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'Amazing Grace': Celebrating the 245th Anniversary of the Powerful Christian Hymn's Publication

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In 1779, the Anglican minister John Newton and the poet William Cowper published “Olney Hymns.” This now-legendary collection featured one entry that eventually emerged as perhaps the most beloved Christian hymn of all time.

Newton, curate-in-charge at St Peter & St. Paul Church in Olney, England, and a former slave trader who operated along the coast of Africa in the late 1740s and early 1750s, penned 281 of the collection’s 348 total hymns, including Hymn 41, to which he affixed the title, “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

More than two centuries and several iterations later, that hymn goes by a different title: “Amazing Grace.”

With its simple and timeless expression of gratitude and hope, “Amazing Grace” consistently rates as the modern world’s most popular Christian hymn.

And that popularity has made the hymn’s author a subject of interest.

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In fact, the late Dr. David B. Calhoun, longtime Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, estimated that scholars and popular writers have combined to produce at least 100 books on Newton’s life.

Thus, when it comes to analyzing Newton or his famous composition, one can scarcely aim at originality.

And that should suit the Christian writer just fine. After all, “Amazing Grace” does what good hymns should do. It draws us out of ourselves, explodes our pretenses to authorship of any kind, particularly of our own destinies, and thereby places the Author of all things at the center of our hearts.

Still, “Amazing Grace” has a special power to remind us of our faith and why we hold it.

First, both the hymn and its history remind us that Christ calls us to be His forever. We exist only for that purpose. Everyone and everything else, including the only universe we know, will perish. In the end, only God’s grace will remain.

Second, Newton’s personal story of redemption reminds us that though we became Christians, we remained sinners. So we need God’s grace every day throughout our lives.

Finally, some of the best-loved modern iterations of “Amazing Grace” remind us that Christians, as the Apostle Paul told us, constitute one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

Only Grace Remains: The Hymn and Its History 

According to Calhoun, Newton “made a practice of writing hymns to accompany his sermons.” Thus, though he published it in 1779, the Olney minister actually wrote “Faith’s Review and Expectation” more than six years earlier while preparing for a New Year’s Day service on Jan. 1, 1773.

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Inspired by part of King David’s prayer — “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” — Newton composed six stanzas of four lines each. (1 Chronicles 17:16-17)

The first three stanzas will be familiar to modern readers.

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.

 

’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’s famous first stanza, of course, featured the striking juxtaposition of sweetness and wretchedness. It concluded by paraphrasing the man born blind, whom Jesus healed. (John 9:25)

Together, those first three stanzas covered themes of faith and redemption. Note that the word “grace” appeared six times.

Then, the final three stanzas dwelt on mortality, eternity and the end of all things. Here, the word “grace” did not appear at all.

The LORD has promised 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 called me here below,

Will be for ever mine.

In this form, complete with all six stanzas, Newton presented “Faith’s Review and Expectation” to the world.

The hymn’s journey to becoming “Amazing Grace,” however, had only just begun.

For one thing, according to Hymnology Archive — a database maintained by Chris Fenner of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky — neither “Olney Hymns” nor many subsequent collections included music to accompany Newton’s hymn.

That began to change in 1835, when William Walker paired Newton’s words with a tune called “New Britain.” The pairing appeared in “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.”

Significantly, Walker included all six stanzas from “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

But those original six stanzas did not remain together forever.

In the world-changing novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe included a version of Newton’s original 5th and 6th stanzas, though she reversed their order and tacked on a separate stanza from a different hymn altogether.

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 was the 10th stanza of the hymn, “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” as printed in a 1790 ballad collection.

Decades later, the editors of a 1909 hymn collection printed Newton’s first three original stanzas, followed by the 10th stanza of “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” which thereby became the 4th stanza in a new version of Newton’s hymn. That new version appeared under the title, “Amazing Grace.”

In sum, the post-1835 editors effectively guaranteed that if the hymn endured it would do so under its now-familiar name. By replacing Newton’s original 4th, 5th and 6th stanzas with a generic, praise-themed stanza from a different hymn, they ensured that posterity would lose the author’s original references to mortality, eternity and the end times.

For the hymn, as for all of us when we surrender to God, only grace remains.

The Slave Trade, the “First Faint Streak” and Newton’s Long Journey to Redemption 

In the context of Newton’s life and redemption in Christ, the hymn that became “Amazing Grace” appeared not as a dramatic consummation, but more like a signpost.

According to Calhoun, Newton spent his early years suffering through alternating states of dissipation, disgrace and despair. As a young man in the late 1740s, Newton decided to pursue the riches offered by the African slave trade. By his own account, while aboard ship he regularly cursed and mocked the idea of God’s existence.

On March 21, 1748, the vulgar, 22-year-old unbeliever found himself aboard the Greyhound, a slave ship headed for America. As a violent storm hit the ship, Newton cried out for God’s mercy. His words surprised him. “What mercy can there be for me?” he later recalled thinking.

God answered Newton’s unexpected prayer. Though battered and blown off course, the ship survived. When it finally reached the coast of Ireland, Newton went to church and pledged himself to God. Henceforth, he marked March 21 as the anniversary of his redemption.

Years later, however, Newton acknowledged that his journey to redemption had only begun.

On Feb. 1, 1750, the changed Newton married his beloved Mary Catlett. His frequent letters to his new wife, written at sea or from various ports throughout the Atlantic world, testified to the fact that Newton, though grateful to God, now placed Mary at the center of his life, even elevated her to a kind of idol, for he mistakenly believed that his dramatic conversion experience aboard the Greyhound had completed his journey to Christ.

In the preface to the first volume of “Letters to a Wife,” published decades later, Newton explained.

“I had some serious thoughts, was considerably reformed — but too well satisfied with my reformation,” he wrote of his lingering pride and the fact that he had not yet surrendered entirely to God.

“If I had any spiritual light,” he added, “it was but as the first faint streaks of the early dawn.”

Thus, as a newlywed, Newton filled his letters to Mary with references to his own feelings and desires. On Feb. 26, 1751, for instance, he wrote that he counted himself among those men “who have placed much of their happiness in possessing and deserving the affections of a worthy woman.”

“A desire of rendering myself agreeable to you has long been a motive of my conduct. This I may well style my ruling passion. I was changeable as the weather until my regard for you fixed me, and collected all my aims to the single point of gaining you,” he wrote nearly four weeks later on March 22.

He wrote those words about merit and agreeable conduct while captaining a slave ship off the coast of Africa.

In time, however, those “first faint streaks” of “spiritual light” grew brighter and called forth a measure of empathy.

“In this unhappy country, I am in the midst of scenes, not only inferior — but opposite, to those which are inseparable from your company,” Newton wrote from Africa on Jan. 26, 1753.

“But from being much among a people who are so far from possessing such mercies as I am favored with, that they are unable to form a conception of them, I may learn a lesson of gratitude; since the least pleasing part of my life is such, as still to leave me room to pity millions of my fellow-creatures,” he added.

In 1754, a sudden and mysterious illness drove Newton from the slave trade for good. The “spiritual light” might also have played a role. As Calhoun noted, “Newton came to hate and despise what he was doing.”

Rescued once more, Newton turned his attention to becoming a pastor.

Like all 18th-century British commoners, Newton needed a patron if he hoped to preach in the established church. According to the Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney, he found one in William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, who ensured Newton’s ordination in the Church of England and then, in 1764, had the freshly-minted minister placed at St Peter & St. Paul, where Newton remained until 1780.

In 1767, Newton met and befriended Cowper. Twelve years later, their joint hymn-writing effort resulted in the publication of “Olney Hymns.”

Thus, Newton penned the hymn that became “Amazing Grace” at what amounted to the midpoint of both his collaboration with Cowper and his tenure in Olney. The hymn, therefore, appears as a signpost on a redemption journey yet to run its course.

In 1780, Newton became rector of St Mary Woolnoth Church in London. That same year, a young William Wilberforce entered Parliament. For nearly three decades thereafter, Wilberforce helped lead the fight to abolish the slave trade.

As an 11-year-old boy in the early 1770s — several years before Newton wrote his New Year’s Day hymn, “Faith’s Review and Expectation” — Wilberforce met Newton in Olney. Thereafter, the minister and former slave trader became a kind of mentor to Wilberforce.

In the 2006 feature film “Amazing Grace” — a biopic of Wilberforce — the late English actor Albert Finney played Newton. As seen in the clip below, Finney portrayed an anguished Newton haunted by tens of thousands of slave victims.

Finney depicted Newton as reclusive and too guilt-ridden to enter the fight himself but eager for Wilberforce to do so.

The historical Newton, however, did not shy away from issuing a powerful and public denunciation of the slave trade.

In “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade,” published in London in 1788, Newton denounced “that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce” — a subject, he noted, on which “many able pens” had already written.

Newton had a purpose in acknowledging that “many able pens” had already described the slave trade’s horrors. In short, he intended his account as another signpost along his journey to redemption.

“If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessory,” he wrote.

The former slave trader then described scenes of horror associated with what he called “a subject of humiliating reflection.”

Ironically, Newton’s pamphlet ran to 41 pages. When first printed in 1779, the hymn that became “Amazing Grace” appeared as Hymn 41.

On March 25, 1807, Parliament finally passed an act abolishing the slave trade. Newton lived to see the great victory and then died four days before Christmas of that year.

According to Calhoun, Newton’s last words, whispered to a friend, called to mind his entire redemption journey: “My memory is nearly gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”

One Body: Beloved Modern Performances 

In the mid-20th century, “Amazing Grace” became closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

When faced with doubt and difficulties, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr. would call the famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson on the telephone and ask her to sing “Amazing Grace,” according to BBC. Jackson had recorded a famous rendition of the song in 1947.

Here she is delivering a powerful live performance that, in a span of more than seven minutes, covered only the 1st and 3rd stanzas:

A quarter-century later, music legend Aretha Franklin made 1972’s “Amazing Grace” the best-selling gospel album of all time, per KCRW-TV.

Franklin outdid Jackson, belting out the same two stanzas in a rendition nearly 11 minutes long. Readers may hear the audio of Franklin’s recording in the YouTube video below.

Meanwhile, in 1970, American folk singer Judy Collins delivered a melancholy-sounding version of “Amazing Grace,” complete with the four stanzas published together in 1909.

Of the more recent performances, none is better than the all-female Irish group Celtic Woman’s glorious rendition, which appeared on the 2010 album, “Songs from the Heart.”

Who can help but see God at work in such renditions? In fact, from a certain point of view, they appear as fulfillment of the “one body” described in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.

First, we hear two soulful Christian voices, those of Jackson and Franklin, bringing comfort to the descendants of slaves by belting out beautiful lyrics written by a man who once cruised the coast of Africa in search of human cargo.

Only God could work across the centuries and bring peace from misery in that way.

Then, we hear the performances by Collins and Celtic Woman.

“I have an Irish background, and I was raised on the traditional Irish music that my father sang,” Collins said in a recent interview, according to Irish Music Daily.

In 1748, Newton’s Greyhound came ashore in western Ireland after surviving the dreadful storm. Today, Lough Swilly in County Donegal, including the small town of Buncrana, dubs itself “Amazing Grace Country.” An annual Amazing Grace Festival in Buncrana each April celebrates the anniversary of Newton’s arrival.

Of course, it would be more accurate to say that the festival marks the anniversary of Newton’s dramatic conversion to Christianity. His spiritual journey began aboard that slave ship shortly before he arrived in Ireland. And he crossed paths with many others on a similar journey, including those to whom his beloved hymn has brought inspiration long after his death.

Thus, for the full meaning of the “Amazing Grace” hymn and story, we turn again to the Apostle Paul, who tells us that we have God’s “glorious grace” and “redemption” through Christ, a grace “lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight,” as part of His “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:6-10)

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Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.
Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.




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