250 Years of “Amazing Grace”

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see 
John Newton, 1773

It is the most popular hymn of all time.

It has been covered over 3,000 times by such artists as Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Mantovani and, in a moment of inspiration, President Barack Obama.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sang it nightly by phone to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to restore his spirits day after grueling day—often packed with violence—real and threatened—as he fought the uphill battle for civil rights.

Its author was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame 175 years after his death.

And that hymn—recognized universally by its melody (acquired 60 years after its words) and its stirring opening lines—has for 250 years rekindled the souls of anyone who has ever faced shut doors, closed paths, injustice and dismay.

"Faith's Review and Expectation"—more popularly known as “Amazing Grace”—was first sung at the small parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney in Buckinghamshire, England. The hymn’s author, John Newton, was rector of that church on that New Years Day of 1773.

Stained glass image of John Newton, “ Amazing Grace” author at St. Peter and Paul Church Olney Buckinghamshire, England
Stained glass image of John Newton, “ Amazing Grace” author, at St. Peter and Paul Church Olney Buckinghamshire, England (Creative Commons)

And this anniversary year began and will end with that same hymn sung at that same little church.

Newton, a slave trader and slave ship captain for much of his life, found himself on his knees praying to a God he’d previously had little use for when a terrible storm threatened to destroy his ship and all those on board. The storm abated and Newton’s life took a sharp turn on a voyage of a wholly different character.

Educating himself in the Bible and other Christian literature, he accepted evangelical Christianity. He renounced drinking, profanity and gambling and ultimately took on the rector’s cloth. No longer trading in the bondage of human beings, he determined to save them, becoming a staunch abolitionist. Writing pamphlets, coaxing, cajoling, sermonizing and allying himself with Member of Parliament Wiliam Wilberforce, he helped drive the engine that ultimately ended Great Britain’s participation in the slave trade in 1807, two years before Abraham Lincoln’s birth and over half a century before America’s Emancipation Proclamation.

In his widely read pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he begged forgiveness for "a confession, which ... comes too late ... It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders."

Author James Walvin, who has made a study of the history of “Amazing Grace,” says the hymn’s endurance is “because its words speak to a human condition of suffering, and people coming out of suffering, and its music has a kind of haunting refrain that soothes. It has a unique combination of important phraseology — words, verses — and the beguiling music.”

John Newton lived to see the business that was once his bread and butter abolished. Dying nine months later, he was buried next to his wife in London, then later reinterred with her at his little church in Olney which now commemorates a hymn written a quarter of a millennium ago by the man whose self-penned epitaph reads, “Once a libertine and infidel. . . was by the rich mercy of our LORD and SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”

John Newton—the libertine who was preserved, restored and pardoned—himself embodied “Amazing Grace,” and that possibly is the ultimate reason for its enduring power.

It is, after all, based on a true story.


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Church of England Slavery Amazing Grace John Newton Wiliam Wilberforce