University of Oxford

Great Hymn Writers Part 2

JOHN NEWTON

John Newton was born in London on July 24th 1725. His father was a merchant ship captain. At the age of 11 he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. In 1741 John was pressed into service on HMS Harwich. He subsequently tried to desert, but was caught and severely flogged. At the same time he was demoted from midshipman to ordinary seaman. In his humiliation he considered suicide but finally, at his own request, was transferred into service on a slave ship. He became the servant of a slave trader who brutally abused him.

Early in 1748 John was rescued by the master of a ship who knew his father. In 1750 he married Mary Catlett with whom he had been in love for a number of years. He eventually came to own his own ships with which he plied the slave trade. Although he had some early religious instruction from his mother, he had long since given up any religious belief. However, on one homeward voyage he experienced during a violent storm what he referred to subsequently as his ‘great deliverance’. He observed the anniversary of this event (March 21, 1748) for the rest of his life  He dated his full conversion though to a later experience during a time of sickness. His slave trading activities did not cease though until 1754 when he suffered a severe stroke. It does appear though that slaves on his ships were treated during these later years more humanely than was usual. In 1755 he became Tide Surveyor of the Port of Liverpool. During this period he became well-known as an evangelical lay-minister.

In 1757 he applied for ordination into the priesthood of the Church of England. But it was to be seven frustrating years before he was actually accepted. In 1764 he was made Deacon, and was priested later that same year. He received the living of Olney in Buckinghamshire. In this period his simple piety brought him the respect of both Anglicans and Dissenters. In 1779 he became Rector of St. Mary, Woolnoth in the Diocese of London. This post he held until his death in 1807. He became a strong supported of the abolition of the slave trade. It was he who persuaded William Wilberforce not to seek Holy Orders in the Anglican priesthood, but to continue his Abolitionist struggle in Parliament. In 1767 William Cowper had moved to Olney and at this time the two collaborated in producing a book of hymns known as ‘Olney Hymns’. This included Newton’s well-known hymns: Glorious things of Thee are spoken, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds, Come my soul, thy suit prepare, Approach my soul the mercy seat, and Amazing grace.

REGINALD HEBER

Continuing the series of articles on great hymn writers. Reginald Heber was born into a heritage of wealth and culture on April 21st, 1783 in Malpas, Cheshire. His father was a member of an old Yorkshire family. Reginald apparently was the archetypal child prodigy. By the age of five years he had read the Bible so thoroughly that he could give chapter and verse references for quotations chosen by chance. He was an insatiable reader throughout his life. Heber was educated at Brasenose College, Oxford where he won a number of prizes for both Latin and English poetry and prose.

In 1804 he was elected a fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford. In 1807 he was ordained to the priesthood of the Church of England and became Vicar of the family estate at Hodnet, Shropshire, where his father held half the living. Here he was dearly loved and served faithfully for sixteen years – often at risk of infection at the sick-beds of the poor. He married Amelia Shipley, the daughter of the Dean of St. Asaph’s Cathedral, in 1809. It was during his years at Hodnet that he did all his hymn writing – some 57 in total, a number of which are still in popular use. In 1815 he was appointed Brampton Lecturer at Oxford, and in 1817 he became Prebendary of St. Asaph’s, where his father-in-law was still the Dean. In 1827, after refusing twice, Heber reluctantly accepted the appointment as Bishop of Calcutta.

The Diocese of Calcutta at that time included all of what is today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Shri Lanka (Ceylon), and Australia. At this time he was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity from Oxford University. He worked intensively in his new post for three years. This work involved an immense amount of uncomfortable travel in tropical heat and over vast distances  It is said that on the day of his death he had baptized 42 people. He died in Tamil Nadu, India, on April the 3rd in 1826 of a cerebral haemorrhage, whilst bathing..He was buried in St. John’s Church, Trichnopoly, Tamil Nadu. The grave is on the north side of the altar. Heber’s hymns which are most familiar to us and which still find an honoured place in our hymn-books are: Bread of the world in mercy broken, Brightest and best of the sons of the morning, From Greenland’s icy mountains, God that madest earth and heaven, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Hosanna to the living Lord and Virgin born, we bow before thee

HENRY FRANCES LYTE

H. F. Lyte, the great Anglican divine and hymn-writer was born in 1793 on a farm in the village of Ednam, near Kelso in Scotland. His parents were Thomas and Anna Lyte.  In that year Britain was at war with Napoleon. Later there were rumours that the French were sending forces to assist the Irish rebels. Thus in 1798 Captain Thomas Lyte, Royal Marines, was amongst those drafted to Sligo to put down the rebellion. Anna and her three sons followed on. Henry had a very close early relationship with his mother who was really the source of his knowledge of the love of God. Sadly though she died at an early age. Thomas made arrangements for Henry and his older brother to be enrolled in the Royal School in Enniskillen. Soon afterwards he abandoned his family.

At the age of nine Henry found himself alone and without any means of support. The headmaster of Henry’s school, Dr. Burrows, a distinguished scholar, was a kindly man and recognizing Henry’s ability, he and Mrs. Burrows took Henry into their home and paid his school fees. He was virtually an adopted son of the Burrow’s, and he never forgot their kindness. Lyte went on to study at Trinity College, Dublin. He took Anglican holy orders in 1815 and became curate of Taghmon near Wexford. By 1817 he was a curate in Cornwall and was married to Anne Maxwell who came from Monaghan in Ireland. He finally settled in 1823 in the parish of Lower Brixham, a fishing village in Devon. It was here that he helped in the education of the later British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. Lyte’s first work was Tales in Verse illustrative of Several of the Petitions in the Lord’s Prayer (1826). He then published (1833) a volume entitled Poems, chiefly Religious, and in 1834 a small collection of psalms and hymns with the title The Spirit of the Psalms. Three of his most well known hymns are from this book,.and are paraphrases of psalms. Lyte was never physically strong. He developed consumption and had to visit Europe frequently. He continued writing, mainly religious poetry and hymns, until his death in 1847 in Nice where he is buried.

It was following his last service, after watching the sunset over Torbay that he penned his most famous hymn Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide. Other well-known hymns of his are: Jesus, I my cross have taken; Praise my soul, the King of Heaven; Pleasant are Thy courts above, and God of mercy, God of grace.

Dr Simon Harding and Rev’d Canon Denis Moss

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