Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
‘Amazing Grace’ was written in 1772 by John Newton, an Anglican clergyman who had once been deeply involved in the slave trade. Born in 1725 in Wapping, Newton was the son of a shipping merchant and he commenced working at sea at the age of eleven. The crude and brutal lifestyle of sailors led him to dismiss God as a myth. He abandoned all the Christian principles he had been taught by his mother and he saw nothing wrong in serving on ships that were involved in the Transatlantic slave trade. In 1748 he decided there must be a God when the ship he was on almost sank in a violent storm off the Irish coast. Such was his terror that he found himself praying and he took his miraculous survival to be the result of divine intervention. He decided that he ought to stop swearing and blaspheming, but his rekindled faith had little other impact. For seven years he continued to engage in the enslavement of Africans, becoming eventually the captain of a slave ship. It was a severe illness and not Christianity that led him to abandon that role. In 1756 he became a customs agent in Liverpool and only then did he commence properly reflecting on what it meant to be a Christian.
Newton began to study theology and he taught himself Latin and Greek, and for a time he became involved with the Methodist movement and its leader, John Wesley. He began to see that the slave trade was evil, drawing not only on what he had seen happen to the enslaved Africans but also on his personal experience of what it was like to be enslaved because on one of the ships on which he had served he had been put into chains for writing obscene songs about the captain. For a time he had then been forced to work alongside slaves on a plantation in Sierra Leone. Encouraged by Wesley, Newton decided to seek ordination in the Church of England. His Methodist connections initially caused the Church to reject him, but, once he dropped those, he was accepted and in 1764 he was appointed as a curate in Olney in Buckinghamshire. There he developed a friendship with William Cowper, a failed lawyer who had struggled with mental health problems and who had tried as a young man to commit suicide on more than one occasion. Cowper was a gifted writer and he encouraged Newton to join him in writing poems and hymns.
Newton and Cowper attempted between them to create a poem or a hymn each week for the prayer meetings that Newton had started in Olney. Newton’s preaching style was to speak from the heart and incorporate what he had personally experienced into his sermons. The hymn writers that he most admired - Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley - had adopted the same approach in writing their hymns. ‘Amazing Grace’ was written for a prayer meeting that was held on New Year's Day 1773 and it is an excellent example of Newtons readiness to incorporate personal testimony into his hymns. He had just finished writing an account of what had happened in his life after he had been forced to abandon his life at sea and it had made him realise just how much God had transformed his thinking and his lifestyle. Hence the content of the hymn with its emphasis on how God’s amazing grace had enabled him to see truths which at one time he could not see.
Newton’s later role as a prominent campaigner for the abolition of slavery has meant that many have implied the hymn is about how God ended his blindness to its horrors, but the mention of his sinful blindness refers not just to his former acceptance of slavery, but to all aspects of his thinking and behaviour. In the hymn he recognises that it is only through God’s amazing grace that he has survived the ‘dangers, toils, and snares’ of life and had his faith restored. It is the evidence of God’s past goodness that gives him the confidence to believe that God will accompany him not just to his life’s end but beyond ‘the veil’ of death, and so he feels not just shielded and protected and transformed but also filled with hope. Through God’s grace he is assured of his ultimate salvation and of experiencing an eternal peace and joy that will outlast even the earth and the sun.
It is not known whether the hymn was actually sung at the prayer meeting or just spoken. In 1779 its words were published alongside 337 other hymns that Newton and Cowper had written in a hymnal that was simply called ‘Olney Hymns’. This book proved immensely popular and it went through many editions and over sixty of its hymns were reproduced in other hymnbooks. However, ‘Amazing Grace’ was not one of the book’s successes and it fell into obscurity in Britain. It only survived because it was taken up in the early nineteenth century by Methodist and Baptist preachers who were creating a religious revival in America, particularly in the southern states. The revival was based on delivering a simple message that people could easily understand and stripping Christianity of anything that was deemed complex and difficult to understand. ‘Amazing Grace’ was judged an ideal hymn to sing because it was written in exceptionally simple language (it contains few words of more than one syllable) and its straightforward metre meant it could be sung to a variety of tunes that were suited to the ‘shape note’ singing system. This system was used to teach hymns in the open air camp meetings that were a feature of the revival.
The hymn’s popularity increased dramatically after 1847 when a Baptist song leader called William Walker realised the hymn could be sung to ‘New Britain’, a much-loved melody based on two folk tunes. This is the tune which everybody now associates with ‘Amazing Grace’. The enslaved black African-Americans of the south especially liked the hymn because it spoke to their desire for freedom. Harriet Beecher Stowe therefore included the hymn in her famous anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in 1852, adding the following final verse which many of the black Americans had taken to singing:
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.
This verse has been traced back to a 1790 hymn called ‘Jerusalem, My Happy Home’. ‘Amazing Grace’ became not just a popular spiritual but a song sung by the troops fighting to end slavery in the American Civil War of 1861-65. ‘The ‘dangers, toils, and snares’ spoken of by Newton took on a new relevance. The war ended slavery and soon ‘Amazing Grace’ was taken up by some of those who belonged to another oppressed group -the Native Americans - because it was translated into the Cherokee language.
The popularity of ‘Amazing Grace’ in America led to it being re-introduced to Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. The main vehicle for that was the publication of ‘Sacred Songs and Solos’, a hymn collection produced in 1873 by two Americans, Ira David Sankey and Dwight Lyman Moody. Their musical arrangements of popular hymns were the forerunners of what became known as gospel music. The subsequent advent of recorded music and radio meant that many gospel, blues and jazz versions of ‘Amazing Grace’ were produced and the hymn effectively became a song that was embraced by people whether they were religious or not. It is estimated that every year there is now about ten million performances of it. The most successful of the early recordings was made in 1947 by the black gospel singer Mahelia Jackson and she often sang it at public concerts in Carnegie Hall and elsewhere throughout the 1950s and 1960s. By then it had become an anthem for the civil rights movement in America. Newton’s ‘dangers, toils, and snares’ were seen as a fitting description of the African American experience.
Sometimes the wording used in recordings of ‘Amazing Grace’ is slightly different from what Newton wrote. The most common alteration is to replace the phrase ‘save a wretch like me’ with phrases like ‘that saved and strengthened me’ or ‘that saved a soul like me’. It is felt the word ‘wretch’ has connotations of self-loathing. Almost every branch of music from folk to opera and from military bands and bagpipes to mass choirs has produced versions of ‘Amazing Grace’. It has even become the basis for a Broadway musical. Among the more memorable recordings are those by artists as diverse as Judy Collins, Diana Ross, Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Celine Dion, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, and Sam Cooke. Some think the hymn has now lost all its religious meaning and become just a song. That is not surprising given the variety of recordings and the hymn’s use on TV programmes as diverse as ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Star Trek’. Others say that as a song it still has the power to spiritually move people. For example, when the singer Johnny Cash was asked why he chose to regularly sing it to people in prison, he replied: ‘For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.’ Even in a far more secular age it remains a favourite choice for funerals because it affirms death is not the end. Many were particularly moved when President Barack Obama famously sang it at the memorial service to one of the victims of the Charleston Church shootings in 2015. In the words of the Gospel singer Marion Williams, ‘Amazing Grace gets to everybody’.