[The following post is excerpted from the book, Abide With Me, by acclaimed photographer Paul Seawright and Professor of English, John H. Parker. Abide With Me will be released in late April 2009 by New Leaf Press.]

Olney, Northampton, England boasts two claims to fame. One is the annual pancake race during which housewives run 415 yards, each carrying a pan with a  pancake which she flips upon crossing the finish line.

The other noteworthy history of Olney is the curate and preacher for the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul from 1764-1780 was John Newton (1725-1807), author of the most popular hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.” The church was expanded during those years to accommodate crowds who came to hear Rev. Newton and its square tower still rises over the Ouse River. The sanctuary of the church is large and impressive and a stained glass window commemorates the preacher and his hymn. Still, time has encroached a bit. His pulpit is now somewhat pushed back into a corner, though “John Newton’s Pulpit” is proudly displayed along one edge. John’s rather smallish portrait hangs on the stone buttress of one wall, sharing space between a fire extinguisher and a bulletin board.

John Newton was born to a master mariner who was often away at sea, and a mother who taught him Bible lessons and the hyms of Isaac Watts. Mrs. Newton died, however, when John was only six years old. At age eleven, after living with relatives and attending boarding school, John began sailing with his father.

On March 21, 1748 a fierce storm threatened John’s ship and he prayed [to God] for the first time in years. In 1750, recovering from a serious illness, John committed his life to God, returned to England and married Mary Catlett, daughter of friends of his mother.

After attaining popularity as a lay preacher,  developing friendships with George Whitfield and John Wesley, and completing his autobiography, Authentic Narrative, John was ordained in the Church of England in 1764. As a preacher, he regularly wrote hymns to accompany his sermons, and in 1772, during the last two weeks of December, Newton “Amazing Grace” for his New Year’s Day sermon, January 1, 1773.

[Abide With Me will be released by New Leaf Press in April 2009. Order online and save 20%.]