While living in Olney, Newton began to write poems and hymns to express his love for God and encourage people in their worship. He was helped and inspired by his great friend, the poet William Cowper who lived nearby. He often used the lyrics of his hymns to illustrate his sermons.
“Amazing Grace” which describes much of Newton's own spiritual journey, was written in 1772 and first used on January 1 1773 to illustrate his New Year’s Day sermon . The original title of the song was "Faith's Review and Expectation" - the original lyrics (six verses) talk about the Past, the Present and the Future for a believer. For John Newton, "the hour I first believed" referred back to his experience of crying out to God for mercy in the storm in that Atlantic Ocean and arriving in the safety of Lough Swilly where he became convinced that "there is a God who hears and answers prayer".
Newton worked closely with William Cowper to complete a hymn book - Olney Hymns was first published in 1779 including the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” as well as many of Newton's other hymns such as “How Sweet the name of Jesus sounds” and “Glorious things of thee are spoken”.
Interestingly, the familiar tune to "Amazing Grace" was not added until much later - entitled New Britain the tune is believed to derive from a Scottish melody popularised by Shape Note singers and first linked with Amazing Grace in 1835.