John Newton (b. London, England, 1725; d. London, 1807) was born into a Christian home, but his godly mother died when he was seven, and he joined his father at sea when he was eleven. His licentious and tumultuous sailing life included a flogging for attempted desertion from the Royal Navy and captivity by a slave trader in West Africa. After his escape he himself became the captain of a slave ship. Several factors contributed to Newton's conversion: a near-drowning in 1748, the piety of his friend Mary Catlett, (whom he married in 1750), and his reading of Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ. In 1754 he gave up the slave trade and, in association with William Wilberforce, eventually became an ardent abolitionist. After becoming a tide… Go to person page >
My harp untuned, and laid aside. J. Newton. [Hoping for a Revival.] Appeared in the Olney Hymns, 1779, Book ii.,No. 52, in 7 stanzas of 4 lines, and headed, "Hoping for a Revival." From it the hymn "While I to it my soul gave way," sometimes "While to its grief my soul gave way," beginning with stanza iv., is taken. In the Preface to the Olney Hymns Newton says: "My grief and disappointment [at the downfall of Cowper's health and mind] were great; I hung my harp upon the willows, and for some time thought myself determined to proceed [with hymn-writing] no farther without him. Yet my mind was afterwards led to resume the service." On comparing this extract with this hymn it seems very probable that this was his first effort after resuming his sometime abandoned work.
--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, Appendix, Part II (1907)