Although long popular in the USA, this hymn was not often found in British hymn books until the 1970’s when a recording of it by the pipes and drums of the RoyalScots Dragoon Guards went to No.1 and stayed there for nine weeks.
Its author, John Newton, was a significant figure in the English Evangelical revival of the 18th Century. His father was a shipping merchant and his mother died when he was young. He was sent to sea at the age of 11. His career was dogged by his own insubordination – at one point he was punished by being forced to work on a plantation in Sierra Leone – but by the time he was 22 he was the captain of a slave ship himself. A violent storm caused him to turn to God, and eventually he gave up the slave trade (though not straight away).
He became friendly with John Wesley and George Whitfield, the leaders of the Methodist movement. He was ordained and became curate at Olney in Bucks, where his preaching, earthed in the tough realities of his early life, connected with the mostly illiterate parishioners of the village. He produced a collection of hymns there in collaboration with the poet, William Cowper, including “How Sweet the name of Jesus sounds”, and “Glorious things of thee are spoken”. The hymn reflects his profound awareness of the change which his faith had made to his life. It can feel rather negative to sing about being “a wretch”, but given his direct involvement in the slave trade, it isn’t an unreasonable thing for him to say about himself. For that reason the hymn can speak powerfully to anyone who knows they have messed up (which is all of us at some time or other!).
The tune to which we now sing the hymn is probably based on an American folk tune, possibly Scottish in origin.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ'd!
Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
- · How do you feel about calling yourself a “wretch”? Is it helpful honesty, or unhelpful negativity?
A bumper crop of videos today, exploring Amazing Grace in many different styles and settings.
The video below is of Amazing Grace being sung in a church which still uses the "lining out" techniques common in the 17th and 18th centuries - see Day 3 of this series. It still hangs on in some parts of the US,