Monday, June 5, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we head to the mailbag to answer a question from 11-year-old Silas in Nova Scotia.

It is the 5th of June, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


A happy Monday to you and all that- all the optimism I had for the Angels is dying or dead, and I dislike the Houston Astros so very, very much. But I got an email recently from a young listener. He heard the kid's Almanac weekend edition and asked his mom to write in- so, Connie wrote, the question comes from 11-year-old Silas in Barrs Corner in Nova Scotia, Canada- and holy cow- I just went down a rabbit hole- what a beautiful place- about as far away from Orange County, Ca as you could get in North America. There in Lunenberg County where you’ve got your own dialect- I read an article (it was old), but it suggested a kind of Canadian German hybrid that also sounds a little like a Boston accent because you drop your ‘rs. But enough about that…  

Silas's question is: 

"Who were the other pastors at Olney when John Newton was ordained?" 

(It is our understanding that other ministers were also employed there

at the time and Silas is curious to know more about them and that ministry.)

Well, this question got me searching all about Newton and his friend William Cowper (it looks like “cow-per” but pronounced “Cooper” or like “coopah” where you are if indeed the article I was reading from 1935 was at all correct).

So- what do we know (and what do you probably already know)- John Newton was raised in a Dissenting home (that is, not Anglican) but left the faith of his childhood. He went on to work on ships- often shipping slaves. In 1748 when he was about 23, he had a personal conversion experience to Christianity. He kept working on the slave ships (sometimes conversions don’t lead to repenting of everything all at once) and then decided to go into the ministry. He looked into becoming an independent, or Presbyterian perhaps, but ended up becoming a Curate in the church of England- that is, a parish priest. He was sent to Olney, north of London in south Central England. He took that position in 1764 as the old curate had retired. He worked there as the only priest (it was a poor village that couldn’t afford others). But he made friends with Cowper (I did a whole weekend edition on Cowper last year, and you can look it up), and the two put together a collection of hymns that we call the “Olney hymns.” This is really at the beginning of the modern English hymn movement- the songs that came from this, like “Amazing Grace” and “Oh for a closer walk with God” as well as “God Moves In A Mysterious Way” (you’ll hear more from that at the end of the show). These, what we might think of as “old hymns,” were “contemporary worship” in their time. And just like today, people fought over if we should sing old songs or new songs. Because the town was poor, many were illiterate, and Newton and Cowper used these songs with familiar tunes to teach the basics of the faith.  

Many people began coming to Newton’s services partly because of the music, and they had to start worshipping in a nearby old mansion because they couldn’t all fit in the church. Along with his friend Cowper was a priest from a nearby parish- Thomas Scott. Scott would take over for Newton when John left for a job in London. Scott and Newton were among the founders of the Church Mission Society. He was also a member of the Clapham sect- this was a group of evangelical-minded Anglicans but also people from other denominations. One of his friends in that group was William Wilberforce- one of the men responsible for the end of the slave trade in England. There’s a movie about him, Wilberforce, called “Amazing Grace” after the Newton hymn, which he wrote in Olney for a New Year's service. So, he was the only pastor at Olney, but he did ministry work with friends like Cowper (who was too ill to work full time in the church) and then later with Wilberforce.  I hope that gives you some names to look into, Silas.  

Also- on the day before Lent every year, there is a pancake race at the church in Olney- I don’t know what exactly that is. Still, the same day is called Fastnachtsdienstag in Germany, after Fastnacht, which is German for a donut, and I hear “fasnack” is used in Lunenberg English for a donut there where you live in Nova Scotia.


The last word for today comes from William Cowper- his poem turned hymn (and basis for a U2 song), God Moves in a Mysterious Way:

1 God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

2 You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

3 His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev'ry hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.

4 Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his work in vain.
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of June 2023 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man unencumbered by professional sports and thus not randomly depressed when men running about on a field don’t do the thing with the ball you wish they would… he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who, while writing this show, had the game on in the background. Angels error to load the bases. Grand slam Astros. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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