God and an Amazing Grace

What is in the hymn Amazing Grace that even the secular world hears and is drawn to? For Christians it has given comfort and encouragement to us for well over 200 years. Without a doubt it’s the most widely known Christian hymn of all time! Why?

According to the Dictionary of American Hymnology “Amazing Grace” is John Newton‘s spiritual autobiography in verse.

In 1725, Newton was born in Wapping, a district in London near the Thames. His father was a shipping merchant who was brought up as a Catholic but had Protestant sympathies, and his mother was a devout Independent unaffiliated with the Anglican Church. She had intended Newton to become a clergyman, but she died of tuberculosis when he was six years old. For the next few years, Newton was raised by his emotionally distant stepmother while his father was at sea, and spent some time at a boarding school where he was mistreated. At the age of eleven, he joined his father on a ship as an apprentice; his seagoing career would be marked by headstrong disobedience.

As a youth, Newton began a pattern of coming very close to death, examining his relationship with God, then relapsing into bad habits. As a sailor, he denounced his faith after being influenced by a shipmate who discussed Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, a book by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, with him. In a series of letters he later wrote, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” His disobedience caused him to be pressed into the Royal Navy, and he took advantage of opportunities to overstay his leave and finally deserted to visit Mary “Polly” Catlett, a family friend with whom he had fallen in love. After enduring humiliation for deserting, he managed to get himself traded to a slave ship where he began a career in slave trading.

Engraving of an older heavyset man, wearing robes, vestments, and wig

John Newton in his later years

Newton often openly mocked the captain by creating obscene poems and songs about him that became so popular the crew began to join in. He entered into disagreements with several colleagues that resulted in his being starved almost to death, imprisoned while at sea and chained like the slaves they carried, then outright enslaved and forced to work on a plantation in Sierra Leone near the Sherbro River. After several months he came to think of Sierra Leone as his home, but his father intervened after Newton sent him a letter describing his circumstances, and a ship found him by coincidence. Newton claimed the only reason he left was because of Polly.[

While aboard the ship Greyhound, Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. In a culture where sailors commonly used oaths and swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery. In March 1748, while the Greyhound was in the North Atlantic, a violent storm came upon the ship that was so rough it swept overboard a crew member who was standing where Newton had been moments before. After hours of the crew emptying water from the ship and expecting to be capsized, Newton and another mate tied themselves to the ship’s pump to keep from being washed overboard, working for several hours. After proposing the measure to the captain, Newton had turned and said, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton rested briefly before returning to the deck to steer for the next eleven hours. During his time at the wheel he pondered his divine challenge.[

About two weeks later, the battered ship and starving crew landed in Lough Swilly, Ireland. For several weeks before the storm, Newton had been reading The Christian’s Pattern, a summary of the 15th-century The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. The memory of his own “Lord have mercy upon us!” uttered during a moment of desperation in the storm did not leave him; he began to ask if he was worthy of God’s mercy or in any way redeemable as he had not only neglected his faith but directly opposed it, mocking others who showed theirs, deriding and denouncing God as a myth. He came to believe that God had sent him a profound message and had begun to work through him.[

Newton’s conversion was not immediate, but he contacted Polly’s family and announced his intentions to marry her. Her parents were hesitant as he was known to be unreliable and impetuous. They knew he was profane, but they allowed him to write to Polly, and he set to begin to submit to authority for her sake. He sought a place on a slave ship bound for Africa, and Newton and his crewmates participated in most of the same activities he had written about before; the only immorality from which he was able to free himself was profanity. After a severe illness his resolve was renewed, yet he retained the same attitude towards slavery as was held by his contemporaries. Newton continued in the slave trade through several voyages where he sailed up rivers in Africa – now as a captain – procured slaves being offered for sale in larger ports, and subsequently transported them to North America. In between voyages, he married Polly in 1750 and he found it more difficult to leave her at the beginning of each trip. After three shipping experiences in the slave trade, Newton was promised a position as ship’s captain with cargo unrelated to slavery when, at the age of thirty, he collapsed and never sailed again.

Working as a customs agent in Liverpoolstarting in 1756, Newton began to teach himself Latin, Greek, and theology. He and Polly immersed themselves in the church community, and Newton’s passion was so impressive that his friends suggested he become a priest in the Church of England. He was turned down by John GilbertArchbishop of York, in 1758, ostensibly for having no university degree, although the more likely reasons were his leanings toward evangelism and tendency to socialise with Methodists. Newton continued his devotions, and after being encouraged by a friend, he wrote about his experiences in the slave trade and his conversion. William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, impressed with his story, sponsored Newton for ordination by John GreenBishop of Lincoln, and offered him the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire, in 1764.

Olney was a village of about 2,500 residents whose main industry was making lace by hand. The people were mostly illiterate and many of them were poor. Newton’s preaching was unique in that he shared many of his own experiences from the pulpit; many clergy preached from a distance, not admitting any intimacy with temptation or sin. He was involved in his parishioners’ lives and was much loved, although his writing and delivery were sometimes unpolished.But his devotion and conviction were apparent and forceful, and he often said his mission was to “break a hard heart and to heal a broken heart”.He struck a friendship with William Cowper, a gifted writer who had failed at a career in law and suffered bouts of insanity, attempting suicide several times. Cowper enjoyed Olney – and Newton’s company; he was also new to Olney and had gone through a spiritual conversion similar to Newton’s. Together, their effect on the local congregation was impressive. In 1768, they found it necessary to start a weekly prayer meeting to meet the needs of an increasing number of parishioners. They also began writing lessons for children.[

Engraving of a two-storey building, eight windows across, partially obscured by trees and shrubs

The vicarage in Olney, where Newton wrote the hymn that would become “Amazing Grace”

Partly from Cowper’s literary influence, and partly because learned vicars were expected to write verses, Newton began to try his hand at hymns, which had become popular through the language, made plain for common people to understand. Several prolific hymn writers were at their most productive in the 18th century, including Isaac Watts – whose hymns Newton had grown up hearing – and Charles Wesley, with whom Newton was familiar. Wesley’s brother John, the eventual founder of the Methodist Church, had encouraged Newton to go into the clergy. Watts was a pioneer in English hymn writing, basing his work after the Psalms. The most prevalent hymns by Watts and others were written in the common meter in 8.6.8.6: the first line is eight syllables and the second is six.[

Newton and Cowper attempted to present a poem or hymn for each prayer meeting. The lyrics to “Amazing Grace” were written in late 1772 and probably used in a prayer meeting for the first time on 1 January 1773. A collection of the poems Newton and Cowper had written for use in services at Olney was bound and published anonymously in 1779 under the title Olney Hymns. Newton contributed 280 of the 348 texts in Olney Hymns; “1 Chronicles 17:16–17, Faith’s Review and Expectation” was the title of the poem with the first line “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)”.

The general impact of Olney Hymns was immediate and it became a widely popular tool for evangelicals in Britain for many years. Scholars appreciated Cowper’s poetry somewhat more than Newton’s plaintive and plain language driven from his forceful personality. The most prevalent themes in the verses written by Newton in Olney Hymns are faith in salvation, wonder at God’s grace, his love for Jesus, and his cheerful exclamations of the joy he found in his faith. As a reflection of Newton’s connection to his parishioners, he wrote many of the hymns in first person, admitting his own experience with sin. Bruce Hindmarsh in Sing Them Over Again To Me: Hymns and Hymnbooks in America considers “Amazing Grace” an excellent example of Newton’s testimonial style afforded by the use of this perspective. Several of Newton’s hymns were recognized as great work (“Amazing Grace” was not among them) while others seem to have been included to fill in when Cowper was unable to write. Jonathan Aitken calls Newton, specifically referring to “Amazing Grace”, an “unashamedly middlebrow lyricist writing for a lowbrow congregation”, noting that only twenty-one of the nearly 150 words used in all six verses have more than one syllable.[

William Phipps in the Anglican Theological Review and author James Basker have interpreted the first stanza of “Amazing Grace” as evidence of Newton’s realization that his participation in the slave trade was his wretchedness, perhaps representing a wider common understanding of Newton’s motivations. Newton joined forces with a young man named William Wilberforce, the British Member of Parliament who led the Parliamentarian campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, culminating in the Slave Trade Act 1807. However, Newton became an ardent and outspoken abolitionist after he left Olney in the 1780s; he never connected the construction of the hymn that became “Amazing Grace” to anti-slavery sentiments. The lyrics in Olney Hymns were arranged by their association to the Biblical verses that would be used by Newton and Cowper in their prayer meetings and did not address any political objective. For Newton, the beginning of the year was a time to reflect on one’s spiritual progress. At the same time he completed a diary – which has since been lost – that he had begun 17 years before, two years after he quit sailing. The last entry of 1772 was a recounting of how much he had changed since then. And David the king came and sat before the LORD, and said, Who am I, O LORD God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto? And yet this was a small thing in thine eyes, O God; for thou hast also spoken of thy servant’s house for a great while to come, and hast regarded me according to the estate of a man of high degree, O LORD God.

1 Chronicles 17:16–17, King James Version

The title ascribed to the hymn, “1 Chronicles17:16–17″, refers to David‘s reaction to the prophet Nathan telling him that God intends to maintain his family line forever. Some Christians interpret this as a prediction that Jesus Christ, as a descendant of David, was promised by God as the salvation for all people. Newton’s sermon on that January day in 1773 focused on the necessity to express one’s gratefulness for God’s guidance, that God is involved in the daily lives of Christians though they may not be aware of it, and that patience for deliverance from the daily trials of life is warranted when the glories of eternity await. Newton saw himself a sinner like David who had been chosen, perhaps undeservedly, and was humbled by it. According to Newton, unconverted sinners were “blinded by the god of this world” until “mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired … our hearts endeavored to shut him out till he overcame us by the power of his grace.”[

The New Testament served as the basis for many of the lyrics of “Amazing Grace”. The first verse, for example, can be traced to the story of the Prodigal Son. In the Gospel of Luke the father says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”. The story of Jesus healing a blind man who tells the Pharisees that he can now see is told in the Gospel of John. Newton used the words “I was blind but now I see” and declared “Oh to grace how great a debtor!” in his letters and diary entries as early as 1752. The effect of the lyrical arrangement, according to Bruce Hindmarsh, allows an instant release of energy in the exclamation “Amazing grace!”, to be followed by a qualifying reply in “how sweet the sound”. In An Annotated Anthology of Hymns, Newton’s use of an exclamation at the beginning of his verse is called “crude but effective” in an overall composition that “suggest(s) a forceful, if simple, statement of faith”. Grace is recalled three times in the following verse, culminating in Newton’s most personal story of his conversion, underscoring the use of his personal testimony with his parishioners.

The sermon preached by Newton was his last, of those that William Cowper heard in Olney, since Cowper’s mental instability returned shortly thereafter. Steve Turner, author of Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song, suggests Newton may have had his friend in mind, employing the themes of assurance and deliverance from despair for Cowper’s benefit.

Original long hymnal with shape note music notation of a tune titled "New Britain" set to Newton's first verse, with four subsequent verses printed below. Underneath is another hymn titled "Cookham".
Grainy portrait of a middle aged white man in a black suit

William Walker, the composer who first joined John Newton’s verses to “New Britain”, to create the song that has become “Amazing Grace””New Britain” tune.

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.


John Newton, Olney Hymns, 1779
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