Hymn Title: Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound
Tune: New Britain
Numeric Outline: Common Meter (8, 6, 8, 6)
This hymn may be one of the most popular hymns in the United States of America today. Though many people know the familiar tune and the first few lines of the hymn, not many people recognize that the text is basically an autobiography for the man who penned the poem over 200 years ago. John Newton (1725-1807) penned the poem in 1773, only nine short years after he was ordained by the Church of England where he became a Curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Though Newton eventually found his way to the church, he wasn't raised with any kind of religious convictions. It was only through a series of many different events that Newton discovered where he truly belonged, the Church.
John Newton was born in Wapping, a small district in London located near the river Thames. His father was raised Catholic while his mother was a strong Independent unaffiliated with the Anglican Church. From the day he was born, Newtons mother had always hoped he would become a Clergyman, but unfortunately for Newton, she passed away from Tuberculosis when he was only six years old. Soon after Newton's mother passed away, his father remarried and he was raised in large part by his step-mother while his father was away at sea working as a shipping merchant. Eventually Newton was sent off to a boarding school where he was treated poorly, forcing him to leave the school and join his father at sea when he was only 11 years old. Newton's career at sea would be marked because of his strong disobedience.
Throughout his career at sea, Newton had numerous brushes with death, causing him to constantly re-examine his relationship with God. Eventually Newton came to the point where he renounced his faith after discussing the book Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, with one of his shipmates. In a letter he wrote, he described his reasoning for leaving the faith, "Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I have renounced the hopes and comforts of the gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me." Eventually, because of his disobedience, Newton was forced to join the Royal Navy where his disobedience did not stop, but actually became worse. While on leave, he took every advantage he had to overstay his allowance, and eventually he deserted the Navy all together to go and visit a family friend Mary "Polly" Catlett, with whom he had fallen in love with. After the shame that followed deserting the Navy, Newton was transferred from the Navy into a ship that was being used for slave trading.
While on this ship, Newton mocked the captain, initiated scuffles with shipmates, and would write poems that were so profane but so wildly popular that the crew would often times join in. Newton still hadn't learned his lesson in obedience so was often times chained up with the slaves that were being transported, he would often be starved for weeks on the ship, and eventually he was put into slavery on a plantation in Sierra Leone. It wasn't until Newton wrote home to his father that anyone knew what had happened to him as well as the kind of conditions he was working in. Only by chance did the ship "Greyhound," come across Newton to take him back to London. Little did Newton know that this ship would come to play a major role in his faith in God.
While aboard the ship, Newton became known as one of the most profane people the captain had ever met. In times when sailors would often take oaths and swear, Newton would take it one step farther and often times create new words to go beyond the already vulgar language on the ship. In 1748 while in the North Atlantic, the ship was caught in the middle of a violent storm which caused one of Newton's shipmates to fall overboard from a spot where Newton had been standing only moments before. While wading the storm, the crew worked for hours to try and bail water from the ship and stay afloat, even though many of the crew thought the ship would capsize at any moment. During the storm Newton offered up a desperate suggestion to the captain, after which he said "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on us." Eventually the tattered ship ended up on the shores of Ireland with a crew where Newton was haunted by the words that he had uttered. It was here that he began to wonder if he was worth God's grace and what he was really meant for.
Several years had passed and eventually Newton began to give in to authority, but only because he was seeking to appease Mary "Polly" Catlett's parents in order for them to bless his request for Mary's hand in marriage.in 1750 he earned the right to marry Polly and became captain of a ship, where he had three shipping experiences with the slave trade before he was offered the position of captain on a ship with cargo unrelated to the slave trade. Unfortunately for Newton, he became ill and never sailed again. Eventually Newton became a customs worker in Liverpool in 1756 where he and Polly began to immerse themselves into the church community. Many people saw the passion that Newton showed for church and began to encourage him to become a Priest. After he was turned down by the Bishop of York in 1758, he was encourage by his friends to write about his experiences in the slave trade. Later, in 1764, the Earl of Dartmouth was so impressed by the writings of Newton, that the Earl offered him the position of Curate in Olney, Buckinghamshire. In Olney, Newton began to write hymns with a friend by the name of William Cowper. Though many people preferred Cowper's poetry of Newton's, he still wrote many poems largely based off the themes of faith through redemption.
Though the text of the hymn was published in 1773, it was not known whether there was music to accompany the text at that time. It wasn't until over 30 years later that the text was actually set to a tune, though there were nearly 20 different variations of tunes that Common Meter hymns such as "Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound," could be set to. It wasn't until 1835 that the text was set to the tune of "New Britain," which is the tune the hymn is widely known by today. Though the hymn was published over in England, it never really gained popularity in the church. The hymn really became popular in America in the early part of the 19th century, which marked the beginning of the 2nd Great Revival. The hymn fit perfectly in the simplistic origins of the new church, which was based largely off of repetition of words and hymns making it easier for the rural areas to understand the message being preached. The tune "New Britain," was in itself a combination of two popular tunes, "Gallaher," and "St. Marys," which was first published in the 1829 publication of Columbian Harmonies, written by Charles Spillman and Benjamin Shaw. Spillman and Shaw published this collection to appease "the wants of the church in her triumphal march." Because the two tunes were written down as being passed on aurally, it is assumed that both of them are of British origin. Eventually in the 1852 anti-slavery publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beacher Stowe, a new verse was written while "Tom," sang "Amazing Grace," in his hour of deepest trouble. The final verse was not originally written by John Newton, but was rather passed down from an African American hymn entitled "Jerusalem, My Happy Home," which was said to have anywhere between 50-70 verses, this final verse of "Amazing Grace" being one of them.
(1) 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.
(2) T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
(3) Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
(4) The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
(5) Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
(6) When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.
My Take on the Hymn
This is another one of my favorite hymns for several reasons, one of which is the tune will get stuck in your head for days on end. I really like the fact that this hymn discusses life before finding God, which admits that we sometimes aren't always good before we come to God to be saved. One of the most important messages that we can learn from this hymn is that no matter what we have done before god, and no matter what we do while we are with god, he will still love us. It says in Ephesians 2:8 "for it is through grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of god." God loves us and wants us to be with him and to love him the way he loves us. God understands that we will not always be perfect, but because he has given us the gift of Grace, we understand that we are allowed to slip up and not be perfect, as long as we come back to God and admit where we went wrong.
The story of the Prodigal Son is another reminder (Luke 15: 11-32) that even though we were once in the good graces, if we come back humbly to God, he will accept us and love us for what we will become, not what we once were. Sometimes we forget that the church is the place where people who have sinned come to find solace. I am guilty of seeing some people and passing judgement on them because of past mistakes, but as I grow in my faith, I am learning that we all have a past that we may not be proud of, but God knows that and is willing to give us a second chance.