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Author --John Newton, 1725-1807
Composer --Franz Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809
Tune Name --"Austrian Hymn"
Scripture Reference --Psalm 87:3 and Isaiah 33:20-21
"Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of His holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. God is known in her palaces for a refuge." Psalm 48:1, 2, 3
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 fitting testimonial, written by Newton himself prior to his death, describes aptly the unusual and colorful life of this man, one of the great evangelical preachers of the eighteenth century. The granite tombstone bearing this inscription can still be seen in the small cemetery adjoining the parish churchyard in Olney, England, where John Newton ministered so effectively for fifteen years.
The story of John Newton's early life is generally quite well known. He was born on July 24, 1725, in London. His mother, a godly woman, died when he was not quite seven years of age. When he was eleven years old, he went to sea with his sea-captain father and followed this life for the next eighteen years. These years were filled with adventure but were one continuous round of rebellion and debauchery. He became known as one of the most vulgar and blasphemous of men. Following his dramatic conversion experience, in 1748, and his call later at the age of thirty-nine to the Christian ministry, Newton became pastor of the Anglican parish in the little village of Olney, near Cambridge, England, and began writing hymn texts that expressed his spiritual experiences and convictions. His most popular hymn, "Amazing Grace" (101 Hymn Stories, No. 6), is really a testimony of Newton's early life and conversion.
While pastoring the Olney Church, John Newton enlisted the aid of William Cowper, a friend and neighbor, who was a well-known writer of classic literature during this period, to aid him in his hymn writing. (See "O For a Closer Walk With God, " No. 67) In 1779, their combined efforts produced the famous Olney Hymns Hymnal, one of the most important single contributions made to the field of evangelical hymnody. In this ambitious collection of 349 hymns, 67 were written by Cowper, with the remainder by Newton. The hymnal was divided into three parts: Part I contained texts based on Scripture texts, used especially to climax a sermon or to illustrate prayer meeting talks about Bible characters; Part 2 was devoted to "Occasional Subjects," texts relating to particular seasons or events; Part 3 was devoted to "The Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life." This hymnal became the hymnbook of the Low or Evangelical churches within the Anglican Church and was reprinted both in England and America for a hundred years.
"Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" is from Part I of the Olney Hymns and is generally considered to be one of Newton's finest. It is said to be the only joyful hymn in the entire collection. The hymn gives a stirring description of God's protection of His chosen people. Expressions such as "He whose word cannot be broken formed thee for His own abode" show Newton's profound respect for the covenantal promises to the Jews as well as to the local church and its earthly ministry. The hymn originally had five verses. The final two stanzas, generally omitted, are worthy of attention:
Savior, if of Zion's city I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity, I will glory in Thy name;
Fading is the worldling's pleasure, all his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion's children know.
Blest inhabitants of Zion, washed in the Redeemer's blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on, makes them kings and priests to God.
'Tis His love His people raises, over self to reign as kings,
And as priests, His solemn praises each for a thank-off'ring brings.
The tune, "Austrian Hymn," was composed by Franz Joseph Haydn or the Austrian national hymn text by Hauschka, "Gott Erhalte Franz Hayden Kaiser," and was first performed on Emperor Franz II's birthday, February 12, 1797. Haydn later used the air as a theme for variations in the slow movement of his string quartet known as the "Emperor" of "Kaiser," Opus 76, No. 3. The music was first used as a hymn tune, in 1802, in Edward Miller's hymnal, Sacred Music. Its first appearance with John Newton's text was in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1889).
Franz Joseph Haydn was an eighteenth-century, Austrian musician who ranks as one of the master composers of all time. Though raised a Catholic, Haydn was a devout believer in Christ. He once wrote: "When I think of the divine Being, my heart is so full of joy that the notes fly off as from a spindle; and, as I have a cheerful heart, He will pardon me, if I serve Him cheerfully." Haydn always began each manuscript with the inscription "In Nomine Domini " and signed at the end "Soli Deo Gloria!"
Haydn was born in Rohau, Austria, on May 31, 1732. In 1761, he became musical director to the Hungarian family of Esterhazy and remained in this position for the next thirty years. During this time he composed more than one hundred symphonies, twenty-two operas, four oratorios, sixteen masses, and a great amount of chamber music. His most famous choral work was the oratorio, The Creation. All of his works are said to be characterized by the "joy of a heart devoted to God."
John Newton's majestic text wedded to this stirring music by Franz Haydn makes this a worthy and uplifting hymn of worship for any congregation.
"To the name of our salvation,
Laud and honor let us pay,
Which for many a generation
Hid in God's foreknowledge lay,
But with holy exultation
We may sing aloud today.
"Jesus is the name we treasure,
Name beyond what words can tell;
Name of gladness, name of pleasure,
Ear and heart delighting well;
Name of sweetness passing measure
Saving us from sin and hell.
"'Tis the name that whoso preacheth
Speaks like music to the ear;
Who in prayer this name beseecheth
Sweetest comfort findeth near;
Who its perfect wisdom reacheth,
Heavenly joy possesseth here."
--Anonymous, 15th century
Translated by John M. Neale
"Lord, for that Word, the Word of life which fires us,
Speaks to our hearts and sets our souls ablaze;
Teaches and trains, rebukes us and inspires us,
Lord of the Word, receive your people's praise."