Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken – Carolyn Wood’s Devotional for August 28, 2021

“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” – 1779

Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God! Psalm 87:1

If you visit England in the future, plan to stop in quaint little Oliney, home of John Newton and William Cowper. An excellent museum is dedicated to them, housed in Orchard Side, Cowper’s home on Olney’s triangular marketplace.

Cowper had moved to Olney to be under the ministry of John Newton, who preached in the village church. The two became friends and would often meet in the garden between their houses for long talks. Out of their friendship came one of history’s most famous books—the Olney Hymns, first published in 1779.

John Newton was born in London, England in 1725 into a Christian home, but his godly mother died when he was seven. He joined his father at sea when he was eleven. It is so very hard to imagine that type of life at such an early age in this day when most of us put such store in formal education, but it seems this type of life was quite common then. Newton gained a reputation as a licentious and tumultuous man as his sailing life included a flogging for attempted desertion from the Royal Navy and captivity by a slave trader in West Africa.

After his escape he himself became the captain of a slave ship. Several factors contributed to Newton’s conversion: a near-drowning in 1748, the piety of his friend Mary Catlett, whom he married in 1750, and his reading of Thomas `a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.

In 1754 he gave up the slave trade and, in association with William Wilberforce, eventually became an ardent abolitionist. After becoming a tide-surveyor in Liverpool, England, Newton came under the influence of George Whitfield and John and Charles Wesley and began to study for the ministry. He was ordained in the Church of England and served in Olney from 1764 – 1780 and St. Mary Wollnoth, London from 1780-1807.

Yes, God takes us all, no matter our sins. We alone are unable to change our hearts and lives, but when we invite him in, He has the power to turn us from a force for evil into a force for good. Prior to his conversion, Newton had been a slave trader on the high seas, and a very wicked man. After his conversion, he became a powerful preacher, a leader in the fight against slavery, and a renowned hymnist. His most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” is an expression of his testimony.

This song, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” Number 60 in the Olney hymnal, is a powerful hymn about the church, which is metaphorically described here as “Zion.” It originally had five verses, built around seven biblical passages, which Newton footnoted in the original hymnal.

If you hear this hymn being played in Germany, you’d better stand to your feet for you’ll be hearing the German national anthem. Franz Joseph Haydn’s majestic composition, AUSTRIA, was played for the first time on February 12, 1797, to honor the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef on his birthday. It was an immediate hit, and was almost instantly adopted as the Austrian national anthem. Thus it remained until Adolf Hitler rose to power. In 1938 when Austria was annexed into the German Third Reich during the Anschluss, Hitler not only seized Austria, but he seized AUSTRIA, adapting Haydn’s musical score as the Nazi national anthem.

After the War, the Austrian people, feeling they could no longer use Haydn’s tune as their national song because of its association with the Nazis, chose another melody. The Germans, however, kept Haydn’s tune, AUSTRIA, as their own anthem.

As far back as 1802, however, Christians in America and Britain were using Haydn’s AUSTRIA as a hymn accompaniment, and this majestic composition is best known today as the melody for John Newton’s famous hymn about the church of Jesus Christ, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.”

When I began this journey researching hymns and Christian songs, I did not realize the extent to which they had influenced the lives of so many, let alone my own. There is so much to learn about the lives of those inspired by God’s word and at times the humble living of those around them. Whether the hymnist lived hundreds of years ago or happen to be our contemporaries, we find that their words strike a chord within that cannot be sounded by words alone. My heart is filled with gratitude to all those who have allowed God into their hearts and listened as He guided their pens on paper to such an end.


My God refresh your hearts in the listening. Carolyn Wood