From a Wretch to Best Loved Hymn: the story behind Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is one of the best known and loved hymns of our day. When it was first written it started off as a poem to illustrate a sermon on New Years Day 1773.

The poem was written by John Newton and is considered to be his spiritual autobiography in verse.

John Newton was born in 1725. His mother wanted him to be a clergyman and at her knee he memorized numerous Bible passages and hymns. She died when he was seven years old and he would later recall her tearful prayers over him.

After the death of his mother he alternated between boarding school, living with his stepmother and the high seas. At the age of 11, he joined his father on his boat and began a life on the seas. They were involved with capturing men from West Africa and selling them as slaves. Several years later he was pressed into the British Navy. He deserted, was captured, suspended for two days and then flogged. He admitted later his thoughts switched between murder and suicide. While a sailor he renounced his faith and openly mocked his Captain with obscene poems and songs that became so popular the crew would join in. He gained notoriety for being the most profane man the Captain had ever met and even went so far as to create new words to “exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”

Peril at Sea

On March 9, 1748 a terrible storm came upon the slave ship he captained. It was so bad that he and another mate had to tie themselves to a pump to keep from being washed overboard. He cried out to God for help and the next day he began to read “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A Kempis. This book led to his conversion in Christ and eventually a dramatic change in life. He celebrated March 10 annually thereafter stating “The 10th of March is a day much remembered by me; and I have never suffered it to pass unnoticed since the year 1748–the Lord came from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.”

He continued his work, holding services onboard for his crew, and tried to justify the selling of slaves but eventually realized just how inhumane his work was. In time he felt a call for the ministry and began to crusade against slavery.

John Newton married his youthful sweetheart, Mary Catlett, on February 12, 1750. He left a life at sea and worked as a clerk at the Port of Liverpool for nine years while obtaining his education. He was 39 when he was ordained as a Minister of the Anglican Church. He served the illiterate and poor village of Olney, England {near Cambridge}. The main industry of the 2,500 residents was making lace by hand. He was very involved with and loved by the residents of his parish.

He was greatly influenced by John and Charles Wesley. When he could not find enough hymns to share with his congregation, he began to write simple heartfelt hymns for his congregation to use over the psalms they’d been reciting. Large crowds gathered to hear him preach, where he’d share about his early life and conversion. This was during a time when most ministers refused to admit to any wrongdoing on their part. John Newton and his friend, William Cowper, produced the Olney Hymns Hymnal, with Newton writing over a fifth of the songs.

John Newton, author of Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is based on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17: “Then King David went in and sat before the LORD; and he said: “Who am I, O LORD God? And what is my house, that You have brought me this far? And yet this was a small thing in Your sight, O God; and You have also spoken of Your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the rank of a man of high degree, O LORD God.” The song originally had six verses and was titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation”.

It is not known what, if any tune, was associated with the initial singing of the song. It was associated with a number of different tunes before finding a home with the melody we know and recognize today. The tune we use today is an early American folk melody known as either “Loving Lambs” or “New Britain” {I’ve seen references to both}. The earliest known publication of the song was in 1831 and “scarcely a hymnal appeared through the south during the remainder of the 19th Century that did not include this hymn”. The last stanza we know today {When we’ve been there ten thousand years} was added later and was a spiritual that had been sung and passed down orally for over fifty years in the African American communities. This stanza was included and published with the song for the first time in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

John Newton Grave

John Newton died in 1807, the same year British Parliament abolished slavery throughout its domain. {To learn more about the fight in parliament, the movie Amazing Grace is a great resource.} Right before his death he was quoted as saying “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”

He wrote his own eulogy that was placed on his grave stone. “John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and Libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long labored to destroy.”

Below are all of the lyrics to Amazing Grace, including those no longer used.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d
!

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Yes, 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.

{Last verse later added}
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Then when we first begun.

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