Serving God, Serving our Community

Pancakes and Praise

Dear parishioners and friends,

My surname reflects my family’s roots in a small but significant village – Olney in north Buckinghamshire.  It’s well known for two things.  One is its Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race (since 1445), about which I wrote in 2016.  Its other, more significant claim to fame is a hugely influential hymnbook published in February 1779, entitled the Olney Hymns.  All the hymns were written by two friends who both lived there: 268 by the Vicar, Rev John Newton, and 68 by William Cowper, a poet.  Both had remarkable stories.

Born in Liverpool, John Newton was press-ganged into the Royal Navy as a teenager, before working on ships, even as captain, transporting slaves from West Africa to North America and Europe. During a storm at sea in 1749 Newton had a dramatic conversion to Christ.  His famous hymn, Amazing grace, describes his transformation from spiritual blindness to someone who could now see. Six years later he left seafaring and worked as a surveyor.  In 1764 he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England and was offered a post in Olney as curate (later as vicar).  In 1779 he moved to the church of St Mary Woolnoth in London and campaigned there strongly (and successfully) for the abolition of slavery along with others including William Wilberforce.

Prior to that, the poet William Cowper, affected by poor mental health, had moved to Olney In 1767   He was befriended by Newton, and joined the small “home group” that met regularly in an upstairs room in Olney to study the Bible and to pray. Newton also encouraged Cowper to write some hymns for inclusion in the hymnbook that Newton was compiling.

240 years later, our poppy red church hymnbook in Frittenden still contains ten of their hymns, including Amazing grace, Glorious things of Thee are spoken, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds, O for a closer walk with God,  Hark my soul – it is the Lord, Jesus, where’er Thy people meet  and  God moves in a mysterious way.   May the first verse of a short, less well known hymn by John Newton (which is in our hymn books)  be a blessing for each of us.

May the grace of Christ our Saviour

and the Father’s boundless love,

with the Holy Spirit’s favour,

rest upon us from above.

Rev Fred Olney