Amazing Grace--More Than A Hymn
by Stan Griffin
Graphics by Heather Peck

"Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!"

Sometime between 1760 and 1770, this hymn was written by an English minister by the name of John Newton. It was part of a hymn in which he expressed feelings about God's forgiveness of his sinful past.

During the first 30 years of his life, Newton was certainly a miserable, unhappy, and mean person--in other words, "a wretch." As a child he was rebellious and constantly in trouble. As a young man he used profanity, drank excessively, and went through periods of violent, angry behavior.

When Newton was in his early twenties, he became involved in the slave trade: living in Africa, hunting down slaves, and managing a "slave factory" (where the unfortunate captives were held for sale). Later he was the captain of a slave ship which made three voyages from Great Britain to Africa (where he loaded a cargo of slaves) and finally to America to sell them.

Three years earlier, Newton had acknowledged God for the first time. The ship on which he was serving, traveling in the Atlantic Ocean to England, was caught in a terrible storm off the coast of Newfoundland. As they fought the winds and rain, Newton asked God for help ("Lord, have mercy upon us!"), something he had not done since childhood.

Miraculously, the storm ended; and the ship managed to reach Ireland safely. There, as Newton later wrote: "...I began to know that there is a God who hears every prayer." Despite this experience, Newton continued to work at buying and selling slaves.

"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 relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home."

Newton left the slave trade in 1754, not because he had come to believe it was wrong, but because of illness and because he disliked being separated from his wife and daughter in England. He worked at a customs house and then he made the decision to become a minister. After a period of study, at the age of 39, he was ordained (was officially declared a clergyman). He then took a position at a parish in the town of Olney.

It was there that he and William Cowper (a mentally ill poet whom Newton had befriended) worked together on a number of songs to express their love of God and joy at having received His favor. Eventually, there were hundreds of these "Olney Hymns." One was "Amazing Grace."

It wasn't until later in life that Newton became ashamed of his activities in buying and selling slaves. He believed that the death of his wife and his daughter's illness were part of a punishment.

Eventually he became convinced that slavery was unlawful and morally wrong. He spent a lot of time arguing for its abolition (putting an end to it) in England, convincing a lot of important people in London that he was right.

Newton died at the age of 82, twelve years before slavery was outlawed in his country. He had accumulated a large amount of information about the slave trade: ships' logs, journals, autobiographies, a pamphlet (written by him) called "Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade," along with other items. Put together they are a detailed record of this trade, a valuable resource for people who study history today.

"Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the vail,
A life of joy and peace."

It is believed that the original melody of "Amazing" was that of an early Protestant hymn, a ballad of the "old country," called "New Britain." (In some U. S. church hymnals today, the song appears under that title.)

After its arrival in this country at the turn of the century, the hymn became popular and was sung extensively in southern churches (those with white parishioners as well as others with black members).

Today, in some of those churches, choirs use musical technique variously described with the terms "sacred harp," "shape notes," and "moving notes." According to some listeners, when it is performed in this fashion, the sound is closer to the original melody than more modern versions.

The hymn was not only sung in churches during the early part of the 20th century, but it was also heard in the fields of rural America as well as in some of its prisons.

When "folk songs" became popular here in the late 1960s and early 1970s, "Amazing Grace" moved effortlessly into that category. Singers such as Judy Collins recorded it; her recording became a "top seller." Millions of people heard it for the first time, liked it, learned it, and sangt. Its words are simple and honest, and we can "identify" with them. Hearing the first few bars, people instinctively recognize it as "Amazing Grace."

When the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, "Amazing Grace" became an important part of it, being sung at demonstrations and gatherings all over the country.

In 1990 a 12-hour rock concert took place in London, England. It was a benefit for Nelson Mandela, thanking him for his years of sacrifice in South Africa. Dozens of big stars performed. "Amazing Grace" was sung by opera star Jessye Norman as the closing number. Despite the length of the performance and the late hour, the crowd was strongly affected and obviously felt a common experience as they joined in.

It was 1989 when the Public Broadcasting System aired a two-hour special presentation titled "Amazing Grace." The program consisted of interviews and various versions of the song with performers and other people relating their experiences with it.

People from all walks of life have expressed their feelings about "Amazing Grace." Some of these statements follow:

"It gets to the heart of man."

"It allows you to reach down into yourself."

"It is a song of reconciliation...and of hope."

"It helps you to see a better day."

"It makes a difference in your life."

"While you are singing it, you are free!"

"It's more than a song."

"It is the pearl of spiritual songs."

"Amazing Grace" has undergone many changes over the 200+ years of its existence. Both the melody and the verses have evolved through time, altered to fit the changing needs of people all over the world. New verses have been written, sometimes straight "out of others' lives," which makes it a song that is truly "alive." It is more popular today than it has ever been.

In 1996 the Music Educators National Conference compiled a list of songs that they believe all Americans should be able to sing in order to preserve an important part of the national culture. One of those songs was "Amazing Grace."

No other hymn in the world has been recorded more often than "Amazing Grace."

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