by John Newton
“Amazing Grace” has a long history that helps to add color to the words, but it is primarily a spiritual song, so the setting of the hymn is open to interpretation. (In fact, of the six verses to the hymn, only the last truly mentions any type of place at all, and even that is more of a spiritual reference to the earth than a physical one.) When John Newton wrote the words for the hymn in the early 1770s, he was an experienced Anglican priest. He had been ordained eight years earlier, and his path to the priesthood was an unusual one. He had gone to sea at age eleven, and for the next twenty years he lived a self-admitted wretched and sinful life as a slave trader. “Amazing Grace” was a hymn of redemption, a topic that was deeply personal for Newton, as he himself had been a sinner who was lost but now found.
Having been drawn from personal experience, “Amazing Grace” contains an almost indescribable feeling of truth and power. Many fans of the hymn in the early and mid-1800s would have known that Newton had been a slave trader turned preacher who had eventually become a strong voice in the abolitionist movement. These people may have envisioned that the hymn spoke of breaking spiritual and physical bonds, giving it a kind of setting particular to their experience even though there is very little visual evidence of a specific setting within the hymn itself.
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the song experienced a strong resurgence in popularity. Folk singers and social reformers gave the hymn a more secular and social reading. Activists within the civil rights movement embraced the song as a plea for social redemption. When Sam Cooke, Judy Collins, or Joan Baez sang “Amazing Grace,” their hope was that society, one blind to questions of racial injustice, would see its way to greater fairness. The words had not change, but those who heard or sang the song envisioned quite a different setting for the “wretch” being saved.