Story Behind The Hymn, “Amazing Grace”
“Amazing Grace” is a Christian hymn published in 1779, with words written in 1772 by the English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725–1807).
“Amazing Grace” is probably the most beloved hymn of the last two centuries. The soaring spiritual describing profound religious elation is estimated to be performed 10 million times annually and has appeared on over 11,000 albums. It was referenced in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and had a surge of popularity during two of America’s greatest crises: the Civil War and the Vietnam War.
Ironically, this stirring song, closely associated with the African-American community, was written by a former slave trader, John Newton.
Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction, but his life’s path was formed by a variety of twists and coincidences that were often put into motion by others’ reactions to what they took as his recalcitrant insubordination.
He was pressed (conscripted) into service in the Royal Navy. After leaving the service, he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland, so severely that he called out to God for mercy. This moment marked his spiritual conversion but he continued slave trading until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his seafaring altogether. He began studying Christian theology.
Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began to write hymns with poet William Cowper. “Amazing Grace” was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year’s Day of 1773. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses; it may have been chanted by the congregation. It debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns but settled into relative obscurity in England. In the United States, “Amazing Grace” became a popular song used by Baptist and Methodist preachers as part of their evangelizing, especially in the South, during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies. In 1835, American composer William Walker set it to the tune known as “New Britain” in a shape-note format. This is the version most frequently sung today.
John Newton, who penned the hymn Amazing Grace, also wrote these words:
By the grace of God I am what I am, I am not what I ought to be. How imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be. And then added: Though I am not what I ought to be, I can truly say that I am not what I once wasa slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily say with Paul: By the grace of God I am what I am!
Amazing Grace – Hymn Lyrics
(1) Amazing grace! How sweet the sound-
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
(2) ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved:
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
(3) The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
(4) Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
(5) When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing Gods praise
Than when we’d first begun.