Discovering more about John Newton in Olney

PUBLISHED: 13:53 04 July 2014 | UPDATED: 13:53 04 July 2014

Children dressed in Georgian costume at The Cowper and Newton Museum

Children dressed in Georgian costume at The Cowper and Newton Museum

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A visit to discover more about the writer of a world famous hymn leaves Sandra Smith highly impressed by the attractions of this delightful market town

Amazing Grace: what meaning do these words have for you? A popular hymn maybe? Or perhaps an international anthem for the human rights movement? Chances are you might also recognise it as having some connection with the slave trade.

Now a celebrated song, Amazing Grace was written by John Newton who took up the post of Curate of Olney Parish 250 years ago this month. It’s an anniversary that took me to the north eastern tip of Buckinghamshire to unearth more about this iconic preacher. This trip, however, also enabled me to explore one of this county’s most charming towns, too, and if you haven’t been yet, put Olney on your visit list.

Approaching from the south, the dominating spire of St Peter and St Paul Church first signals arrival in Olney. The Decorated Gothic style house of worship stands on the banks of the River Great Ouse over which I drove before reaching the central market place.

Tubs of bright flowers provide a welcoming sight and you’ll want to absorb their fragrance whilst admiring two willow sculptures which symbolise the town’s noted annual Pancake Race. But it’s the nearby Cowper and Newton Museum I’m keen to see, located in a handsome Georgian property and offering an abundance of background on my subject.

After looking through an impressive array of enlightening books on the ground floor I’m shown upstairs, via a myriad of winding, wooden staircases, to a room dedicated to Newton and packed with exhibits and information where I am fortunate to peruse the family bible which contains a hand written account of his beloved wife’s death.

That Newton was involved with the slave trade for many years is well documented here. Displays include an intricate model of a slave ship as well as furniture from his home. It was whilst on board a merchant ship in 1748 that this son of a shipmaster experienced the beginning of his passion for Christianity when a severe storm threatened to sink the vessel and, in desperation, Newton called out for God’s help, the ship then drifting to safety. During another voyage he became so sick he summoned God to control his destiny and this, he later confessed, was the point of his true conversion.

Although he long harboured ambitions to be ordained, a lack of classical education went against him and it wasn’t until several years later that Newton fulfilled his vocation, having been taken under the patronage of the influential Earl of Dartmouth, the latter securing Newton’s calling. It was at this point that he took up residence in Olney where he threw himself into his ministry.

The Museum exhibits are informative and, together with knowledgeable volunteers, have whetted my appetite for more. So, after purchasing a couple of souvenirs, I leave, skirting the market place and heading for the Church I had earlier driven by and the hub of Newton’s preaching.

The few minutes’ walk takes the visitor past inviting shops and an intriguing art gallery which I pledge to visit later.

Turning into Church Street, and passing a number of cottages which ooze old world charm, I soon reach the elegant vicarage. Bathed in sunshine and overlooking the Church, it’s a commanding house and I sneak a glance up to a far attic, where Newton composed so many hymns, before crossing over to St Peter and St Paul. There, colourful kneelers fill every pew and a sense of vibrancy pervades the atmosphere; the Church clearly remains at the heart of this community.

Newton’s passion for preaching was renowned. Indeed, his sermons were so popular that a balcony had to be built to accommodate the ever increasing congregation. The priest adopted an ecumenical approach, mixing with Baptists and independents as well as organising prayer meetings. His dedication to pastoral care enabled him to distribute an annual £200 donation from a wealthy Christian merchant to the local poor via clothing and goods.

Despite his commitment to his faith, however, he continued his involvement in the slave trade for many years until, eventually revising his views and becoming an abolitionist, he joined forces with William Wilberforce MP and helped turn round public opinion.

With a reputation that blossomed throughout his 16 year ministry in Olney, Newton came to bitterly regret his association with slavery. Hence the sermon he wrote for New Year’s Day, 1773, one that would eventually become that most familiar hymn, Amazing Grace.

Before leaving this well tended Church, I admire a stained glass window dedicated to Newton’s epiphany at sea during the storm, a tangible reminder of his relevance to this attractive corner of Buckinghamshire.

Outside, summer rays fill the south east corner of the graveyard where, by a wall with the river flowing beyond, lies the marble tomb of John Newton and his wife, Mary.

Such a quintessential English setting is much to be admired, I acknowledge as I make my way back to the market place. Not only that, the mission of this charismatic man together with his commitment to his Parish is legendary, the legacy he has left making this town rightly proud.

But now, having completed my research, I crave to sample Olney’s other delights. Traditional tearooms provide a tasty lunch, boutiques tucked away in Rose Court tempt me with fashionable clothes and galleries exhibit some fine work by contemporary artists.

Indeed, no matter whether your interest is historical or cultural, Olney is a fascinating place to visit. You will learn much about our famous minister here, as well as enjoying one of Buckinghamshire’s most delightful towns.

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Amazing Grace was originally entitled Faith’s Review and Expectation. The current tune is believed to have been introduced in 1835. John Newton collaborated with poet and fellow Christian, William Cowper. The two men became great friends and wrote the Olney Hymns. The museum is housed in Orchard Side where William Cowper lived and worked 300 years ago. He spent 18 years in Olney and a further eight at nearby Weston Underwood.

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About Olney

It’s very easy to recommend Olney as a day out, with plenty to suit all lifestyles and interests.

The town boasts a multitude of independent boutiques, galleries, antiques shops and eateries. It was once a centre for lace making, an industry brought over by Flemish Protestants during the 16th Century. The Olney Lace Circle keeps alive the craft today.

The little town is packed with history and a good place to start is the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, the nave of which probably dates from the 12th century. There’s a lot of 14th century detail, including a spire. Take a good look at the grotesque heads and gargoyles. Olney has houses and hostelries dating from before 1700, so those who enjoy spotting original features will find much to see.

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