Amazing Grace: The History of the 250-Year-Old Christian Hymn
The powerful bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" has also become a beloved part of memorial services for public servants like firefighters, police, and the military. Like this one by "Bagpipe Master" below.
It's estimated that the beloved spiritual is performed over 10 million times annually and has appeared on over 11000 albums worldwide.
Although the song's lyrics have grown so much in popularity and are recognizable to most of us, many are unaware of its origin and history.
Knowing John Newton's story and what he went through before penning the words of "Amazing Grace" will help to understand the hymn's deeper meaning and his gratefulness to the Amazing Grace of God.
Continue reading to learn about Amazing Grace, who wrote the song, its meaning, when it became popular, and much more.
Who wrote “Amazing Grace?”
John Newton, an English poet, and Clergyman wrote Amazing Grace's words in 1772 and later published them in 1779. Newton was born in 1725 in London, a son to John Newton Sir, a shipping merchant, and Elizabeth Newton, an instrument maker.
Newton's father was often away for two to three years, and during one of his absences, his mother succumbed to tuberculosis two weeks before his seventh birthday. He was left in the care of her family friends, the Cattle family in Kent.
His father remarried, and Newton was sent to boarding school, where he was mistreated before coming back to stay with his stepmother whom they didn't have a great relationship. At the age of eleven, his father introduced him to the sea, and he sailed on long voyages with him before retiring in 1742.
After many years of voyages and reckless youth drinking behaviors, Newton was forced into the British Navy. He attempted to desert the navy and even tried to murder the captain and committing suicide. He was severely beaten-Eight dozen lashes and was demoted to an ordinary seaman.
After this, Newton was exchanged into service on a slave ship as the slave traders' servant. However, he didn't get along with these new crews, who ended up leaving him in West Africa with Amos Clowe, an enslaver. Clowe gave Newton to his wife, Princes Peye, an African Royalty, and she treated him harshly, just like her other slaves. Princes Peye mistreatment reduced Newton to the situation of a "Wretch" he later penned in the lyrics of "Amazing Grace."
In 1748, another ship captain was sent by his father to look for his lost son. He was able to find Newton and rescued him. He still went on to become the captain of his slave ship. On his ship, the slaves were inhumanly abused.
On a return trip to England, his ship was hit by a violent storm and almost capsized. The crew member who had replaced him on the deck was rushed into the waves and drowned. This prompted Newton to pray, and by God's Grace, the cargo shifted to fill the hole in the ship.
Although he operated the vessel for the rest of the storm, he later commented that throughout the event, he realized it was not by his strength and doing, but only the Grace of God could save them. Newton took this as his first step to convert to Christianity. In the very words of his hymn, this occurrence marked "the hour I first believed." Newton, however, did not fully convert to Christianity. He continued to work in the slave trade.
Later in 1750, Newton married his longtime sweetheart Mary, a daughter of the Cattle's, and three years after, he suffered a stroke that stopped him from going back to the sea. He then studied theology and became an ordained Anglican priest in 1764. He wrote 280 hymns to accompany his ministry and wrote the words of "Amazing Grace" in 1772, which first appeared in the Olney Hymns, and later set to the famous tune "New Britain," in 1835 by William Walker.
What does "Amazing Grace" Mean?
Amazing Grace means that redemption and forgiveness are possible regardless of the offense committed. "Amazing Grace" is one of the most recorded and recognized hymns throughout Christian churches around the world. It carries the message of hope and redemption through God's mercies.
Newton wrote this song from his personal experience with God. It was his heartfelt expression of gratitude to God for helping him turn from his wicked ways. It wasn't until 1764, when Newton was ordained as a preacher, that he made the debut of Amazing Grace and, in later years, joined hands with William Wilberforce, a parliamentary campaign leader, to fight against African Slave Trade, which he once actively participated in. Thus this verse;
I once was lost
But now am found
But now I see
The song carries even much deeper meaning than just a sinner's gratitude. It describes the joy and peace of somebody miraculously spared from both physical and spiritual destruction. It relates the victory of someone who has managed to escape from abuse, diseases, death, and a brutal slave trader to a clergyman.
Newton was close to death at various times, and he acknowledges being saved by Grace. On one occasion, he was thrown from a horse, narrowly missing sharp stakes. On another experience, he arrived late to board a vessel carrying his companionship only to watch the ship overturn and drown with all its passengers. Such and more near-death experiences were evident in Newton's life. We would not have gotten these powerful words that relate to our lives if not for his tumultuous past;
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus safe,
And Grace will lead me home.
The Amazing Grace hymn illustrates that even when we are lost, we can be found by Grace. God's Amazing Grace is for everyone. The same way it applied to Newton after mocking God and captaining a slave ship. It can apply to us too.
When did “Amazing Grace” become Popular as a Church Hymn?
The hymn found its popularity in the United States in the early 1800s during the Second Great Awakening, when people would meet for outdoor revival meetings. Although Newton was from England, the Amazing Grace hymn was not particularly popular in England.
During this time, people liked to sing, but none could read or sing music, and most churches didn't have musical instruments. Singing hymns at that time was radical, and so churches sang Psalms most of the time. Song leaders came up with the "Shape note system," a notation that was easier to learn and enabled people to access music in churches.
Published in 1779, Amazing Grace is unknown in what tune it was sung to but it was written in what's known as the common meter, meaning it could be sung with lots of different melodies.
It continued to grow in popularity with it being sung in Methodist and Protestant Churches, where they included verses in their hymnals. They, however, sung the song in different tunes; the recognizable one today is the "New Britain," Melody published in 1847. By this time, thousands of people attended camp meetings to receive salvation and to grow their faith.
In 1852, Harriet Beecher wrote the song in her anti-slave novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and included a few verses not initially written by Newton. Some of the verses she added include,
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 began.
Centuries later, artists and bands from all over the World are still covering the song. It's no doubt one of the most recorded songs in the World. It's now commonly used in churches, memorial gatherings, funerals, and tribute concerts.
316Tees created a commemorative 1772 Amazing Grace T-shirt to honor the history of John Newton and this timeless hymn:
There was even an Amazing Grace movie released in 2007 that tells the story of this great man and movement.
Does Amazing Grace have a specific meaning in your life? What version of the song do you like most? Please let us know in the comments section below.