Do you have a favorite hymn? Hymns may not be as popular as they once were – there’s been some wonderful new worship music written in the last 25 years or so – but the old familiar standards are still very popular. “How Great Thou Art,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “It is Well,” “Blessed Assurance,” and other old favorites are always in the “Top Ten” of the most loved church songs.
And, of course, “Amazing Grace.” How that hymn came into being and who wrote it, as well as how it has been transmitted down to us, make for a fascinating story.
The song was written by the former captain of a slave ship, John Newton. He was born in London on July 24, 1725, the son of a ship’s captain and a Puritan mother. Unfortunately, his mother died when John was only seven years old. His father, who was gone much of the time, remarried, and left John in the care of a stepmother who pretty much let him do whatever he wanted to do. When he was eleven, he went to sea with his father. Later, he was pressed into duty aboard a British warship as a junior midshipman. He deserted, was captured, publicly flogged, and demoted from officer to a common seaman.
Later he became a servant to the captain of a slave ship and was engaged in the “Triangular Trade.” This was the common practice of cargo ships that would sail from England to West Africa, carrying manufactured goods. They would offload those items and take aboard freshly captured slaves, then sail to America. There, they would sell the slaves and load up with sugar, rum, and spices, for the trip back to England, where the whole process would start over. By his own admission, John was a very rough customer – his language was known to be so vulgar and coarse that even the other sailors were embarrassed. Eventually he became captain of his own vessel.
He became a Christian in 1748, after one particularly violent storm in the North Atlantic when it looked as if the ship would be lost with all hands. They managed to survive, and John became a believer. He continued in the slave trade for a while, but later, he became convinced that it was evil and morally reprehensible; how could he, as a believer in God and a follower of Jesus, be part of a system that treated others, also created in the Image of God, in such a brutal and inhuman fashion? He was ordained as a minister in the Church of England, and eventually became good friends with a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. The two men began working together to abolish the slave trade.
Newton had always been a prolific writer, so with the help of a friend, William Cowper, they began writing new hymns for use in their congregation. They averaged writing a song every week, and so it was, for the first service of the new year 1773, 250 years ago this month, Newton published these words:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m 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 that brought me safe thus far,
And Grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, 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 call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Originally there was no specific tune for the song. That was not unusual; in those days, it was common for lyrics to be written to a particular meter, and any one of several different tunes that fit that meter could be used. But a generation later, the words came to this country and became popular in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere in the South. No one is completely sure when, but it is believed that churches began using a popular melody that had originally been from a song sung by slaves. This is the tune that we still sing today. Also in the early 1800s, the song picked up several new verses, including these familiar lines:
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'd first begun.
Newton lived long enough to see his friend Wilberforce get a bill passed in Parliament on May 1, 1807, that was the first step towards outlawing the slave trade in England. John Newton died just a few months later. If the familiar melody that we know was indeed originally from a tune used by slaves, it is truly a demonstration of God’s grace, that the words written by a former slave trader should be combined with a melody from enslaved people, to become the hymn that we still know and love.
Today, John Newton is recognized for the enduring hymn that he gave us, and for one other piece of wisdom. Very late in his life, he remarked, “My memory is fading, but two things I remember very clearly: I was a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.”