AMAZING GRACE is probably the most beloved hymn of the last two centuries, and It is estimated that it is performed 10 million times each year. It is among America’s most well-known and often recorded pieces of music.
John Newton, who wrote the lyrics for the hymn, was born in 1725 in London. His Puritan mother prayed that one day he would become a minister. She taught him to read and memorize the Scriptures from an early age as well as to sing the songs from Isaac Watts’ “Divine Songs for Children”.
Unfortunately, his mother died two weeks before his seventh birthday, and his very stern sea-captain father took him to sea at age eleven. This led to many voyages and a reckless youth of drinking and carousing. Sailors are not known for the refinement of their manners, but Newton developed a reputation for profanity, coarseness and sinful living that even shocked many a sailor. He became involved in the horrible, but profitable life of a slave trader. He led many other sailors into a sinful life-style, and he became known as “The Great Blasphemer”.
During one of his voyages on the ship Greyhound, a terrible storm came up in the north Atlantic and lasted well over a week. The canvas sails were ripped, the wood on one side of the shipped was torn away and splintered, and the sailors felt they had little hope of survival. Each of the crew mechanically worked the pumps to keep the ship afloat.
After the eleventh day of the storm, sailor John Newton was too exhausted to pump; so he was tied to the helm and told to hold the ship on course— from one o’clock until midnight! While the storm raged, he had lots of time to think. He thought his life was ruined and wrecked just like the beleaguered ship he was trying to steer through the storm.
As the storm continued to rage, the Bible verses his mother had taught him came to mind…Proverbs 1:24-31 seemed to confirm how much despair he felt: Because I called you and you refused, I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention; and you neglected all my counsel and did not want my reproof; I will also laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes. When your dread comes like a storm And your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but they will not find me, because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord. They would not accept my counsel, they spurned all my reproof. So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way.
Newton felt he was beyond hope and beyond saving. Then as his thoughts turned to Jesus Christ. He remembered this verse he had learned as a child from the New Testament, and it began to assure him that God might still hear his pleas:
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto our children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.” Luke 11:13.
That day at the helm, March 21, 1748, was a day Newton would never forget. He later wrote, “On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” Only God’s amazing grace could take this rude and profane slave-trading sailor and change him into a child of God.
He continued in his sailing and slave-trading for a time, but in one of God’s Other Ways© his life was transformed. With a disciplined schedule of Bible study, prayer, and Christian reading he tried to become a Christian example to the sailors under his command. Later he stopped slave-trading and took a job in Liverpool as the tide surveyor (he monitored the state of the tides at Liverpool). But, he also felt the call to the ministry. He married, and he and his wife, Mary, moved to the market town of Olney.
Seemingly, his mother’s prayers were answered when in 1764, at the age of thirty-nine, John Newton was appointed Curate of Olney. Thus began his forty-three years of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
He spent mornings in Bible Study, and in the afternoons paid visits to his parishioners. Besides Sunday morning and afternoon services, he also held a Tuesday evening prayer meeting. Newton often composed a hymn for each service, one that developed and explained the lesson and scripture used during the service.
Two hundred and eighty of his hymns were collected and combined with sixty-eight hymns written by his friend William Cowper, and then published as the Olney Hymns in 1779. The most famous of these was Faith’s Review and Expectation, based on David’s exclamation in 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. (Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And now, O God, in addition to everything else, you speak of giving your servant a lasting dynasty! You speak as though I were someone very great, O Lord God!)
We know this hymn today as Amazing Grace, which had first been heard on New Year’s Day in 1773. Newton’s use of the phrase “amazing grace” was something he knew about personally—the unmerited favor to lost souls.
Newton left Olney in 1779 to become the Anglican rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. His ministry served not only the poor and merchant class, but also the wealthy and influential. Newton’s life story and preaching strongly influenced William Wilberforce, who was a member of Parliament and a prime activist in the abolition of slavery.
Newton had written Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, which told of his own experiences as a slave trader. This publication was very important in securing the British abolition of slavery. He also influenced missionaries William Carey and Henry Martyn with his discussions and publications.
Newton continued his preaching and ministry until a few years before his death at eighty-two in 1807. He never ceased to be amazed by God’s grace and was quoted as saying, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
The epitaph he wrote for his tombstone reads: “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, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the gospel he had long labored to destroy.”
Though Newton supplied the lyrics, the tune we sing today arrived many years later. The hymn was associated with a number of different tunes throughout much of the 19th century. The one that we now sing was put with the words of John Newton in 1835. That same year a singing instructor in South Carolina (William Walker) published a hymn book that combined the familiar tune we know today with Newton’s lyrics.
Amazing Grace has been featured on more than 1,100 albums. Judy Collins, who released her version in 1971, has said the song has the “power to transform” and to heal. The hymn has become an heirloom. The phrase, “I once was lost but now I’m found; I was blind but now I see” is a true expression of the personal conversion experience.
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!
Through 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 promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
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.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, Who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
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’d first begun.
Words: John Newton