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (Newton)
  • Oh! for a closer walk with God (Cowper)
  • Jesus, where’er thy people meet (Cowper)

The original plan was for each of them to contribute a roughly equal number of hymns to the collection.  These would be written in the course of Newton’s daily ministry in Olney, in which he was assisted by Cowper. As it turned out, Cowper (who suffered frequently from severe depression) was not able to contribute his full share, and the eventual tally was 67 from him, and 281 from Newton. All those by Cowper are marked with a ‘C’ in the text.

In his interesting Preface to the work, Newton explains that, as well as a ‘desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere christians…of all denominations’, it was also ‘intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship’.  He goes on to discuss the craft of hymn writing,

…which may be more successfully attained by a versifier, than by a poet. They should be Hymns, not Odes, if designed for public worship, and for the use of plain people. Perspicuity, simplicity and ease, should be chiefly attended to…

One can well imagine lively discussions arising between the two friends on these important matters of style!  Newton ends by dedicating the book ‘to my dear friends in the parish and neighbourhood of Olney, for whose use the hymns were originally composed’.

In 2022-3, Olney will become the centre of commemorations to mark the 250th anniversary of ‘Amazing Grace’, written for New Year’s Day 1773, and published as hymn number 41 in Olney Hymns.  To find out more, see the links below:


The Olney Hymns, 1779 were nominated by the Revd Andrew Pritchard-Keens, Rector of St. Peter and St. Paul, Onley.

Words provided by Tony Seward.