This article was found in the June 1950 copy of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church. It was written by R. A. Newman
William Cowper, the Olney (Bucks) poet, was born in 1731, and was the son of a Chaplain to King George II, also Rector of Berkhampstead, Dr. John Cowper. When only six years of age his mother died, a blow which had a lasting effect on a very sensitive lad. He was trained for the Bar, but never practised. When embarrassed financially, he was offered a post as Clerk of Committees of the House of Commons, but was told this would mean the passing of a public examination. The prospect brought on a fit of insanity and he attempted to commit suicide. After careful nursing he recovered his health and wrote There is a fountain filled with blood, number 373 in our Hymnary. Then his mind gave way again, and he ordered his coachman to drive him to the river that he might end his life. The man purposely lost his way, and brought him a roundabout way home. Once again he recovered his reason, and in a fit of contrition sat down and wrote that fine hymn No. 56:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
We have eight of his hymns in our collection, and many more people consider his finest composition to be:
Hark, my soul! it is the Lord;
'Tis thy Saviour, hear His Word;
Jesus speaks, and speaks to thee,
"Say, poor sinner, love's thou Me?"
A humorous incident is recorded of a mother coaxing her little girl to sleep at night by singing a hymn. One night the child, aged six, wanted a hymn about a "She-bear". After long thought, it dawned on the mother that is was the third verse of the aforesaid hymn:
Can a woman's tender care
Cease towards the child she bare?
Yes, she may forgetful be,
Yet will I remember thee.
Another of his hymns well known to all of us is O for a closer walk with God, also, Sometimes a light surprises, The Christian while he sings.
Cowper also wrote the humorous poem known to all English-speaking people:
John Gilpin was a citizen
Of credit and renown.
A close friend of Cowper was the Rev. John Newton, Curate of Olney for 16 years, afterwards Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, in the City of London. Newton was born in 1725 and died in 1807. He was the son of a sailor, and spent many years at sea, leading a reckless and profligate life. There was no kind of wickedness which he did not boast of having committed. At one time he commanded a ship in the service of an African Slave dealer.
At the age of 30 he came under religious influences, and coming upon a copy of Stanhope's book, Thomas á Kempis, it set him thinking, and later came particularly under the influence of Wesley and Geo. Whitefield, who completed his conversion.
While at Olney, he with Cowper, compiled the collection known as The Olney Hymns. I suppose Newton's most famous hymn was, How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds, In a believer's ear, but we also have Glorious things of Thee are spoken, Zion City of our God, also, Begone unbelief; My Saviour is near.
When he had passed his four-score years, he continued preaching. Having great difficulty in reading his manuscript he took his servant with him into the pulpit, who stood behind with a wooden pointer to trace the lines of his notes.
One Sunday morning Newton came to the words in his sermon, Jesus Christ is precious, and wishing to emphasise, he repeated Jesus Christ is precious. The servant behind him, thinking he was getting confused, whispered loudly "Go on, go on, you said that before." Newton looked round to the man and replied "John, I said that twice, and now I am going to say it again," and with all the force at his command he reiterated Jesus is precious.
Newton wrote his own epitaph, as follows:
John Newton, clerk,
Once an infidel and libertine;
A servant of slaves in Africa;
Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long laboured to destroy.
Near 16 years at Olney in Bucks,
And 27 years in this Church.
He was buried at his London Rectory, which is close to the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England. He attracted large crowds to his church, and it is said no London clergyman of his day had a greater influence than John Newton. When dying his last words to a friend, William Jay, was:
My memory is nearly gone, but
I remember two things -
That I am a great sinner, and
That Christ is a great saviour.
At the age of 82 he fell asleep.