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“Amazing Grace,” however, taps into a more grand understanding of redemption. Christians believe that humankind is saved from damnation through the intercession of God’s son, Jesus. Human sin—the legacy of Adam and Eve—is washed clean through Jesus’s death on the cross. Evangelical Christians believe further that this forgiveness, or “grace,” is given freely to humans; they don’t need to earn it. In fact, humans are incapable of being good enough to earn it. Instead, grace is a gift from God, and it is offered to everyone freely, even a “wretch like me,” as John Newton put it so well in “Amazing Grace.”
Newton was himself an evangelical minister, so he knew his stuff. “Amazing Grace” is at its heart the hymn-equivalent of what Christians believe is the greatest redemption story in history. It tells how an undeserving wretch is saved from fate that would await him if it weren’t for God’s intercession. It tells of a person who has passed through “many dangers, toils, and snares,” yet is now safely marching toward his heavenly home. It celebrates the fact that humans have been promised forgiveness and eternal life—they may have been lost, but now they’re found, blind, but now they see.
Moreover, for those who love the song, part of its appeal lies in its legendary backstory. When John Newton wrote the original hymn, he was a sailor recently turned minister. He had followed his father to sea at the age of eleven and taken to it quickly. Having a way with words, he wrote filthy poems and songs to pass the time. Headstrong and disobedient, he was always in trouble. After being conscripted to the Royal Navy, he deserted, only to be captured and returned to the sea. Eventually he found himself aboard a slave ship, and on one occasion he was abandoned by his fed-up crewmates. In 1748, however, his bad attitude changed. After a violent storm almost sent his ship to the bottom of the sea, he vowed to dedicate his life to God in thanks for his reprieve from death. As he later wrote in his famous hymn, he was lost, but now was found. When he wrote “Amazing Grace” some 25 years later, he had all the experience he needed to get to the soul of what was being preached, and the song represented his own conversion narrative, a record of his spiritual journey.
What many people do not know is that John Newton’s real story is a little less tidy. He was a sailor, and certainly a coarse and undisciplined man. And he did dedicate himself to God in the middle of a life-threatening storm. But his 1748 episode was not the first time that Newton turned to religion upon finding himself in trouble. In fact, whenever he found himself in a jam, he vowed to turn his life around and walk the straight and narrow if preserved. Yet invariably he backslid; he reneged on his promise of reform, and his 1748 pledge was no different. Once the storm-tossed ship was safe on dry land, he was back to his old salty ways.
In fact, when Newton finally did turn his life around, he may have been inspired as much by the earthly as the divine. For years, he had courted a beautiful woman named Polly Catlett, but her family disapproved of the misbehaving sailor, with good reason. Realizing that only more sober, disciplined behavior would win the family’s approval, he began to change his ways. Finally, in 1750, two years after the storm incident, Newton managed to win their approval and his bride. Fourteen years later, he became a minister.
The blinding light of understanding and the shipboard conversion makes for a great story, but only if you don’t mind cutting out a few years and skipping a few events. As those more familiar with the slower story know, Newton’s life marched toward an even more wide-ranging conversion. By the time he died in 1807, he had renounced more than his rowdy, vulgar ways. He had also come to regret his years as a slave trader, and he helped to advance the cause of abolition in Great Britain.
The most prominent figure in Britain’s abolitionist movement during the late 1700s was William Wilberforce. He had won a seat in Parliament when he was just 21 years old, but he was something of a playboy, and so initially he contributed little. In 1784, however, when Wilberforce was 25, he underwent a religious conversion of his own. His new beliefs led him to John Newton’s church and the evangelical minister’s advice. Wilberforce regretted his former ways and thought that he might become a minister, but Newton discouraged him. He told Wilberforce that he should “serve God where he was.” From that point forward, Wilberforce became a voice for reform. In particular, he took on the most controversial issue of the day: slavery.
During his campaign against slavery, Wilberforce repeatedly sought Newton’s counsel. In 1788, Newton publically joined Wilberforce in his anti-slavery efforts when he published Thoughts on the Slave Trade, a graphic account of his years aboard a slave ship. Readers were shocked by his description of slave ship holds, where slaves were packed side-by-side in irons and breathed nothing but foul, deadly air. “Every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found, of the living and the dead, like the captives of Mezentius, fastened together,” Newton wrote. He estimated that roughly a quarter of all slaves being transported died while onboard ship.
Newton’s and Wilberforce’s efforts culminated in the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. Newton lived just long enough to see this important step toward the eventual abolition of slavery itself in Great Britain, which occurred in 1833. For many fans of “Amazing Grace,” this aspect of the song’s backstory is actually more important than Newton’s shipboard conversion. For later reformers, the song was embraced for its message of social redemption rather than personal change. During America’s civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, activists like Joan Baez offered the song as a prayer for social regeneration—a prayer that the American way of life, made wretched by racism, would be saved—a prayer that the American people, although lost would soon be found—a prayer that the American government, although blind to violence and acts of racial prejudice, would soon see.
Yet it’s doubtful that the hymn would have survived through to the problems of the 20th century had it not experienced a change of its own along the way. Newton wrote a lot of hymns (close to 300), and many of them became British standards, but “Amazing Grace” was not one of them. It was rarely sung and was not even included in most compilations of Newton’s hymns. But it crossed the Atlantic and became a favorite among Americans swept up by the nineteenth-century religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening. The simple message of the movement was conversion. Itinerant evangelical preachers urged listeners to repent of their sins and surrender their lives to Jesus. The message was not cluttered by complex theology, nor was it surrounded by demanding prescriptions for good works and behavior. Instead, the revivalists promised listeners that, though they may be sinners, though they may be the vilest of wretches, through simple faith they could be redeemed. They might be lost, but God promised that they would be found; they might be blind, but through His Grace they could see.
“Amazing Grace,” with its simple message of redemption, was an ideal hymn for such a time. Adding to its popularity was the expansion of singing in Protestant churches. In previous centuries, music had been not been as prevalent during services. Many believed that it distracted worshipers from the more serious substance of the service. Others thought it too worldly and sensual. But by the 19th century, more Christian leaders began to argue that music enhanced religious worship. They felt that it took believers closer to God and softened their hearts and minds so that they might receive God’s message.
The problem, however, was that most people could not sing, since virtually no one could read music. In response, American hymn composers developed their own form of musical notation. Eventually referred to as shape-note singing, this simplified form of musical notation was easy to learn, enabling non-bashful singers to pour out their prayer in song.
For decades, the words to “Amazing Grace” that were sung at revivals and evangelical churches were accompanied by different music depending on the location. Newton had never written any music—instead his words were attached to one of several traditional tunes. It wasn’t until 1835, when composer William Walker married the words of Newton’s hymn to a familiar tune called "New Britain" that the versions began to become standardized into the “Amazing Grace” that still moves people to this day.
“Amazing Grace” has had a complex history, but it has survived centuries of social and political turmoil to become one of the most recognizable hymns of all time. John Newton’s personal account of spiritual redemption has become something universally cherished. It is amazing to think that it all started with a boy who wanted to become a sailor like his father.