“Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognizable Christian hymns in the English-speaking world. You probably know the first verse by heart: “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.” The story behind the song is amazing too.
“Amazing Grace” was originally a poem written in 1779 by John Newton, a clergyman in the Church of England. As a young man in the British navy, Newton led a rather wild and dissolute life. He had a reputation for being rash, unreliable, and profane. It is said his language shocked even seasoned sailors! After leaving the navy, Newton served for several years on slave ships, those horrific vessels crammed with human cargo to be sold as slaves in the so-called New World. But during a terrible storm at sea in which he almost perished, Newton underwent a conversion of sorts. He eventually gave up the sea and his sinful ways and began to study theology. In about 1775 he was ordained in the Church of England. “Amazing Grace” has been described as Newton’s “spiritual autobiography in verse.” He was indeed “a wretch” who “was lost” until the grace of God found him and saved him.
The poem was set to music in 1829 using the melody “New Britain” by Charles Spilman and Benjamin Shaw. Today it is estimated that “Amazing Grace” is performed 10 million times a year. Over the years, scores of singers have recorded the song including Mahalia Jackson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Willie Nelson, the Byrds, LeAnn Rimes, Andre Bocelli, Lari White, Whitney Houston, Celtic Woman, Susan Boyle, and others.
The following stanza was added to “Amazing Grace” by an anonymous author several years after the hymn was written: “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’ve first begun.” In recent years, to avoid any trace of “self-loathing,” the phrase “saved a wretch like me” was changed to “that saved and set me free” in some editions. Although, in my younger years, I did not like the word “wretch,” I am not bothered by it now. I know there are times I am indeed something of a wretch—but a wretch loved and saved by God. ”
“Amazing Grace” is universally popular not only among Christians of all denominations, but also among non-Christians. Why? For one thing, there is no direct mention of God until verse four (in the original poem). Jesus’ name isn’t mentioned at all, but the imagery from his parables forms a vital part of the hymn. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, for example, the father says to his elder son, “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Lk. 15:32).
I would be interested in what you think of this famous hymn. For now, you can enjoy this rendition of “Amazing Grace” performed by Il Divo (those four handsome singers from four different countries.) This version was performed at the Roman Coliseum at night—and it includes bagpipes. The Coliseum is a fitting setting since so many early Christians were martyred there. This is one of my favorite versions. Just click below. Watch it in full screen mode if possible. When it’s over, click “escape” and then the reverse arrow (upper left on your computer) to come back to my blog.
What do you think of “Amazing Grace”?
PS: In 1990 Journalist Bill Moyers made a documentary on the hymn “Amazing Grace,” showing its impact on all kinds of individuals from church choirs to prison inmates. A clip from this film entitled “Johnny Cash, Amazing Grace, and Personal Prisons” can be found on YouTube. It’s 9 minutes long and is quite moving. You might want to check it out too.