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.
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:
The first verse -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. The second verse And 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.