Home History of Hymns: "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken"

History of Hymns: "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken"

John Newton

John Newton

“Glorious things of thee are spoken”
by John Newton
The United Methodist Hymnal No. 731

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
God, whose word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for his own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou mayst smile at all thy foes.

Not many hymns, by virtue of their composition alone, command such power and strength as “Glorious things of thee are spoken.” The dramatic, storybook tale of the life of John Newton certainly brings to life the text of this hymn. There is an inherent strength in the structure, text, and scriptural images that, were this a modern day film, would make for the best in dramatic productions.

Born in London in 1725, John Newton led a most interesting life, from embarking upon a life of seafaring at a very young age to serving as a master of slave trading ships and eventually leaving that abominable trade, which he later described, “a business at which my heart now shudders.” In his younger years as a sailor, he was known for being rebellious and often found himself in rough company. His penchant for the wilder things in life ultimately led him to a slave trade ship, where he endured various trials, including a cruel relationship with his boss. His father, a former seaman himself, eventually sent an emissary to rescue him. Upon the return journey, however, the ship providing his transport almost sank in a fierce storm. After many hours struggling to regain control of the vessel, Newton eventually prayed, and the ship survived the tempest. This was the beginning of his conversion story, which would lead him into ministry as an Anglican pastor, preacher, and writer. He met many other prominent evangelical contemporaries, including John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, and became a leading social reformer in the movement to abolish slavery.

One of Newton’s most well-known hymns, “Glorious things of thee are spoken,” was first published in 1779 in Olney Hymns, a collection of his and close friend William Cowper’s “hymns, not odes” for public worship. Newton would later describe the publication as “a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.” Another of his famous hymns in this collection is the hymn, “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound),” which has become one of the most popular and frequently sung hymns across the global church. Newton uses a great deal of scripture as influence for his writing and often focuses upon images that are not lofty, intended more “for public worship, and for the use of plain people,” which reflects his evangelical history of service to the poor and the people of the parish. His theological perspective is largely Calvinist, but his hymns express a universality that strikes somewhat of a broader sentiment.

Zion, the city of God, is the center of this hymn. The site of the Jebusite fortress taken by King David in 2 Samuel 5, it has long been an important symbol of the strength and identity of Jerusalem. One of the richest images that comes from this location is the life-giving water from the Gihon Spring, an intermittent spring that promised fresh water for ancient settlers of Jerusalem. From the beginning of its history within Judeo-Christian traditions to the hope of the glory of the new Jerusalem, Zion has been a place of promise and has found its way into many songs and liturgical practices of the church (see the early American song, “Zion’s Walls,” set by Aaron Copland, and the Introit of the traditional Requiem Mass), and thus it plays a very notable role as a dwelling place for God.

As is mentioned in the Requiem Mass, “A hymn befits thee, O God in Zion.” Each stanza of this hymn focuses on a different image of strength—rock of ages (2 Samuel 22), streams of living waters (Revelation 22), cloud and fire (Exodus 13 and Isaiah 4), and the “Redeemer’s blood” (Revelation 1)—reflecting the different ways God’s strength is displayed. God provides a firm foundation, a source of necessary means of survival, a source of protection and food, and love.*

As if the history of the writer and the text of the hymn itself is not enough to create spirited congregational singing, the consideration of which tune to use also warrants some exploration. AUSTRIA, composed by Franz Joseph Haydn from a Croatian folk hymn, has most often been used in the singing of this hymn. This tune was later used by Haydn in his string quartet in C, Op. 70, No. 5, “The Emperor,” and is a beautiful, stately option for this text. It embodies strength, assurance, warmth, and sensitivity, all in equal measure. The consideration of a tune doesn’t end with Haydn’s compositional skill, however. Haydn’s tune eventually became used as the national anthem of Austria and, later, Germany. During World War II, the tune was a symbol of the power of Nazi Germany (“Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles”) and came to be somewhat reviled in the British Isles, at which point it came to the attention of Cyril V. Taylor, a musician working in the wartime headquarters of the Religious Broadcasting Department of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Numerous appeals for a new tune were made, and Taylor wrote the tune ABBOT’S LEIGH at his home in the village of the same name, near Bristol. This tune became very prominent with Newton’s text and was creatively taught to the masses through radio broadcasts of an orchestral setting of the tune. Hymn scholar Dr. Carl P. Daw, Jr. mentions, “This was, in fact, the first instance of a hymn tune becoming widely known via radio.”

No matter which tune you choose to use with this hymn, know that the history of its writing is replete with dramatic stories—Newton, the sailor and slave trader turned abolitionist, Haydn the monumental composer, and Taylor the brave giver of a new, nationalistic voice. Sing it with confidence, assurance, and the strength of God, who dwells in Zion!

*It must be mentioned that many hymnals do not contain the 5th stanza of Newton’s original hymn because of its inclusion of the Calvinist view of unconditional election. The United Methodist Hymnal contains stanzas 1-4.

I express sincere gratitude to Dr. Carl P. Daw, Jr., Dr. Carlton Young, and Dr. Paul Westermeyer for their assistance as I undertook the journey of uncovering small, yet important details about the composition of ABBOT’S LEIGH.