A staple of both spiritual and secular singers alike, Amazing Grace is one of the world’s most popular songs. John Newton, its writer, lived a life full of sin and redemption, which inspired the song’s lyrics. According to Newton’s biography, the words of Amazing Grace show the song was very personal in nature.
Newton was born in London. A former slave ship captain when he wrote the hymn, he started his life at sea with the British Navy. He narrowly avoided becoming a slave master in Jamaica. In the Navy, he rose to the rank of midshipman. When he tried to desert, however, he was put into irons and reduced in rank. Newton asked to serve aboard a West African-bound slave ship and ended up on the coast of Sierra Leone. The slave master whom he served was abusive, and eventually he was taken back to England aboard yet another slave ship.
During this trip, the ship met a violent storm at sea. Newton prayed for his life as the ship was deluged with water. This was his first taste of Amazing Grace. It marked the beginning of his conversion to Christ.
In 1754, Newton was forced out of the slave trade and off of the sea when a serious illness threatened his life. He applied to be an Anglican priest, but in the time he waited for acceptance into the priesthood he also applied to the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. In 1764, he was ordained into the Church of England.
Though he was converted, it took some time before Newton regretted his slave trading days. (What else is new? It takes all of us a long time to get our actions in line with our heart.) As he wrote in his lyrics, “I once was lost, but now am found.” Later in his life he became a powerful abolitionist, writing many articles against slavery.
Newton originally wrote six verses for Amazing Grace, but modern times have brought about a seventh. Composed by John P. Rees, Harriet Beecher Stowe published the additional and now-final verse in her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The melody of Amazing Grace isn’t Newton’s own. The exact origin is murky. Originally Amazing Grace was sung using a variety of melodies. A song called Old Regular Baptist was a commonly used melody. Other accounts point to a Scottish bagpipe tune as the basis for the familiar melody, which is a reason the song is often associated with the instrument. A popular myth held that the melody was an old drinking song, though this has been disproved.
From Rod Stewart to Kylie Minogue, Amazing Grace has been honored by many voices through the years. It’s even become known as the unofficial Cherokee National anthem, with altered lyrics to fit the Cherokee language.
Amazing Grace is an eternal song, both in use and meaning. Its message of redemption applies to any person who turns from his or her sin and cries out to God for forgiveness. For this and many other reasons, it will stand the test of time.