"Amazing Grace” is one of the most popular spiritual hymns, offering comfort in times of trouble. The history of its writing is a story of literally being saved from death, which then opens a new story. This tale is one of prayers being answered. What have you got to lose?
The song was written by John Newton and tells his own story of being lost, and then found, saved by grace. Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. When John was eleven, he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. In 1744 John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured, publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.
Finally, at his own request, he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, traveling to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. In 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John's father. Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, which became involved in the slave trade.
He had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died when he was a child, but he had long since given up any religious convictions. However, on a voyage homeward, his ship ran into a violent storm.
While he was attempting to steer the ship, he experienced what he came to call his “great deliverance.” He recorded later in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us!” Soon after, the ship and Newton were saved. He believed that God had brought him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him.
For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day when he subjected his will to a higher power. He continued in the slave trade for a time after; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely.
He gave up the seafaring life in 1755 after a serious illness. He had begun to educate himself during his days as a sailor, teaching himself Latin, among other subjects. He worked as surveyor of tides at Liverpool, where he came to know George Whitefield, evangelistic preacher and deacon in the Church of England. Newton became Whitefield’s enthusiastic disciple. During this period Newton also met John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
He decided to become a minister and applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. The Archbishop refused his request, but Newton persisted in his goal, and he was subsequently ordained and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged.
In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends. Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and tours. They began a series of weekly prayer meetings, with the goal to write a new hymn for each one. They collaborated on several editions of Olney Hymns, which achieved lasting popularity. The first edition of 1779, contained 68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton.
Composed probably between 1760 and 1770, “Amazing Grace” was possibly one of the hymns written for a weekly service, though it was not originally known by that title. Through the years, additional verses by other writers and possibly verses from other Newton hymns have been added. However, these are the six stanzas that appeared in the first edition in 1779. The origin of the melody is unknown; however, the Bill Moyers special on “Amazing Grace” speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.
In 1780 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. Again, he drew large congregations and influenced many, among them William Wilberforce, who would one day become a leader in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time. He died in London December 21, 1807.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d 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 reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has 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.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Amazing Grace: The Story of John Newton by Al Rogers, July-August 1996 issue of “Away Here in Texas”.
I have a passion for stories and inspirational literature.