For those who presume that this song is old, it does in fact date all the way back to the late 18th century. More specifically, it was originally penned by one John Newton (1725-1807) in 1772. The lyrics were inspired by his real-life experiences, with this man’s personal history indeed being “amazing” in and of itself.
John Newton was born in London. His dad was a shipmaster, and Newton followed in his footsteps, eventually becoming an accomplished seaman himself. This was during the 18th century when the Transatlantic Slave Trade was in full swing. In fact at one point in time Newton, himself being a Whiteman, was actually a slave in Africa to one Princess Peye. And he had to be rescued from the clutches of slavery by an associate of his dad’s.
While he was returning from West Africa to England in 1748, the ship he was aboard found itself in the middle of a terrible sea storm. And in fearing for his life Newton did what many of us would do in such a situation, which is reach out to God. The ship did go on to in fact make it home safely. And subsequently Newton began to adopt a religious lifestyle, more specifically converting to Christianity.
However, whereas he had a religious awakening he apparently did not have a moral one, as he went on to become heavily involved in the Slave Trade himself. Indeed Newton captained a number of slave ships. He did so for about five years until, in 1754, when he fell victim to a devastating stroke. Afterwards he gave up seafaring altogether and became more heavily involved in church activities. In fact he was a professional clergyman and even went on to become an ordained priest, as certified by the Church of England, in the mid-1760s.
And as time progressed, Newton did go on to become quite accomplished in this field. More importantly, it seems that being involved in the church to such a capacity imbued him with a higher sense of morality. For in 1788, over three decades after he was forced to give up his slave-trading activities, Newton became a prominent abolitionist. And for readers who don’t know, abolitionists were actually freeman, many of them being White, who fought against the perpetuation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And as to be expected, Newton did publicly express his regret in terms of the inhumane way he formerly made his living, i.e. by engaging in the trading of human beings.
About 20 years before that John Newton had also begun writing hymns. And in fact out of all of his various professions he had engaged in throughout his life, what history remembers him most for is as a hymnist. In fact in addition to “Amazing Grace” he also penned other Christian tunes which have withstood the test of time such as “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”.
At the time of its publication, in 1779, “Amazing Grace” did not blow up immediately. In fact relatively speaking it can be said that it never really caught on in the UK, i.e. John Newton’s homeland. But it was well received Stateside during the 19th century.
At that particular juncture in history, America was going through a religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening which was ahead of its time in terms of treating Black people as equals. Said movement adopted this tune. And as the years progressed, “Amazing Grace” had actually largely associated with African-American spirituality as opposed to American Christianity in general. But this is not to imply that it wasn’t well known to the masses at large. In fact according to Jonathan Aitken, a biographer and fellow clergyman who has studied the life of Newton, to this day Amazing Grace is still being performed approximately 10,000,000 times a year. Indeed even upon first becoming popular in the United States, it was almost instantly adopted by a number of prominent Christian denominations.
WHAT DO THE LYRICS OF “AMAZING GRACE” ACTUALLY MEAN?
From pretty much the onset of the song, we see that the singer identifies himself as a “wretch”. Generally speaking, said term points to someone being a lowly human being. But more specifically as far as Christian understanding goes, it would point to the notion of the singer being a habitual sinner.
But more importantly, as also illustrated in the first verse, is the fact that the vocalist has been “saved” by “grace”. And again referring to Christian theology, in its most-general usage the word grace points to the providence and mercy of God. Indeed the singer further reveals that at a point a time, he had no actual direction in life. But now, via divine intervention, his presence on this Earth has newfound meaning and consequently significance.
In going back to his own interactions with “grace”, the narrator reveals that this emotion “taught (his) heart to fear”. This sentiment is likely related to a famous passage in the Bible, Proverbs 9:10 to be exact, which puts forth that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. In other words, the implication here is that the singer’s aforementioned newfound understanding is the result of him coming to fear God. And as later indicated in the second verse, this fear is akin to him beginning to believe in God in the first place.
Meanwhile the third verse comes off more like a standard Christian track, if you will. It doesn’t feature the singer self-loathing but rather asserting that God will in fact come through with the “good” He has “promised” to those who believe in Him in his own life. Said benefit includes believers, such as himself, being afforded a level of supernatural protection, so to speak. And just to note, we are referring to the singer as ‘he’ because “Amazing Grace” was (originally) written by a man. However, the wording of the song doesn’t actually feature any gender pronouns, and as implied earlier in terms of the hymn’s widespread usage it does possess an applicability which transcends gender.
In fact from the beginning of the fourth and final verse, the singer is now referring to a “we” as opposed to an “I” or “me”. This particular passage is set in the future, indeed a good “ten thousand years” from the present day. During this time the singer and his cohorts will be “bright shining as the sun”. Moreover, even at this long, long time into the future, they will still be praising God as they did when they were first converted. This is obviously an allusion to the post-Earth Heaven as described in the Book of Revelations. For according to said text those who truly believe in God not only go on to reside in Heaven for eternity but also throughout are basking in His glory and adoring Him accordingly.
So in all, this song has a discernable timeline. The singer starts off as sort of a hopeless sinner who ultimately experiences a pious, spiritual awakening. Said transformation is not brought about as a result of his own goodness but rather an “amazing grace” as given by God. And his life is indeed changed in the aftermath. For now not only does he have a meaningful purpose but also he can look forward to the providence of God throughout. And then in the afterlife, he and his peers will basically spend eternity chillin’ in Heaven. So all wording considered, Amazing Grace reads like your standard song of repentance, whereas someone who at one point in time was likely headed towards a self-inflicted premature demise has now been accepted into the hosts of the Most High. And that is about as inspirational as you can get as far as a religious song is concerned.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT “AMAZING GRACE”
Originally “Amazing Grace” was not set to any music, at least not that history knows of. Hymns of those days were intentionally published in such a manner to put more emphasis on what was actually being said in the lyrics as opposed to the sound of the music. And it wasn’t until some 60 years after the original publication of this iconic song that it was associated with the instrumental which many of us now recognize it by.
Said instrumental that was eventually adopted as standard to play alongside the lyrics was, in and of itself, known as New Britain. And this was actually based on another instrumental which originated in the United States entitled “Harmony Grove”. In fact for a time, “Amazing Grace” was actually known as “Harmony Grove” in the US.
The producer of New Britain was a church musician named William Walker (1809-1875).
On top of it being estimated that this song is sung approximately 10,000,000 times a year, further attributing to the legend of “Amazing Grace” is the fact that, as of mid-2020, it has actually “appeared on over 11,000 albums”.
Of those 11,000 albums, the first recorded version of this song is known to have been an acappella rendition by a group called the Original Sacred Harp Choir, a collective who is believed to have come from Texas. And this recording came out in 1922.
And “Amazing Grace” has indeed been covered by some of the greatest musicians in American history, such as Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Ray Charles. And an interesting story concerning this song is that during the funeral of one Reverend Clementa Pinckney, which thousands of people attended, in 2015, US President Barack Obama himself led a rendering of “Amazing Grace”. And in all it is a song which, in America, has become largely associated with funerals.
This fourth verse of this song has largely been credited to Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). Some readers will recognize that name as the author of the greatest piece of nonfiction anti-slavery literature in American history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). In fact it was within said novel that the author added three additional verses to the three original ones by Newton. And one of them, beginning with “when we’ve been there 10,000 years”, actually stuck.
But for the record, Harriet Beecher Stowe did not actually write that particular verse. Rather it had been added to “Amazing Grace” by some other source(s) some half a century prior to the novel and passed down as part of the tune, specifically within the African-American community. In fact said verse was actually extracted from another song entitled “Jerusalem, My Happy Home”, which dates back to at least the late-18th century.
Despite being penned by an Englishman, “Amazing Grace” is by far one of the most enduring songs in American history. In fact the US Library of Congress has even compiled an archive of thousands of recordings of the tune known as the Chasanoff/Elozua “Amazing Grace” Collection.
And of course “Amazing Grace” has also found its way into mainstream American pop culture, being used at times in more-secular settings. For instance, the tune or references to it have been notably utilized by the likes of The Simpsons, DC Comics and the Star Trek franchise. Also the song itself has been featured in a number of movies.
In some more-modern renditions of this song, the line “that saved a wretch like me” has been altered to instead feature terminology that is a bit more self-appreciative.
This tune was a staple of the Civil Rights Movement which swept throughout American during the mid-20th century. It is said to have been a song which proved to be so powerful that it visibly affected not only the protestors but also onlookers and even law enforcement.
Country singer Garth Brooks performed “Amazing Grace” live during the inauguration ceremony of U.S. President Joe Biden on January 20th, 2021.
Perhaps more than any other spiritual, “Amazing Grace” has held an enduring presence in American history. It has proven to be a powerful piece written by a man, over 200 years ago, who genuinely repented of his past transgressions. And by the looks of things, the popularity of the song in the United States in particular will not be waning anytime soon.