This year marks the 250th birthday of “Amazing Grace.” That ubiquitous standard has been saving wretches like me for generations. This month, I want to offer some reflections on the history and enduring popularity of this hymn.
The text of “Amazing Grace” was born from the pen of Anglican priest John Newton as part of a sermon he delivered in 1773. The words came from Newton’s personal experience as a sea captain in the Atlantic slave trade. One night in 1748, his ship was beset by a violent storm. An atheist at the time, he found himself calling out to God for mercy. This was, for Newton, “the hour I first believed.” He went on to study theology and was ordained in the Church of England in 1764.
Newton wrote six stanzas of “Amazing Grace.” The first four are widely known, whispering allusions to the parables of the prodigal son and the man born blind. Stanzas five and six are rarely printed today. A seventh and well-known last stanza, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years …” was added more than a hundred years later as a sort of doxology to the original.
In those days, texts and tunes were almost always written separately. Hymn texts followed a certain syllabic pattern and could be sung with any number of tunes that followed that meter.
Newton’s hymn never really caught on in England, perhaps because it was paired with many different melodies and never really found a good match. But in 1835, American composer William Walker set “Amazing Grace” to his tune “New Britain,” and it stuck for good, becoming immensely popular throughout the United States.
Today, as in the 19th century, “Amazing Grace” is seemingly everywhere. It is broadly ecumenical, found in the repertoire of practically every Christian denomination. It also has tremendous secular reach, appearing spontaneously in moments of tragedy or reflection.
It is one of the most recorded hymns of all time. Among the more than 3,000 recordings of “Amazing Grace” in the Library of Congress are famous renditions by Andrea Boccelli, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson. In any musical style, the words of “Amazing Grace” offer hope in the midst of struggle.
As for Newton, he came to repent of his role in the slave trade. In his later years, he would work for the abolitionist movement, writing and speaking out against the scandal of slavery.
The epitaph on Newton’s tomb, which he wrote himself, reads: “John Newton. Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”
Newton’s personal journey of conversion, captured in song, is a moving testimony to grace — that pure gift from God that is never earned. Through grace, we are empowered to acknowledge our sins and trust in God’s mercy. Christ’s deep and abiding love never gives up on anyone.
This is a message as relevant today as it was 250 years ago. Through many dangers, toils and snares, grace will surely lead us home.