Amazing Grace is probably one of the most widely known and revised musical pieces of all time. It is the story of John Newton’s conversion from slave trader to abolitionist. Originally written in 1772, it was penned with no set tune, and first heard on New Year’s Day in 1773.
The words were written without ceremony in an attic room where Newton wrote weekly hymns to amplify the message of his sermons.
John Newton’s house
When Newton put the internal rhyme “amazing grace” together, it wasn’t purely for poetic reasons. He understood grace to mean God’s un merited favor to lost souls. The powerful words had a meaning that Newton–with his sordid history and personal tale of redemption–could take to heart.
Newton supplied the lyrics, but the tune sung today arrived much later. Historians say that in Newton’s day, the song would have been sung to another melody that fit its meter, if it were sung at all. Amazing Grace continued to be associated with a number of different tunes throughout much of the 19th century. In 1835 the tune that we now sing was married to the words of John Newton. That same year a South Carolina singing instructor named William Walker published a widely popular hymn book combining the now-familiar tune with Newton’s words.
The early popularity of Amazing Grace in America has been attributed to the religious revivalism of that period and to the power of the first verse. In America, the conversion experience is more prominent and more important, and this is the absolutely perfect song to accompany a conversion of that sort: “I once was lost but now I’m found. I was blind but now I see” presents as the definitive song of the personal conversion experience.
The song also makes an appearance in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which came to be embraced by abolitionist forces as an indictment of plantation life and slavery. The collective trauma of the Civil War helped to solidify the song’s popularity.
Amazing Grace has been featured on more than 1,100 albums. The song even reached the modern day pop charts in the United Kingdom and the United States when Judy Collins released her version in 1971. This period was another time of turbulence as U.S. military forces were mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam. Collins has been quoted as saying that the song has the “power to transform” and to heal.
Ask any artist, common man, or choir member who sings Amazing Grace and they will tell you that the song has a powerful effect: that something magical happens when they sing it. It is as much a testimony as a song.