Amazing Grace is perhaps the most well known hymn in the world. Its history is adventurous and special, in large part because it is so deeply imbued with the evolution and culture of this country. I believe it has one of the most fascinating backgrounds of any piece of music in this entire Method.
The story begins in 1725, when couple John and Elizabeth Newton gave birth to a little boy, whom they also named John, in London, England. When the young Newton was only six years old, his mother died of tuber- culosis, and without anyone else to care for him, he embarked on a number of sea voyages with his father, who was the commander of a merchant ship in the Mediterranean Sea. A year after his father’s retirement in 1742, Newton was conscripted by the Royal Navy. In the ensuing turbulent few years, he deserted a ship, was recaptured and received a public flogging, got demoted from midshipman to common seaman, was abused by a slave trader and his wife in West Africa, and was eventually rescued by a friend of his father.
On May 10, 1748, Newton encountered a violent storm while commandeering his own slave ship back to England. Convinced the storm would sink the ship, Newton, who had no religious convictions, wrote “Lord, have mercy upon us” in his journal and asked God for safety and protection. He also wrote, “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace has bro’t me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home” – lines that would eventually end up in the hymn Amazing Grace. Newton’s encounter with the storm sparked a spiritual conversion that would change the course of his life.
|Circular Church Ruin|
For the next several years however, Newton operated his own ship in a booming industry – the slave trade, which brought him fre- quently to the American coast, in particular the port city of Charleston, South Carolina. While visiting Charleston in 1749, Newton attended a worship service at the Circular Congregational Church (still in operation today), the irony of which cannot be emphasized enough: there, on American soil, stood John Newton singing the praises of God, while several blocks away the slaves he transported on his ship were being sold to their new owners.
In the 1750s, Newton got married, underwent a serious illness, retired from seafaring, and became increasingly devoted to God. He became a disciple of George Whitfield, a deacon in the Church of England, and he taught himself Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Eventually, he was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where his church services became so popular that the church building itself had to be enlarged. As his renown grew, he began traveling and preaching throughout England.
In the late 1760s, he befriended poet William Cowper in Olney, and the two began holding weekly prayer meetings during which they would write hymns. In 1779, after a decade’s worth of these meetings, they published Olney Hymns, which contained 68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton. Several of Newton’s hymns are still fairly popu- lar today, including How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds and Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken. Another hymn, Faith’s Review and Expectation, contained the text that would soon evolve into Amazing Grace.
Once an active participant in the slave trade, Newton publicly decried it in a pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, which was pub- lished in 1788. Especially given his spiritual convictions, he was humiliated by his involvement in the industry, and he became an ally of abolitionist and member of Parliament William Wilberforce. Newton lived to see Wilberforce convince the British government to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. Newton died later that year.
Although the slave trade continued in America for decades after Newton’s death, the Circular Church in Charleston continued to thrive and build a congregation of both blacks and whites. Notably, the first Sunday School for religious education in South Carolina began there in 1816. Perhaps more important, it was one of the first places a young man named William Walker heard the hymn, Faith’s Review and Expectation, in the early 19th century.
Walker (1809-1875), an American Baptist song leader, published a shape note tunebook entitled The Southern Harmony first in 1835 and several more times, with revisions, over the next few decades. The book contained 335 sacred songs, many of which were new pairings of secular American folksongs with existing hymn texts that were intended to be sung in churches and schools throughout the Southeast. The shape note system employed by Walker in The Southern Harmony, which featured four shapes indi- cating different scale degrees and syllables, was designed as a music teaching device as well as a tool for facilitating congregational singing. (Years later, Walker and others re-published many of the hymns using shape note systems with even more shapes.)
One of the hymns in the 1847 edition of The Southern Harmony is the version of Amazing Grace that is so widely known and beloved today. The text – drawn from Faith’s Review and Expectation – is combined with an entirely different melody from the one Newton used. In fact, in the first part of the 19th century, more than 20 musical settings of the same words written by Newton were circu- lated with varying degrees of popularity. But it was Walker’s pairing of the text with a melody known as New Britain that eventually came out on top. New Britain – an amalgam of two folk melodies, St. Mary and Gallaher, which are believed to have originated in Scotland around 500 years ago – was a melody familiar to the American public for decades before it became solidified as Amazing Grace. In its present form, it is one of the most recognizable melodies in the world, and its message is incredibly powerful.
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.