Amazing Grace is a hymn that is heard in a wide range of settings, including as a traditional hymn, as a Pentecostal and evangelical gospel song and even as a secular pop song. So what is the origin and attraction of this widely loved hymn?
It was first published in 1779 with words by the Anglican priest John Newton – so far, so ordinary. But Newton’s life was far from ordinary; he was, at a young age, press-ganged into the Royal Navy and went on to become the captain of a slave ship. During this time, he led a dissolute life that made him prey to alcoholism and depression.
In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel off the coast of Ireland so severely that he called out to God for mercy. God did indeed spare him but, whilst this moment marked his spiritual conversion, he continued slave trading until around 1755. At this point he ceased his seafaring, became a campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade and began studying Christian theology.
Newton was ordained in 1764 and became a curate in Olney, Buckinghamshire. It was at this time that he began to write hymns with the poet William Cowper, with Amazing Grace being written to illustrate a sermon on New Year's Day 1773.
Following its publication in Newton and Cowper's 'Olney Hymns' in 1779, it settled into relative obscurity until it became popular in the United States where it was adopted by evangelical Baptist and Methodist preachers during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. In 1835 it was set to the tune known as "New Britain", and this is the version most frequently sung today.
Why do I love this hymn? For a number of reasons, I love the poetry of the words and I love the way it builds and builds to that last glorious verse. Most of all, however, I love this hymn because it reminds me that the undeserved and free gift of God’s grace is amazing, and that it is the opposite of what we deserve. It reminds me that, whilst God’s grace is given to all those who trust in Him, it was purchased at great price - the atoning death of Jesus.
There is a vast number of versions of this hymn, but one of my favourites is by Andrea Bocelli:
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.
'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.
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.
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've first begun.