Amazing Grace and American Society

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John Newton in his later years

It is America’s “spiritual national anthem and is an enduring symbol of hope in tragedy. Here is the story behind “Amazing Grace” and its influence upon American culture.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a spontaneous candlelight vigil occurred at Union Square in New York City. People there started to sing “Amazing Grace.” Ever since Newton wrote it over 225 years ago, the hymn has become a powerful symbol of hope.

The meaning of the hymn has certainly changed over the years. The words have been changed or added, verse have been added, it has been sung to many different tunes, and it has been put to serve ends that would make John Newton turn over in his grave. According to the Dictionary of American Hymnology, “Amazing Grace” appears in over a thousand hymnals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such incredibly wide dissemination invites analysis.

John Newton and the Story Behind the Hymn

John Newton (1725-1807) was a converted slave trader who became a leader in the Evangelical Revival in Britain. Despite a godly upbringing, Newton’s youth was marked by rebellion and debauchery. After a brief stint in the Royal Navy, he started a career in slave trading. The turning point in his spiritual life came on March 10,1748, when a violent winter storm occurred at sea. Moments after he left the deck, the crewmen who had replaced him were swept overboard. At that moment, that Newton prayed for the first time in years. He and most of the crew survived, but were left with very little food or water. Newton started reading the Bible and religious literature. By the time the ship reached Ireland, he no longer considered himself an “infidel.” Indeed, in his diary, Newton would always remember March 21 as the anniversary of his conversion.

Newton later suffered a stroke which prevented from going to sea again. He spent ten years in the civil service. He started studying theology and was ordained a priest in 1764. He became the parish priest in the small town of Olney in the English Midlands. In Olney, he met the poet William Cowper. Their friendship led to a spiritual collaboration that led to an important collection of hymns entitled the “Olney Hymnal.” Among the 350 hymns was “Amazing Grace.” The lyrics are based on Newton’s reflections on an Old Testament text he preached on New Year’s Day, 1773 . The text was 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, a prayer of King David as he marveled at God’s grace at choosing him and his house. Newton entitled the piece, “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” Its original purpose was didactic. Newton wrote it to help his parishioners understand the theology of the passage better. But as the years passed by, this hymn took on far more meaning than Newton could ever have imagined.

A Cultural Icon

It is not known when “Amazing Grace” was first sung in America. But the “Olney Hymnal” was reprinted in 1787 and again in 1790. Throughout the nineteenth century, the hymn was sung in a variety of settings from conservative churches in the East to revival camp meetings in the West. It was during this time period that the setting of Newton’s hymn shifted from being didactic to being a song of simple testimony of God’s grace to lost sinners.

We don’t know what tune “Amazing Grace” was originally sung to. One historian has traced twenty-four different tunes that the hymn was sung to throughout American history, as well as thirty-three different refrains. But it was with William Walker’s Southern Harmony, published in 1835, that hymn was first set to “New Britain,” the tune it is irrevocably associated today.

During the twentieth century, Newton’s beloved hymn would change settings once again, from church hymnody to secular spiritual. On December 10, 1947, Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) recorded “Amazing Grace” for Apollo Records. The hymn was played on the radio and helped move the hymn into the popular consciousness.

In the coming decades, the hymn has been widely recorded in all genres by a variety of artists. The All Music Guide lists some two hundred albums that have “Amazing Grace” as one of their tracks. The hymn has almost become cliche and has always appeared at times of intense national grieving. Perhaps it is because the hymn is a celebration of the experience of grace, and at times, functions as a prayer for grace. As one historian has written, “In all of the contexts, the evangelical sentiment has remained that personal tragedy can be redeemed by an authentic experience of undeserved love.”

Newton would certainly be surprised at how his hymn has been used over the centuries. But he certainly would be proud that his song about God’s “amazing grace” still brings hope, just like it did all those years ago.

References:

  1. D. Bruce Hindmarsh, “Amazing Grace: The History of a Hymn and a Cultural Icon,” in “Sing Them Over Again to Me: Hymns and Hymnbooks in America” edited by Mark A. Noll & Edith L. Blumhofer (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006)
  2. Kenneth W. Osbeck, “101 Hymn Stories” (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982)
  3. William J. Reynolds & Milburn Price, “Survey of Christian Hymnody” (Hope Publishing, 1987)