by John Newton
Typical of many eighteenth-century hymns, “Amazing Grace” began as a sermon. It was then turned into a poem that was later attached to melodies borrowed from traditional songs that churchgoers would be familiar with. In fact, during the first decades of the 19th century, the hymn of “Amazing Grace” was sung to more than 20 different melodies. But in 1835, shape-note music teacher and composer William Walker attached Newton’s words to an old tune called “New Britain,” and the pairing quickly became the standard rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
William Walker was an important figure within the development of shape-note singing. Born in South Carolina in 1809, the Baptist singing master published, The Southern Harmony, the first of his several tune books, in 1835. “Amazing Grace” was included alongside the music of “New Britain,” complete with shape notes for easy reading.
Walker initially utilized a four-shape method of notation, as shape note singing was popular at the time. These shapes corresponded with notes of the major scale (fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa). All a would-be singer had to do was memorize the tones that accompanied these four shapes. Learning the complexities of keys, time signatures, sharps and flats was unnecessary. Instead, leaders would beat out a simple rhythm with their hands, and the singers would follow along in their singing-made-easy tune books. Eventually, Walker adopted a seven-shape method of notation, which many composers and music teachers felt enabled congregations to sing more complex hymns.