Olney Hymns. A collection of hymns by the poet Cowper and John Newton, sung originally either in the church or at the prayer-meetings at The Great House at Olney, and published as:--
Olney Hymns, in Three Books. Book I. On Select Texts of Scripture. Book II. On Occasional Subjects. Book III. On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life....London: Printed and sold by W. Oliver, No. 12, Bartholomew Close . . . MDCCLXXIX. The three "Poems" were added in later editions.They were probably given out verse by verse, like many of those by Watts and Doddridge, and often suggested by Newton's sermons. In the preface Newton says, that besides the principal motive of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere Christians, the hymns were designed "to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship" between himself and Cowper. This project was formed in 1771. Whether it was simply suggested by Newton's perception of Cowper's poetical prowess, or intended to occupy a mind in which there were symptoms of approaching madness, cannot be decided. Cowper contributed 67 hymns. Two of them--The Happy Change ("How blest Thy creature is, oh! God") and Retirement ("Far from the world, oh! Lord, I flee") had been written immediately on his recovery from his first attack of madness, at St. Albans, in 1764. "Jesus, where'er Thy people meet," had been written for the opening of the large room at The Great House as a place for prayer-meetings (April 17, 1769). The only other hymn whose date is approximately known is Light shining out of darkness ("God moves in a mysterious way"), which, despite of its rational fortitude, was written under the most painful circumstances (*) The known hymns by Newton previous to 1773 are few, and during the early part of that year the shock of Cowper's calamity made him "hang his harp on the willows." In his Diary, Nov. 30 of that year, he speaks, however, of then making one hymn a week: and here are memoranda of composition at intervals to Jan. 30, 1778 (see Newton's Life by Rev. Josiah Bull.) Twelve hymns by Newton and Cowper appeared in the Gospel Magazine (1771-78); thirteen were attached to Omicron's Letters (1774); R. Conyer's collection has several; and one or two others are found in obscure hymn-books. The complete Olney Collection appeared in 1779, arranged in three books. 1. "On Select Texts of Scripture." 2. "On Occasional Subjects." 2. "On the Rise, Progress, Changes and Comforts of the Spiritual Life." It contained 348 hymns and 3 other pieces, and has gone through many editions. Except in refined tenderness, Cowper's hymns are indistinguishable from Newton's. Both follow Newton's stern yet wholesome caution, that in hymns the "imagery and colouring of poetry, if admitted at all, should be admitted only sparingly and with great judgment." Both in their best pieces exhibit great excellence of structure. Both authors are vague as in the aim, capabilities, and limitations of hymns. Several pieces are disquisitions or soliloquies ("What various hindrances we meet" is really not a hymn, but a fine instruction on prayer). With the splendid exception of "Glorious things of thee are spoken," there is scarcely a trace of jubilee. Out of the many themes of Christian praise one alone is touched--the surpassing mercy of Jesus to His sinful elect: and even the rapt contemplation of this droops away into sad reflection. Gloom is a characteristic of the book. The despondence, sense of exile from God, and not the gladness, of the Psalms, are selected for versification. The contemplation of nature suggests sorrowful resemblance to the work of grace in the human heart, not the vision of God's majesty and love. Hymns describing the heavy self-accusation, dejection, desertion of the regenerate, form the largest and most darkly real portion of the book, and those of Newton have more unrelieved dejection than Cowper's. But Newton's despondence arose from his sense of ingratitude for his election, never from doubt of it; and hence alongside of it there are hymns full of rational faith, strong confidence, and, above all, fervent clinging love of Jesus. Verses often occur, which from their direct force, are vigorous maxims; and, though there is a large quantity of tame, sermonlike doggerel, there are a considerable number of pure English hymns, of melodious cadence and Scriptural ring. The earlier hymn-books that most nearly resemble them are Shepherd's Penitential Cries and the Collection by Newton's friend Dr. Conyers. The intense love of the Saviour, which animates them, endeared them to numbers in the earlier part of [the nineteenth] century, and the finest of them are still in current use in all English-speaking countries.
From: A Dictionary of Hymnology
See also: Olney Hymns; John Newton;
Dictionary of National Biography, John Newton.