By Ernest Edwin Ryden – Public Domain
The Name above All Names, John Newton, 1779
How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
‘Tis Manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary Rest.
Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding-place;
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace.
By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled:
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.
Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.
Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath;
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death.
In one of England’s famous old churches there is a tablet marking the last resting-place of one of its rectors, and on the tablet this epitaph:
“John Newton, clerk, once an Infidel and Libertine, a servant of slavers 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 labored to destroy.”
This inscription, written by Newton himself before his death, tells the strange story of the life of the man who wrote “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds,” and scores of other beautiful hymns.
Newton was born in London, July 24, 1725. His father was a sea captain.His mother, a deeply pious woman, though frail in health, found her greatest joy in teaching her boy Scripture passages and hymns. When he was only four years old he was able to read the Catechism.
The faithful mother often expressed the hope to her son that he might become a minister. However, when the lad was only seven years of age, the mother died, and he was left to shift largely for himself. On his 11th birthday he joined his father at sea, and made five voyages to the Mediterranean. Through the influence of evil companions and the reading of infidel literature, he began to live a godless and abandoned life.
Being pressed into the navy when a war seemed imminent, young Newton deserted. He was captured, however, and flogged at the mast, after which he was degraded.
At this point his life teems with reckless adventures and strange escapes. Falling into the hands of an unscrupulous slave-dealer in Africa, he himself was reduced practically to the abject condition of a slave. In his misery he gave himself up to nameless sins. The memory of his mother, however, and the religious truths which she had implanted in his soul as a child gave his conscience no peace.
The reading of “The Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas à Kempis, also exerted a profound influence over him, and a terrifying experience in a storm at sea, together with his deliverance from a malignant fever in Africa, served to bring the prodigal as a penitent to the throne of mercy.
After six years as the captain of a slaveship, during which time Newton passed through many severe struggles in trying to find peace with God through the observance of a strict moral life, he met on his last voyage a pious captain who helped to bring him to a truer and deeper faith in Christ.
For nine years at Liverpool he was closely associated with Whitefield and the Wesleys, studying the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek, and occasionally preaching at religious gatherings of the dissenters. In 1764 he was ordained as curate of Olney, where he formed the famous friendship with the poet William Cowper that gave to the world so many beautiful hymns.
It was at Newton’s suggestion that the two undertook to write a hymn-book. The famous collection known as “The Olney Hymns,” was the result of this endeavor. Of the 349 hymns in this book, Cowper is credited with sixty-six, while Newton wrote the remainder. “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds” appeared for the first time in this collection. It is a hymn of surpassing tenderness, and ranks among the finest in the English language.
Other notable hymns, by Newton are: “Come, my soul, thy suit prepare,” “Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat,” “While with ceaseless course the sun,” “One there is above all others,” “For a season called to part,” “Safely through another week,” “On what has now been sown,” “May the grace of Christ our Saviour,” “Though troubles assail us, and dangers affright,” “Day of judgment, day of wonders,” and “Glorious things of thee are spoken.”
Newton’s life came to a close in London in 1807, after he had served for twenty-eight years as rector of St. Mary Woolnoth. Among his converts were numbered Claudius Buchanan, missionary to the East Indies, and Thomas Scott, the Bible commentator. In 1805, when his eyesight began to fail and he could no longer read his text, his friends advised him to cease preaching. His answer was: “What! shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
When he was nearly eighty years old it was necessary for a helper to stand in the pulpit to help him read his manuscript sermons. One Sunday Newton had twice read the words, “Jesus Christ is precious.” “You have already said that twice,” whispered his helper; “go on.” “John,” said Newton, turning to his assistant in the pulpit, “I said that twice, and I am going to say it again.” Then the rafters rang as the old preacher shouted, “Jesus Christ is precious!”
Newton’s whole life may be said to be summed up in the words of one of his appealing hymns:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found–
Was blind, but now I see.