Glorious things of Thee are spoken

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Sion, city of our God!
He 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 may'st smile at all thy foes.

This hymn was published in 1779 in Olney Hymns by John Newton (1725-1807). Newton had a most varied early life. The son of a shipmaster, he went to sea and became reckless and ungodly. He deserted the navy, was retaken, flogged and degraded, before serving on a slave ship. In 1748, whilst escaping a slave dealer, he read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis, and this resulted in his conversion. He subsequently became an abolitionist and, in 1754 whilst serving as Tide Surveyor in Liverpool, met Wesley, Whitefield and other evangelists. Following study he was ordained in 1764 and appointed curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire. With his follower the poet William Cowper, he published Olney Hymns in 1779, 'for the promotion of faith and the comfort of sincere Christians'. In the same year he moved to become incumbent of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London. The original title of the hymn was 'Zion, or the City of God: Isaiah 33:20-21' and there were five verses. The third verse has been slightly altered from the original, and the fourth verse (Bless'd inhabitants of Zion, Wash'd in the Redeemer's blood !) is now omitted from most hymnals. The first two lines of the hymn are a quotation from Psalm 87, and other references are Psalm 132:13-14, Matthew 16:18, Isaiah 26:1, Psalm 46:4 and Revelation 1:6.

Tune - Abbot's Leigh

For many years this hymn was associated with the tune Austria (Haydn). However, it is now more usually sung to the tune Abbot's Leigh, written for these words by Cyril Taylor (1907-1991). Taylor was sometime Precentor of Bristol and Salisbury Cathedrals, and worked for the BBC as assistant to the Head of Religious Broadcasting. He was also involved in the compilation of the BBC Hymn Book (1951), contributing twenty tunes, and was an important figure in English Church Music throughout his life. The tune is often sung incorrectly in the third note from the end: it should be D-E-D (not F-E-D).

Nigel Day
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997