On the fire at Olney. September 22, 1777.
Wearied by day with toils and cares,
How welcome is the peaceful night!
Sweet sleep our wasted strength repairs,
And fits us for returning light.
Yet when our eyes in sleep are closed,
Our rest may break ere well begun;
To dangers every hour exposed
We neither can foresee nor shun.
'Tis of the Lord that we can sleep
A single night without alarms;
His eye alone our lives can keep
Secure amidst a thousand harms.
For months and years of safety past,
Ungrateful we, alas! have been;
Though patient long, he spoke at last,
And bid the fire rebuke our sin.
The shout of fire! a dreadful cry,
Impressed each heart with deep dismay;
While the fierce blaze and reddening sky
Made midnight wear the face of day.
The throng and terror who can speak?
The various sounds that filled the air!
The infant's wail, the mother's shriek,
The voice of blasphemy and prayer!
But prayer prevailed, and saved the town;
The few who loved the Saviour’s name,
Were heard, and mercy hasted down
To change the wind, and stop the flame.
Oh, may that night be ne'er forgot!
Lord, still increase thy praying few!
Were OLNEY left without a Lot,
Ruin like Sodom's would ensue.
from John Newton's Diary, relevant to this hymn:
Tuesday 16 September 1777
Took leave of the people tonight at the Great House from 1 Thessalonians 2:17. And now my gracious Lord may it please thee to hear our mutual prayers; lead me and my [Dear Polly] out and home in safety, and preserve thy children in peace, that we may have a thankful and comfortable meeting.
Saturday 25 October 1777
Accept my poor thanks my gracious Lord that thou hast again answered prayer and brought us home in peace, after an absence of more than five weeks, much longer than I expected...
A few days after we left home, thou didst visit this place with a fire, which consumed 12 houses, and threatened to destroy the whole town, which surely had been the case but for thy mercy in answer to thy people's prayers. On this occasion thou didst open the hearts of many in London, and I had an easy service, in collecting a sum for the relief of the sufferers and the poor. O that this visitation may be sanctified – and thine hand seen and acknowledged, both in the beginning – and in the stopping of the flame…
Sunday 26 October 1777
Hope I desired to be thankful, that thou didst restore me to my people and pulpit today, and enable me to speak with some liberty. In the afternoon with reference to the late fire. Having no new hymn, spoke from one in Dr C_'s collection, on the power of faith.
Tuesday 28 October 1777
Beginning to get into my old path – visited several of the poor and afflicted. In the evening at the Great House, resumed the exposition of 1 Peter and spoke from chapter 2 verse 15.
Saturday 1st November 1777 [letter to Thornton]
I have had a meeting with the committee for the fire. It was too numerous to do business. I proposed their choosing a smaller out of it. And they accordingly appointed 5 of whom I was desired to be one. And I hope we shall see the affair to satisfaction in a few days. The plan is to pay 12 shillings in the pound upon the buildings, and 16 shillings upon goods – and to make up the full loss to the poorer sufferers. The whole damage (not insured) is about £450. They had collected at and about home £230. Lord Dartmouth has ordered £30 and I have promised them £60 – to which it will perhaps be necessary to make some addition, and I shall still have a reserve for the relief of particular cases. They are working hard at rebuilding and repairing the houses, and some of them are already covering in. When the fire began the wind was northerly right up the street, and seven or eight houses, were presently in flames – but the Lord was pleased to change the wind which diverted the fire backwards, to a few outbuildings, otherwise it seems as if one half of the town almost must have been destroyed, especially if the wind had been brisk – there being so much thatch and the season uncommonly dry. Thus in the midst of judgment he remembered mercy, and I believe (as I told them on Sunday) prayer contributed more to stopping the fire than water. I hope it will not be soon forgotten by some. But alas too many are hardened and daring, and were it not that there are a few of the Lord’s people dispersed up and down the town, who sigh and mourn for the abominations that abound, I should expect the whole would soon be laid in ashes. The people of Sodom scorned Lot but their safety wholly depended upon his residence among them. And so it probably was with Noah, but when Noah and Lot were gone, vengeance took place. The people of the world little think how much they owe their preservation to those whom they despise. Believers are indeed the salt of the places where they live. By their example and influence they give some check to the spreading corruption of morals, and by their prayers they prevail that wrath is not poured forth to the uttermost.
The hymn which I annex has the merit of being new, for I made it but this morning. It is to be the subject of my speaking tomorrow evening at the Great House. I preached about the fire last Sunday at church, from Amos 3:6 but the congregations there and at the Great House are not quite the same.
Sunday 2 November 1777
Some comfort and liberty in the services. Only at the sacrament cold and unaffected almost like a mere spectator. Yet I trust my soul approves and rests upon the great things there commemorated, and desires to be wholly thine. Blessed Lord, how wonderful that there should be so sure a hope, for such a creature. Thou art my Saviour, O be my Lord, and rule and reign in me and over me without reserve. Spoke again on the Fire in the evening, from a hymn I made on the occasion.
Hymn No. 295 [corrected in MS to 285]
[On this date Newton preached from the above texts at his church, St Peter & St Paul, Olney, during the morning and afternoon services, and from this hymn at the informal evening service]