Keeping the Hymns Close By

Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

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
Written in 1779

Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. Selah. Psalm 87:3

The story of John Newton’s 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 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 to Christian ministry at the age of thirty-nine, Newton became pastor of a church in the little village of Olney, near Cambridge, England. He became a powerful preacher, a leader in the fight against slavery, and a renowned hymnist. He began writing hymn texts that expressed his spiritual experiences and convictions. His most popular hymn, “Amazing Grace”, 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 classical literature during this period, to aid him in his hymn writing, In 1779, their combined efforts produced the famous Olney Hymns Hymnal. It was a collection of 349 hymns, 67 were written by Cowper, with the remainder by Newton. The hymnal was divided into three parts: Part 1 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 was reprinted both in England and America for a hundred years.

“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” is Number 60 from Part 1 of the Olney Hymns. It is a powerful hymn about the church, which is metaphorically described here as “Zion”. 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 tot he Jews as well as to the local church and its earthly ministry. It originally had five verses, built around seven Biblical passages, which Newton footnoted in the original hymnal.

The tune, “Austrian Hymn,” was composed by Franz Joseph Haydn for the Austrian national hymn text. the music was first used as a hymn tune, in 1802. Its first appearance with John Newton’s text was in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1889.

Franz Joseph Haydn was an eighteenth-century, Austrian musician who was a devout believer in Jesus 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.” Haydn always began each manuscript with the inscription “In Nomine Domini” and signed at the end “Soli Deo Gloria!” All of his words are said to be characterized by the “joy of a heart devoted to God’.”

Taken from 101 More Hymn Stories Copyright © 1985, 2013 by Kenneth W. Osbeck. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Taken from Then Sings My Soul Keepsake Edition by Robert J. Morgan Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Morgan. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson

Franz J. Haydn

John Newton