John Newton, the author of this hymn, is well-known because of the popularity of “Amazing Grace,” which he wrote as his personal testimony. “I Saw One Hanging on a Tree” was written in 1778 and was titled “Looking at the Cross” in Newton’s original manuscript. The hymn originally had eight stanzas. They were combined to make four stanzas, and the tune was composed by Edwin Excell in 1917. Excell, one of the greatest evangelistic song leaders of his day, was associated with Southern revivalist Sam Jones for twenty years.
Newton had a tradition that was unusual for his day. He established weekly prayer meetings when he was a pastor in Olney. It became the custom for him and his friend, William Cowper, to write a new hymn for each week to reinforce the simple truths he preached. These were published in three volumes of Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns, one of the most significant contributions to evangelical hymnody. “I Saw One Hanging on a Tree” was among more than 300 hymns included in that publication. The song then bore its second title which was the first line of the hymn, “In evil long I took delight.”
This hymn is one of the finest examples of an autobiographical hymn. John Newton’s early life was one of rebellion and immorality. He became a slave trader and was so wicked that even the sailors couldn’t deal with him, and he was thrown off their ship. One night in 1748, he was in a terrible storm, and he feared that he would drown. He called out to God to ask for forgiveness and accepted Christ as his personal Savior.
What caused the profound change in the life of such a wicked man who became a powerful and caring preacher and famous hymn writer? Unfortunately, the first stanza that tells his story clearly is usually omitted in hymnals. The converted slave trader could never forget the price Christ had paid for his sins; he considered himself the most wretched of all men. Christ had totally changed him.
John Newton is a prime example of the transforming power of God’s grace, much like Paul, who, after his conversion, called himself the "chief of sinners." This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
Like John Newton, believers should never forget what Christ went through for them. This hymn describes the suffering and horrible death the Savior endured to provide salvation to all who will accept God’s grace. This gift should inspire each believer to share the life-changing story of salvation with all who will hear.
This inscription, written by Newton, was found on a marble tablet in the churchyard of Olney:
once an infidel and libertine,
a servant of slaves in Africa,
was, by the rich mercy of
our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the faith he had long laboured to destroy."
Unawed by shame or fear;
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
I saw one hanging on a tree,
In agonies and blood;
He fixed his languid eyes on me,
As near his cross I stood.
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with his death,
Though not a word he spoke.
And plunged me in despair;
I saw my sins his blood had spilt,
And helped to nail him there.
But now my tears are vain;
Where shall my trembling soul be hid?
For I the LORD have slain.
A second look he gave, which said,
“I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
I’ll die, that thou may’st live.”
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