[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

One question raised about Abide with Me is how we selected the 24 hymns featured out of all of the thousands written during the last three centuries. Some answers are general. One of obvious popularity, such as with “Amazing Grace,” known to nearly every one and the title of a recent movie.

Another factor is the well-known story of the author, such as Newton’s slave trading and John Fawcett’s often-told story of deciding to give up a stable pulpit in London in order to stay with his poor flock at Wainsgate.

But one specific factor was based on research. An article in the journal The Hymn, published in July 1997 recorded the survey of 40 hymnbooks printed between 1976-1996. Included is a table of how many of the 40 hymnbooks published a given hymn. Clearly a hymn that was published in nearly all of the 40 is one of the world’s most beloved hymns. The highest ranking hymns and the number of times each appeared are below:

  • O (Our) God, our help in ages past – 39 times
  • Silent Night – 39
  • Amazing Grace – 38
  • Joy to the World – 38
  • Angels We Have Heard on High – 37
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – 37
  • How Firm a Foundation – 37
  • Now Thank We All Our God – 37
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful – 37
  • Praise to the Lord, the Almighty – 37
  • All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name – 36
  • For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Cease – 36
  • O, Sacred Head, Now Wounded – 36

You will probably see that some of these are hymns you rarely or never sing yourself, but differing church groups in differing English-speaking countries know differing hymns, and know them well. These, too, are factors in choosing which hymns to feature in a book.

[Today’s post is by Paul Seawright, photographer and co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of Paul and his co-author, John Parker.]

A year after John and I first visited Olney, the village where John Newton lived and worked, I returned alone to remake some of the photographs that had been marred by record-breaking rainfall the previous summer. I’m not normally a blue skies and bright colours photographer, but this commission needed a bit of that.

Too often our arrival at a new hymn site coincided with torrential rain, storms and even floods. When I landed at Birmingham Airport for the second Olney trip, it couldn’t have been raining any harder. As I drove up the motorway in my hired car, it seemed certain this was a wasted journey. I parked up behind Olney parish church and walked back toward the Rectory, Newton’s former home where he is believed to have written “Amazing Grace.”

I went through the motions of photographing the house in the rain and decided the church interior was my only option. I’d photographed Newton’s church before and I felt I was simply repeating myself, but as I set up my tripod, the sun emerged from behind a cloud casting a shaft of light through the leaded glass windows onto his pulpit, certainly more engaging than the image I’d made last time. The most interesting thing, though, only caught my eye as I was repacking my camera bag.

Tucked away in a corner, behind a screen promoting the church’s charitable work, was a small framed portrait of John Newton hanging on a stone pillar above a fire extinguisher and obscured by cleaning utensils. Maybe that was the sad reality of how people viewed church history – important enough to keep, but not very relevant, not on display.

Outside in the graveyard the rain had stopped. The sun was shining and I was able to photograph Newton’s slightly overgrown grave, pressed up against the boundary wall, overlooking the river and fields beyond. In places like Olney we take history and the preservation of it for granted. How easy it would be to pass through this beautiful village and not encounter John Newton’s story. To walk right past the rectory, shelter in the church and never notice the small plaque beneath the pulpit or see the engraved portrait hidden in the corner.

Photography helps to shape and anchor history, reveals things that have become obscured, identifies things of importance and casts light on the overlooked, whatever the weather.

[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%.]

[Abide With Me will be released by New Leaf Press in April 2009.] 

In the past 300 years, no other collection of poetry and music has been voiced or loved as consistently as have British hymns. Every week during those centuries, worshippers in churches throughout Britian, Europe, and America have read and sung such verses as “Rock of Ages” and “Abide With Me.” Whether celebrations of joy or in times of sadness, these hymns have become staples of our culture, and this book will become a classic family favorite as well.

Combining internationally acclaimed Paul Seawright‘s breathtaking photographs and John Parker‘s descriptive text, Abide With Me is a gorgeous collection of images from the sites, sounds, and history that gave birth to some of Christianity’s most poignant and revered hymns. You are familiar with these songs, but do you know about:
  • The hymn specially written for a sister’s wedding in 30 minutes
  • The privileged poet and hymnist who would die ministering in India
  • The first British hymn ever written and its original language
  • The song of comfort written by the daughter of a newspaper editor; a song associated with the funerals of three American presidents

Now readers can view the homes, churches, communities and universities of 24 beloved hymnists, share the stories of faith behind over 25 beloved hymns- John Newton, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and more.

Abide With Me features over 230 photographs from throughout Wales and England. This casebound book is ideal as a gift or treasured in libraries and personal collections.

[Note: The release date on this book is April 2009. Order now for 20% off the cover price at New Leaf Publishing Group.]