The complicated story behind the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me!
Chances are, you started humming along as you read those Amazing Grace lyrics. Considering that some estimates claim that the beloved spiritual is performed roughly 10 million times annually, it's no wonder. "Amazing Grace" is easily one of the most recognisable hymns in the English-speaking world.
Although the words and tune are recognisable to most, many are unaware of the song's history. We tend to sing its words and reflect on them in terms of our own lives — grateful for God's grace — and understandably so. But knowing where the song came from allows us to appreciate it in a new and more profound way.
Written almost two and a half centuries ago in 1772, the words for the beloved song were borne from the heart, mind and experiences of the Englishman John Newton. Knowing the story of John Newton's life as a slave trader and the journey he went through before writing the hymn will help to understand the depth of his words and his gratefulness for God's truly amazing grace.
Having lived through a rather unfortunate and troubled childhood (his mother passed away when he was just six years old), Newton spent years fighting against authority, going so far as trying to desert the Royal Navy in his twenties. Later, abandoned by his crew in West Africa, he was forced to be a servant to a slave trader but was eventually rescued. On the return voyage to England, a violent storm hit and almost sank the ship, prompting Newton to begin his spiritual conversion as he cried out to God to save them from the storm.
Upon his return, however, Newton became a slave ship master, a profession in which he served for several years. Bringing slaves from Africa to England over multiple trips, he admitted to sometimes treating the slaves abhorrently. In 1754, after becoming violently ill on a sea voyage, Newton abandoned his life as a slave trader, the slave trade, and seafaring, altogether, wholeheartedly devoting his life to God's service.
He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1764 and became quite popular as a preacher and hymn writer, penning some 280 hymns, among them the great "Amazing Grace," which first appeared in the Olney Hymns, printed by Newton and poet/fellow writer William Cowper. It was later set to the popular tune NEW BRITAIN in 1835 by William Walker.
In later years, Newton fought alongside William Wilberforce, leader of the parliamentary campaign to abolish the African slave trade. He described the horrors of the slave trade in a tract he wrote supporting the campaign and lived to see the British passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
And now, we see how lyrics like:
I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. 'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.
carry a much deeper meaning than a sinner's mere gratitude. Close to death at various times and blind to reality at others, Newton would most assuredly not have written "Amazing Grace" if not for his tumultuous past. And many of us would then be without these lovely words that so aptly describe our own relationship with Christ and our reliance on God's grace in our lives:
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed.
Those who have read Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic African American novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, may remember that Tom sings three verses of "Amazing Grace," including one verse not written by Newton, which is now traditionally sung as the final verse:
When we've been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We've no less days to sing God's praise, Than when we first begun.
A movie named for the song was made in 2006 that tells the story of William Wilberforce's fight for abolition, with Albert Finney playing the repentant former slave trader John Newton, alongside an ensemble cast that includes Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Gambon and Benedict Cumberbatch. A Broadway musical of the same name launched in late 2015 that focused on Newton's journey and its influence on the song.
The song was used at marches during the civil rights movement and gained popularity among those protesting the Vietnam War. Over the years, musicians and singers from Elvis Presley and Andrea Bocelli to Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin, Destiny's Child, Judy Collins and Leann Rhimes have performed this quintessential song. Even former President Barack Obama gave a powerful rendition during his eulogy for reverend and state senator Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the Charleston church shooting in 2015.
Newton lived to be eighty-two years old and continued to preach and have an active ministry until beset by fading health in the last two or three years of his life. Even then, Newton never ceased to be amazed by God's grace and told his friends, "My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour."