After 261 Years, “Amazing Grace” Still Comforts

Happy Birthday, Amazing Grace!

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!”

John Newton (1725 - 1807)

John Newton (1725 - 1807)

We’ve heard the song so many times that it has become a cliche to many. It’s often played at funerals and for coverage of solemn events. But the back-story of the creation of Amazing Grace is, itself, amazing and deserving of a spotlight today, May 10th.

It was this day in 1748 the song’s author, John Newton, credits as the day he was inspired by providence to write what is one of the most beloved hymns in the world.

Newton was an unlikely candidate to write hymns. He was a slave trader for years, both as a sailor and eventually as a captain of his own ship.

The moment of his inspiration came while sailing home from one such slaving journey. A brutal storm hit his ship and, despite all efforts, the ship began taking on water. Newton left the main deck to return to his quarters. A moment later, the sailor who replaced him on deck was swept overboard and lost. Convinced there was nothing more they could do to save the ship, he retired to his quarters, and in a moment of release that can be understood only by those facing imminent death, accepted whatever fate lay ahead, asking only, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

Amazingly, the ship held together and it was then he came to the conclusion that God had personally addressed his request and saw the ship through the storm. Later, when they found land, they docked for repairs only to be told the ship would likely not have stayed together more than a day due to all the storm damage.

Newton would eventually renounce the slave trade and become an abolitionist and minister. In addition to his preaching, he would also write hymns. One of the first works was what we now know as “Amazing Grace”, actually written sometime between 1760 and 1770.  Though at least a decade had passed, he still remembered vividly the event that he referred to as his “deliverance” as he wrote:

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 has 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.

Some additional facts about the song Amazing Grace:

  • An additional stanza was incorrectly attributed to the song by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the verse became so popular it’s been left in.
  • The song was translated into Cherokee by Samuel Worcester and was sung by tribe members as they were forced along the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee version of Amazing Grace is still a popular song within the Cherokee nation as a way to pay respect to loved ones who have passed.
  • Though the song was pretty much forgotten in Europe for over a century, it remained popular in America and was adopted by the pop culture when folk music legend Judy Collins recorded an a capella version with a men’s choir.

Through the years, the song has become a metaphor for so many forms of grace and can be adapted to each person’s private moment of deliverance. Amazing Grace has been recorded and performed by more artists and  genres than just about any other song.

This live performance, however, by Il Divo, is one of the finest I’ve ever experienced and is a fitting tribute to a hymn written by a man humbled before the power of Grace. I urge you to click the link and experience it as well.

I have only scratched the surface on this remarkable story and song. I encourage everyone to refer to the links included above and below for more information.

NOTE: Some of the links are to youtube videos taken at events, some of which may be emotionally moving. This only serves to illustrate just how comforting and meaningful the song is for those involved.

Gerry Ashley

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