Amazing Grace

Sept 10th, 2017

To me coming from Scottish decent there is nothing sweeter then hearing a bagpipe play the song “Amazing Grace”. It’s even a sweeter sound when a bag pipe band is playing it. Then if you can add a singer singing it with the pipes that to me is heavenly.

“Amazing Grace” is primarily known as a Christian hymn. However the song has a universal message that has been a significant factor in its success in crossing over into secular music. “Amazing Grace” saw a resurgence in popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and has been recorded thousands of times during and since the 20th century. Sometimes even appearing on popular music charts. “Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world today.The song has also seen an updated version by Chris Tomlin called “Amazing Grace (My Chains are gone)”. The updated words from this song have tie in back to where the inspiration came from for the original song. The author of “Amazing Grace” was John Newton (1725–1807), the self-proclaimed wretch who once was lost but then was found, saved by amazing grace. John Newton who wrote the lyrics was an English poet and clergyman. Newton was a reformed slave ship captain who drew inspiration for the song from this former profession. “Amazing Grace” has a message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of the sins people commit and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God.

Newton wrote the words from personal experience. Although he had, had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions. His life’s path however was formed by a variety of twists, events and coincidences that were often put into motion by his recalcitrant insubordination. He was pressed into the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service, became involved in the slave trade. One night on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through rough waters, a terrible storm battered his vessel so severely that he became frightened enough to call out to God for mercy, a moment that marked the beginning of his spiritual conversion. He later would refer to this as his “great deliverance.” He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed 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 of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace has bro’t me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” ( from Amazing Grace) He continued in the slave trade for a time after his conversion; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely. His career in slave trading lasted a few more years until he quit going to sea altogether and began studying theology.

Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began to write hymns with poet William Cowper. “Amazing Grace” was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year’s Day of 1773. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses, and it may have been sung without music by the congregation. The song was first published in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns, but settled into relative obscurity in England. In the United States however, “Amazing Grace” was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies, but in 1835 it was joined to a tune named “New Britain” to which it is most often sung to, today. Author Gilbert Chase writes that “Amazing Grace” is “without a doubt the most famous of all the folk hymns,” and Jonathan Aitken, a Newton biographer, estimates that it is performed about 10 million times annually.

The first stanza of “Amazing Grace” where Newton writes “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.” could be interpted as Newton having a realization that his participation in the slave trade was his wretchedness, which makes receiving God’s grace that much more amazing and sweet. When a sinner who was responsible for enslaving people and treating them poorly can receive God’s amazing grace then we all can take hope in each of us receiving that same amazing grace.

 From the words in that first syanza it is clear that the New Testament served as the basis for many of the lyrics of “Amazing Grace”. The first verse, can be traced to the story of the Prodigal Son. In the Gospel of Luke the father says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”. The story of Jesus healing a blind man who tells the Pharisees that he can now see is told in the Gospel of John. Newton used the words “I was blind but now I see” The word “Grace” is recalled three times in the following verse, culminating in Newton’s most personal story of his conversion, underscoring the use of his personal testimony with his parishioners.

 Newton later in life would joined forces with a young man named William Wilberforce, the British Member of Parliament who led the Parliamentarian campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, culminating in the Slave Trade Act 1807. This is the bases of the 2006 movie titled “Amazing Grace” starring Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce and Albert Finney as John Newton. Neweton urges Wilberforce to put his faith into action and see the cause of abolishing slavery through a Bristish Parliament that oposed to this idea.

 Grace is God’s free and unmerited favour for us as sinful humanity. We have been freed from the bonds and shackles of our sins. As sinners we were slaves to sin but are set free because of God’s amazing grace in sending his son Jesus Christ to die for us, to pay the radsom price for our debt and give us freedom from slavery. It is out of love for us that Christ gave his life as a ransom. The word “ransom” comes from the slave market. A kind person might pay the “ransom price” for a slave and then set him or her free. Jesus paid, by his blood, the ransom price to set us free. The words in Chris Tomlin’s version of Amazing Grace speaks of this; “ My chains are gone, I’ve been set free, My God, my Saviour has ransomed me. And like a flood His mercy reigns, Unending love, Amazing grace.”

 Oh how amazing that unending love and grace is from God that has saved us sinners. I am glad that His mercy is there for us to accept. All because Jesus came to take our place and pay our debt in full. Amazing Grace is truly a very sweet sound.

Matthew R. Marshall