“Amazing Grace” was always selected the favorite hymn in surveys at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary from 1965-2000. It is also the favorite hymn of former President Jimmy Carter and is probably the favorite hymn of our nation. In 2002 Steve Turner, an Englishman, published an entire book, entitled Amazing Grace: the Story of America’s Most Beloved Song, devoted to this hymn (Harper Collins). “Amazing Grace” even became an international hit recorded by the bagpipers of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1972. Journalist Bill Moyers created a moving documentary from interviews with individuals all over the country—even in prisons and bars—about what features of “Amazing Grace” most appealed to them.
The words of this beloved hymn originally came from England, written over two centuries ago by John Newton, a slave trader whose life was reclaimed and completely turned around by the grace of God. Newton’s conversion experience came about through his reading of the devotional classic, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, and Newton’s near death experience during a storm on a waterlogged ship in 1748. Newton left the sea, and years later responded to God’s call to the ministry and served several Anglican parishes. The parish church at Olney, a village an hour or so north of London, where Newton served when he penned “Amazing Grace” still stands as a monument to this momentous hymn. Newton aptly summarized his life story in the epitaph he wrote for himself:
John Newton, Clerk
Once an infidel and libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa:
Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had labored long to destroy . . .
“Amazing Grace” was first published without music in Olney Hymns. Newton originally wrote six stanzas of “Amazing Grace,” four of which are included in most hymnals of today. Newton did not write the popular final stanza that begins with the line, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years.” It was added by an anonymous poet, probably in the early 1800s.
The beautiful pentatonic or five-note melody now commonly associated with “Amazing Grace” was sung to other hymn texts as early as 1829. The wedding of this melody to “Amazing Grace” is the work of William Walker, a Baptist singing school teacher from Spartanburg, South Carolina. Walker (1809-1875) first published the words and music of “Amazing Grace” together in 1835 in his popular singing school tune book, Southern Harmony.
The words of “Amazing Grace” still resonate with many of us today. The images John Newton used—the restoration of sight, awareness of human frailty, and the experience of being lost and then being found—speak across all ages, times, and conditions. The enduring quality of God’s love attested throughout this hymn provides a profound sense of hope, acceptance, stability, and security.
A Hymn Story by Harry Eskew