In a Nutshell
There are not many songs out there as closely paired with one religion’s beliefs and identity as “Amazing Grace,” arguably Christianity’s—and perhaps even the English language’s—most popular hymn. John Newton, who first published “Amazing Grace” in 1779, wrote the song to record his own spiritual journey from sinner to saint—or more specifically, from slave-trading sailor to minister (and eventually to influential member of Britain’s abolitionist movement). And the song went on a journey of its own. “Amazing Grace” was not initially one of Newton’s most popular hymns. In fact, it quickly faded into obscurity during his lifetime. The song was not truly made popular in America until the 19th century, during the religious revivals of what is known as the Second Great Awakening, and it continues to remain extremely popular today.
More than just a catchy tune, “Amazing Grace” is a hymn of redemption. For many, the promise that God’s grace will save even the most sinful remains the song’s most important message. Newton led a complex life, and the song’s history suggests that much of that may have seeped into his writing, contributing to the enduring legacy of a song that continues to inspire to this day. Come on, it says it right there in the first line: how sweet the sound.
About the Song
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
Though written by a bloody Englishman, “Amazing Grace” has been a hymn favored heavily by Americans since the 19th century. And at over 225 years old, it has survived through many of the most tumultuous periods in United States history. “Amazing Grace” and its writer, John Newton, can only be fully understood by examining some of their own history, though.
Newton, born in 1725 to an English shipmaster worked for many years as a sailor, spending much of that time on slave ships. He converted to Christianity in his twenties and eventually became a minister in 1764,but he did not beginning speaking out against slavery until the 1780s. In 1788, Newton published a pamphlet on the subject, titled “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade
.” He enlisted in Britain’s anti-slavery crusade, serving as the religious advisor to its leader, William Wilberforce. Britain’s movement succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in 1807, shortly before Newton’s death, and slavery itself was made illegal throughout the British Empire in 1833. These achievements both shamed and inspired American abolitionists
in their efforts to abolish the institution.
“Amazing Grace” reflected not only the changes that occurred within Newton, but those occurring throughout the world. However, despite its powerful message, the hymn was all but forgotten in Britain by Newton’s death in 1807. But in the United States, it became a favorite within the evangelical communities that sprung up as a result of the Second Great Awakening
, a revival of fervent religious beliefs throughout the country in the 1800s. A focal point of the revival was a simple theology of sin and forgiveness—all humans were born scarred by sin, but through God’s free grace they would be forgiven and made spiritually whole. “Amazing Grace,” with its simple message of conversion and redemption, perfectly matched the theology of the Awakening and became a favorite of many preachers and newly-converted Christians.
While it remained fairly popular over the following century, especially after composer William Walker joined the hymn to the music of the traditional song “New Britain” in his tune book Southern Harmony
, “Amazing Grace” experienced a second revival in the US during the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s. Social reformers, especially within the civil rights movement
, heard a poignant message in the song. They felt that America itself “once was lost” but had finally been found, and folksingers such as Joan Baez and Judy Collins recorded renditions that were popular during this time.
On the Charts
While “Amazing Grace” is generally considered a traditional Christian hymn, several artists have had commercial success with the song.
• Singer Judy Collins included the song on her 1970 album, Whales & Nightingales
, and it reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
• Amazing Grace
is the name of a 1972 Aretha Franklin album that featured the song. The album went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Album that year. It is also the best-selling gospel album in history, and the best-selling album of Franklin’s career.
• In April 1973, a rendition of the song by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard reached #1 on the UK singles chart and stayed there for 24 weeks (the song rose as high as #11 in the United States).
• Johnny Cash recorded the song for his 1975 album, Sings Precious Memories
, and often played it when performing in prisons.