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Christianity is the largest religion in the world, and "Amazing Grace" is one of Christianity's most recognizable and frequently recorded hymns, so it's safe to say that a few people have probably heard it before. Scattered among the more than 5,000 recordings of the hymn are renditions by folk singers Judy Collins and Joan Baez, soul diva Aretha Franklin, rocker Rod Stewart, and the bagpipe wheezing Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. And with its message of hope and redemption, it's easy to understand why. Everyone loves a good redemption story—the cold-hearted miser who learns generosity, the brutal thug whose ways are changed by the wisdom of a child, and uh, every love story ever.
"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' 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 puts it so well in "Amazing Grace."
Newton was himself an evangelical minister, so he knew his stuff. It just took him a while to get there: he'd been a rowdy child, a rowdy Navy man, and later a rowdy slave ship sailor.
"Amazing Grace," at its heart, is 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," but 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, and they have been blind, but now they see.
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, 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" (source), 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.
Which, duh. Newton gave us a great song and effort, but the saving of a zillion slaves is still cooler than his personal redemption.
So, 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.
But 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" wasn't one of 'em. 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 19th-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, though? Most people couldn't sing. Well, most people couldn't 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 gets people swayin' to this day.
But people still can't sing today. Those high notes are tough.
"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. And it all started with a boy who wanted to become a sailor like his dad.