3 Songwriting Tips Gathered from John Newton’s Hymn Writing

Scott Corbin examines the methods of one of the great hymn writers:

I love hymns. Hymns have ministered to my life in a number of ways when I was feeling broken or downtrodden. And one of the things I look forward to most on Sundays is getting to sing with my brothers and sisters in the faith. I also love history. I love knowing the “why” behind characters in the past. Thus, my curiosity spiked at the thought of getting to know the man behind some of the world’s most famous hymns, including “Amazing Grace.” Meet John Newton.

John Newton: Life & Background

John Newton was born on July 25th, 1725 to John Sr. and Elizabeth Newton. Elzabeth Newton died while our John Newton was still very young, and John Sr., as a captain, would eventually get John Jr. on the water as early as 10 years of age. Ultimately, through a variety of providential circumstances John Newton became a seaman and ultimately would become the captain of a slave ship.

Newton’s life prior to conversion was hedonism and licentiousness at its finest. Outside of operating a slave ship, he was known to partake in immoralities that would make many of us blush today, as well as being infamous on some of his early transatlantic journeys for his blasphemies. And like a good songwriter, he would craft songs vilifying his captain. If the apostle Paul was the chief of sinners, then John Newton was certainly very close in the running.

However, through a conversion not dissimilar to Jonah or the Apostle Paul, Newton would eventually come to trust in the Lord in the midst of a very terrifying storm on the sea. Soon after this conversion experience, Newton would quit slave trading and ultimately sense a call to pastoral ministry. After some time in the Anglican system, Newton would eventually be placed as a pastor of a small parish in Olney, a town Northwest of London.

While Newton said of Olney that the people “are mostly poor — the country low and dirty,” he would eventually come to love the parish community. He began several ministries, but the one that he flourished at was his hymn writing ministry.

In Olney, Newton would create and compile one of his life’s greatest works, the Olney Hymnbook, alongside his beloved friend William Cowper. The Olney hymnbook has given us hymns like Newton’s “I Asked the Lord,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and even “Amazing Grace.” Cowper himself, the greater poet of the two, would write and publish hymns like “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and the magisterial “God Moves In Mysterious Ways.” It is a gold mine of rich Christ-centered, gospel-saturated hymns.

However, for our purposes, the story of how many of these hymns took their shape is of particular significance. Let’s now look at three things we can learn from Newton’s hymn writing and pastoral ministry.

3 Things We Learn From Newton’s Hymn Writing and Pastoral Ministry

1. He wrote hymns as a pastoral aide for the congregation.

Newton began writing hymns originally for children. He would read them Bible stories, write them poems, and craft hymns for them to sing that aimed to take the truths of God and impact their hearts. While his friend William Cowper far exceeded him in poetic skill, Newton was a master of writing hymns that were both easy to remember and Scripturally true. He would eventually start writing hymns that would accompany his sermons and, utilizing his and Cowper’s creative mind, they would shepherd their congregation through the power of song.

It’s important to remember that Newton, before a hymn writer, was a pastor. The hymns existed as an aide for the congregation to help them remember and implant scriptural truths in creative and poetic ways. He knew that, like the apostle Paul, theology should not start and stop at the mind, but ultimately affect the heart and result in praise on the lips of God’s people. Hymns were that such means that could act as a mediating agent between the head and the heart.

Continue reading.


Essential reading for worship leaders since 2002.


Get the latest worship news, ideas and a list

of the top CCLI songs delivered every Tuesday... for FREE!