January 10, 2018

'Amazing Grace' — The story behind one of the best-loved songs of all time

'Amazing Grace'—The story behind one of the best-loved songs of all


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 recognizable hymns in the English-speaking world.

Although the words and tune (NEW BRITAIN, for those of us who aren't hymn tune connoisseurs) are recognizable 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.

The story behind the hymn "Amazing Grace"

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.

Modern interpretations

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.

With the text in the public domain, recordings and arrangements of "Amazing Grace" likely span every musical genre. OCP is proud to offer several unique arrangements and audio recordings of the beloved hymn:

"Amazing Grace" by Gerard Chiusano

This version of "Amazing Grace" is a concertato arrangement for SATB choirs with descant. Probably the most traditional-sounding arrangement that OCP offers, Gerard's setting has soprano and alto voices singing the first verse, with the men joining in for the subsequent verses. Verse four is meant to be sung a cappella, and verse five features an optional descant for soprano voices. All in all, it's a solid interpretation of Newton's hymn.

"Amazing Grace" by ValLimar Jansen

From her collection, Anointing, ValLimar Jansen's rendition of the classic hymn is soulful and vibrant, a combination of her reciting Psalm 103, singing some of the lesser-known verses ("Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail..." and "The earth shall soon dissolve like snow...") and finally closing out with the well-known lyrics of the first verse.

"Amazing Grace" by Kevin Keil

An instrumental arrangement from his latest collection, The King of Love, Kevin Keil's arrangement is effortless and soothing, especially when combined with Pachelbel's "Canon in D," as Kevin does here. The oboe's melody is pure and unassuming while the piano creates a lovely countermelody throughout, moving from "Amazing Grace" to "Canon in D" and back again.

"Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)" by Chris Tomlin

Recognizable to most anyone who listens to contemporary Christian music, Chris Tomlin's "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)" is a beauty and features an added 'refrain,' which was, in fact, written for the aforementioned movie, by request of the movie's producers. Though hesitant at first to make additions to something so well known, Chris decided to give it a go after discovering that the song had already had a previous addition, when the last verse was added anonymously in 1790 to Newton's initial version of the poem. The result is a refreshing take that has become a fan favorite.

"Amazing Grace" by Grayson Warren Brown

Originally written in the 1980s, Grayson Warren Brown's version features an Americana style, with guitar, banjos and fiddle and appears on his Praise the Lord in Many Voices collection. This rendition features text and music adapted by Grayson and vocals by longtime Americana musician and singer Elisabeth Williamson, with The Madrigals singing backup.  

For more information, Steve Turner's Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song discusses the writing of the hymn and its historical significance in further detail.