Amazing Grace is a well-known Christian hymn. The words were written c. 1772 by John Newton; they form a part of the Olney Hymns that he worked on, with William Cowper and other hymnodists.
John Newton (1725–1807) was the captain of a slave ship. On May 10th, 1748 returning home during a storm he experienced a "great deliverance." In his journal he wrote that the ship was in grave danger of sinking. He exclaimed "Lord, have mercy upon us!" He was converted, though he continued in the business of slave trading. However, he demanded that the slaves he transported be treated humanely.
Newton wrote the song How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds while waiting in an African harbor for a shipment of slaves. Later he renounced his profession, became a minister, and joined William Wilberforce in the fight against slavery.
It was suggested in a Bill Moyers PBS TV Special that Newton may have borrowed an old tune sung by the slaves themselves. The marked divergence of tempo, tone and instrumentality between African and Irish/Scottish/Celtic musical traditions cast doubt on this theory.
The now familiar and traditional melody of the hymn was not composed by Newton, and the words were sung to a number of tunes before the now inseparable melody was chanced upon.
There are two different tunes to the words. "New Britain" first appears in a shape note hymnal from 1831 called Virginia Harmony. Any original words sung to the tune are now lost. The melody is believed to be Scottish or Irish in origin; it is pentatonic and suggests a bagpipe tune; the hymn is frequently performed on bagpipes and has become associated with that instrument. The other tune is the so-called "Old Regular Baptist" tune. It was sung by the Congregation of the Little Zion Church, Jeff, Kentucky on the album The Ritchie Family of Kentucky on the Folkways label (1958).
Newton's lyrics have become a favorite for Christians of all denominations, largely because the hymn vividly and briefly sums up the Christian doctrine of Divine grace. The lyrics are based on 1 Chronicles 17:16, where King David marvels at God's choosing him and his house. (Newton entitled the piece "Faith's review and expectation".)
It has also become known as a favorite with supporters of freedom and human rights, both Christian and non-Christian, as it is believed by many to be a song against slavery, as Newton was once a slave trader. He continued to be a slave trader for several years after his experience, but later he became a clergyman. The song has been sung by many notable musical performers, such as iconic folk singer and human rights activist Joan Baez.
The hymn was quite popular among both sides in the American Civil War. While on the "trail of tears", the Cherokee were not always able to give their dead a full burial. Instead, the singing of "Amazing Grace" had to suffice. Since then, "Amazing Grace" is often considered the Cherokee National Anthem. For this reason, many contemporary Native American musicians have recorded this song.
In recent years, this song has also become popular with drug and alcohol recovery groups, particularly the Christian ones. However, unlike the usual funeral singings, it is usually played at celebrations of those who "once were lost, but now are found."
The association with bagpipes is relatively modern; for over a century the tune was nearly forgotten in the British Isles until the folk revival of the 1960s began carrying traditional musicians both ways between the British Isles and the United States (where Amazing Grace had remained a very popular hymn). It was little known outside of church congregations or folk festivals until Arthur Penn's film Alice's Restaurant (1969). Lee Hays of The Weavers leads the worshippers in Amazing Grace.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I'm 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,
We have already come;
'Tis grace has 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.
Yes, 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 call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Some versions of the hymn include an additional verse:
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.
This verse is not by Newton. It was added to a version of "Amazing Grace" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, as it appears in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Uncle Tom has pieced the lyrics of several hymns together; those who learned the lyrics from the novel have assumed that it belongs.
Some versions include the verse:
Shall I be wafted through the skies,
on flowery beds of ease,
where others strive to win the prize,
and sail through bloody seas.
This verse has been recorded by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. The verse really belongs with the hymn, Am I a Soldier of the Cross? by Isaac Watts. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Amazing Grace is a Christian hymn written by John Newton in 1772. A chord-melody arrangement is presented below in the key of C. The song is played moderately in 3/4 time.