Amazing Grace how sweet the sound…that saved a wretch like me…I once was lost, but now am found… was blind but now I see.
Amazing Grace has become one of the most recognized pieces of music in the English-speaking world. Its universal message that forgiveness and redemption is possible, regardless of the sins a person commits, has played a significant factor in its transition into secular music.
It is estimated that Amazing Grace is performed approximately 10 million times a year and has been associated with more than 20 melodies.
It was 233 years ago that Amazing Grace was first printed in Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns in 1779. However, in England it somewhat went into obscurity until the early 19th century when the hymn found revival due to it’s extensive use during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.
Did You Know That: Amazing Grace was not the song’s original title nor was it written to be a hymn?
Amazing Grace’s original title was Faith’s Review and Expectation and was written as an illustration to accompany a sermon that John Newton was preaching on New Year’s Day in 1773. It wasn’t until six years later, 1779, when it was printed in Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns that it became known from its opening phrase – Amazing Grace.
In 1808 (35 years after it was written) Amazing Grace was set to music to the tune “Hephzibah” by English composer John Jenkins Husband. But it was in 1835 (56 years after it was written) when William Walker assigned Newton’s words to a traditional song named “New Britain”, which is the tune we recognize today.
About the Author
John Newton was ordained in the Church of England in 1764 and became the curate (Priest) of Olney, Buckinghamshire where he served for 15 years. Then in 1779 he became the Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, where he officiated until his death in 1807.
43 years marks a long passage of time in service to ministry, however, it would be a disservice to John Newton if I did not mention that his ordination almost didn’t happen.
Road to Ordination
While living in Liverpool, John worked as a tide surveyor (a tax collector) and taught himself Hebrew, Greek and Syriac (Middle Arabic). Both he and his wife immersed themselves in the church community where he soon became known by his passion for the gospel of Christ. It was while he lived in Liverpool that a friend encouraged him to become a priest. So in 1757 Newton began his pursuit for ordination but was quickly denied due to not having a degree.
Some time later, Newton was once again encouraged by a friend (whether it was the same one or not we do not know) but this time to write about his experiences in the slave trade and his conversion. So he did and within time Newton’s testimony was read by the Earl of Dartmouth who was so impressed that he sponsored Newton for ordination. Then in 1764 the Bishop of Lincoln granted John his ordination in which he became the curate (Priest) of Olney.
Service in Ministry
John Newton served the church with zeal and dedication to service. He was well known for his passion for the gospel, his pastoral care, hospitality and help to the poor. In his sixteen years at Olney his preaching was so popular that the church added a gallery to accommodate the large numbers who flocked to hear him.
In addition to his strong support of evangelicalism in the Church of England, he also gained popularity amongst the other growing evangelical parties. His spiritual advise was sought by many young churchmen as well as known social figures such writer Hannah More, and the young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, who had recently undergone a crisis of conscience and religious conversion and was contemplating leaving politics. Which after seeking guidance, Newton encouraged Wilberforce to stay in Parliament and “serve God where he was.”
Zeal, dedication, commitment, passion and love for the gospel of Christ…these were not always attributes that John Newton possessed. In fact, prior to his conversion, he had denounced his faith and belief in God and lived a passionate life of celebrated debauchery.
Life of Debauchery – Amazing Grace the testament
Amazing Grace (Faith’s Review and Expectation) was written from John Newton’s personal experience of living of life of debauchery (excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures) and for possessing an attitude of being a recalcitrant which means that he was uncooperative and obstinate toward authority or discipline. In short order, John Newton was totally self indulgent, reckless in character, hostile towards authority, a drunkard and trouble maker prior to his conversion in Christ. Plainly speaking he was a downright bad boy.
Amazing Grace how sweet the sound…
John Newton was the son of a merchant ship commander. At the age of six, his mother, who had given him some religious training, sadly died from consumption (a wasting decease now known as pulmonary tuberculosis). His father remarried and two years later John was sent to boarding school for he and his stepmother did not have a good relationship.
At the age of eleven, John joined his father on his merchant ship where he sailed six voyages before his father retired in 1742. Upon his retirement Newton’s father made plans for him to work at a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Instead, John signed on with a merchant ship sailing to the Mediterranean Sea.
As a sailor, he denounced his faith in God after being influenced by a shipmate and began to earn the reputation of a reckless, self indulgent, drunkard with a hostility towards authority. In a series of letters that he later wrote he said, “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.”
that saved a wretch like me…I once was lost but now I am found…was blind but now I see
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved,
How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.
Many biographies have been written pertaining to John Newton, and there are quite a few articles online that can be accessed for those who would like greater details about his early life prior to his conversion. For the sake of space I will just mention a few more snippets and then close.
- Newton was pressed into the naval service by the Royal Navy.
- He attempted desertion and was punished in front of the crew of 350. Stripped to the waist, tied to the grating, and received a flogging of one dozen lashes.
- Newton contemplated suicide.
- Became involved in the slave trade.
- Was pressed into indentured servitude.
- Newton was abused and mistreated along with other slaves.
- 1748 was rescued by a sea captain of the merchant ship Greyhound, who had been asked by Newton’s father to search for him.
- While sailing back to England aboard the Greyhound, Newton began to read the Bible and other religious literature. Newton acknowledged the inadequacy of his spiritual life.
- While sick with a fever, he professed his full belief in Christ and asked God to take control of his destiny. He later said that this experience was his true conversion and the turning point in his spiritual life. He claimed it was the first time he felt totally at peace with God.
- By the time he reached Britain, he had accepted the doctrines of evangelical Christianity. The date was March 10, 1748, an anniversary he marked for the rest of his life. From that point on, he avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking.
- In 1750 he married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett.
- Newton became an ally of his friend William Wilberforce, leader of the Parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade. He lived to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace.
At the age of 82 John Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
John Newton wrote his own epitaph and on his tombstone it reads, “John Newton – Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves 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.”
The world shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun refuse to shine;
But God, who called me here below, Shall be forever mine.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, Than when we’d first begun.
What a testimony. If there was anyone who had lived a life according to his own design and indulged in all manner of self gratification, it would have been John Newton prior to his acceptance of Christ. He leaves with us an enduring word of encouragement. That only grace….Amazing Grace…can fill the void and restore the soul to wholeness. It is a standing invitation…extended to all, excluded to no one. Amazing… isn’t it.