Words: v. 1-4 – John Newton (1725-1807); v. 5 – Anonymous, c. 1790
Music: Edwin O. Excell (1851-1921)
#330, ’91 Baptist Hymnal
History Behind the Hymn
Amazing Grace is one of the best known and most sung hymns in human history, capturing the beauty and weight of God’s redemption of the sinner; the story behind the hymn and the man who penned it is a perfect depiction of that redemption, “that saved a wretch like me”.
John Newton was born in England in 1725 to a loving mother and harsh father. Though raised on Scripture by his mother, Newton lost her at the age of 7 and was raised from that point by his father, a merchant for the Royal Navy.
John floated from job to job, wokring mostly as a sailor and living an amoral life, filled with “arrogance and insubordination” (Christianity Today). He spent several years working in the African slave trade, contributing to the dehumanization of an entire race of people; he was treated cruelly by the captain of one such ship, and overtaken by severe storm while onboard another in. This storm pushed Newton, who had been reading Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and recalling his mother’s tutelage, to convert to Christianity in 1747.
Thus began a season of “slow, halting spiritual growth” for Newton (Then Sings My Soul) as he continued to work as a slave trader, even captaining several vessels in an attempt to soften the evils of slavery through his witness. Eventually, he realized that slavery was altogether unable to fit into the Christian life, and in 1755 he left the sea to become an Anglican minister.
As he grew in his faith and was influenced by theologians like the Wesleys and George Whitefield, Newton become more and more uncomfortable and disgusted with the slave trade and his role in it (Christianity Today). He began holding weekly prayer services in 1769 and would write a hymn most every week for the congregation to sing, often collaborating with poet William Cowper. Newton compiled scores of their hymns into the collection known as the Olney Hymns, which includes “Amazing Grace”.
John Newton grew to become an outspoken abolitionist, calling for the end of the African slave trade and writing essays to help bring about its undoing. Though his life was filled with many horrors and hardships, his conversion and work to liberate the body and soul of his fellow man is proof of what God can do with even the most vile sinner.
P.S.: For a beautiful illustration of how God used the evils of slavery to bring forth one of the most instrumental hymns in Christianity, take a look at the Whintely Phipps version of “Amazing Grace” (first video on the right)!!
John Newton. (2016, February 18). Retrieved July 19, 2020, from https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-newton.html
Morgan, R. J. (2011). Then Sings My Soul (1st ed., Vol. 1). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
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.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.
Songs Inspired by “Amazing Grace”…