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250 years of Amazing Grace

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ONE of the world’s most-loved hymns was first heard on this day 250 years ago. Amazing Grace was written by John Newton for a sermon he gave on New Year’s Day 1773 at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Buckinghamshire, where he was a curate.

John Newton appeared in the Midweek Hymn series when I wrote about another of his hymns, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, which you can see here. Since I wrote the article, the hymn was sung at the conclusion of the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee service in St Paul’s Cathedral on June 3, 2022. 

This is John Newton’s extraordinary life story:

He was born in Wapping, east London, in 1725, the son of a sea captain. His mother was a devout nonconformist and taught him the rudiments of Christianity, as well as reading and writing, but she died just before John turned seven.

At 11 he left school and started going to sea with his father, becoming by his own admission an all-round bad lot: ‘A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was.’ His father retired when John was 17, and he signed on with a merchant ship. However, while ashore a year later in 1743 he fell victim to a press-gang and was forced to join the Royal Navy. (‘Pressing’ men into service was legal and commonplace in those days. Gangs would patrol near ports and were particularly interested in men with seafaring experience. Merchant seamen could be recognised by their clothing. They would first be asked to volunteer for the Navy and if they refused they would simply be captured.) He became a midshipman aboard the warship HMS Harwich but he tried to desert. This was a most serious crime, and if he had been an enlisted man he would have been hanged. As it was he was sentenced to 96 lashes, the punishment carried out in front of the 350-strong ship’s company, and reduced to the rank of common seaman.

(John Newton’s own account of his life up to his joining Harwich can be read here.

In 1745 an exchange of some crew took place between Harwich and the merchant ship Pegasus, bound for West Africa to pick up slaves to be taken to the Caribbean and North America. Newton begged to be sent to Pegasus because life was unbearable for him on Harwich. He made himself popular below decks by composing derogatory songs about the captain and teaching them to the crew.

In West Africa Newton opted to stay and work with a slave dealer. He was about to accompany his master on a trip when he fell ill and was left behind the care of the slaver’s mistress, Princess Peye of the Sherbro people of Sierra Leone. She grew bored with him and taunted him, treating him worse than her slaves. After some months, he was able to be employed by another trader.

After 18 months or so Newton was rescued by a sea captain who had been asked to search for him by his father, and set sail for England aboard the small merchant ship Greyhound. The voyage took a long time as the ship still had months of trading for beeswax, African sandalwood and ivory to do.

While still many miles off the coast of Ireland, Newton read Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. The next night a terrible storm blew up, and Greyhound came close to sinking. Newton’s conscience was pricked and he thought ‘What if these things be true?’ He prayed for the first time in his adult life. By the time he reached Britain a month later, in April 1748, he had accepted the doctrines of Christianity, or as he put it, he had seen ‘the first faint streak of dawn’. He had switched from cursing God to honouring him.

In 1750 he married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, and they adopted two of her orphaned nieces.

Despite his new attitude, he continued to work in the slave trade, obtaining a position as first mate on the slave ship Brownlow, headed from Liverpool to Guinea. While in West Africa he became ill with a fever and professed his full belief in Christ. Still he did not give up the slave trade and made three more voyages as captain of the Duke of Argyle and the African. He eventually left seafaring after he had a stroke in 1754.

In 1755 he was appointed as a tide surveyor (customs officer) at the port of Liverpool. In the city he attended meetings held by the evangelistic preacher George Whitefield and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. They inspired him and he taught himself Greek and Hebrew, becoming well known in evangelical circles. In 1757, he applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, but it was more than seven years before he was accepted.

He was ordained in June 1764 and appointed curate at the parish church in Olney. On arrival he published his Authentic Narrative, which included open reference to his former engagement in the slave trade. This book went into many editions and was translated in Newton’s lifetime into several languages.

Newton wrote Amazing Grace in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Day 1773 to accompany his sermon based on 1 Chronicles 17. 

These are the words:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved 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 relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!             

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I 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 called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

You can see the links between the biblical verses and the hymn here. 

In 1767 the poet William Cowper had moved to Olney. He and Newton became good friends, collaborating on a hymn book called Olney Hymns which was published in 1779. Amazing Grace made its first published appearance in this book, seven years after it was written.

Newton spent 16 years in Olney, moving in 1779 to the Hawksmoor church of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London (now Grade I listed), a premier posting. He became an ally of William Wilberforce, leader of the parliamentary campaign to abolish the African slave trade.

In 1788, as opposition to the slave trade gathered pace, Newton published a pamphlet called Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade. He detailed the horrific conditions on the slave voyages which could last as long as 13 weeks, during which as many as a quarter of the captives would die. ‘During the time I was engaged in the slave trade,’ he wrote, ‘I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness. It is, indeed, accounted a genteel employment and is usually very profitable.’ He admitted that this was ‘a confession, which . . . comes too late . . . It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.’ Copies were sent to every MP, and the pamphlet sold so well that it swiftly required reprinting.

His wife died in 1790, and three years later he published Letters to a Wife, in which he expressed his grief.

The law abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire received Royal Assent in March 1807 and Newton died in December that year, aged 82. He was buried beside his wife in St Mary Woolnoth. He wrote his own epitaph which can be seen on this marble tablet in the church:

‘John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.’

In the late 19th century the City & South London Railway proposed to demolish St Mary Woolnoth so that they could build Bank Underground station in its place. A public outcry ensued. In the Commons Sir Joseph Savory MP, a former Lord Mayor of London and a lay preacher, strongly advocated preservation. Hansard reported that he said ‘an intense interest and affection were felt for the church, owing to the remarkable men who had ministered within its walls – men like the Rev John Newton, who was beloved by everyone who took an interest in the Church of England’. The outcome was that the church was reprieved and only the crypt was cleared. John and Mary Newton’s remains were reinterred at St Peter and Paul in Olney on January 24, 1893, and the same epitaph was carved on their grave.

(Subsquently the walls and internal columns of St Mary Woolnoth were supported on steel girders while the lift and staircase shafts for Bank station were built directly beneath the church floor.)

Amazing Grace was not an instant success but became popular during the 19th century religious revival in the US. It was associated with at least 20 tunes before 1835 when American composer William Walker set it to a traditional tune known as New Britain, which is almost exclusively used today.

It has been recorded at least 3,000 times, the first being by the Sacred Harp Choir in 1922.

Judy Collins recorded it for her 1970 album Whales and Nightingales; released as a single it was a success in the US and the UK.

In 1972 the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards’ recording was an international hit.

Here are a few other versions. (I hope no one feels they are disrespectful – to me, they show the song’s wide appeal.) This one, by The Great Awakening, is by request of Mr Ashworth. It was the theme song for the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival.

Here Ralph Stanley is ‘lining out’, i.e. saying the words for congregation members who could not read or did not have hymn books to follow.

This is by a host of country stars.

This is boogie woogie pianist Terry Miles, whom I really like.

And finally my favourite, by a children’s choir in Bloemfontein, South Africa. By the look of it this is a recent posting.

With grateful thanks to Marylynn Rouse of the John Newton Project. 

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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