Amazing “Amazing Grace”
“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.
Dear Sr. Melannie,
What a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace! A great way to start the day. I love that most of us know that song by “heart.” Our prison ministry group has sung that song to inmates outside a barbed wire fence and felt God’s grace truly freeing everyone present that evening.
Thanks for sharing.
The stories behind famous hymns are interesting to me and I have a book that tells these stories, “Then Sings My Soul” by Robert J. Morgan. I think there is a second volume of this. Another story that is very interesting is, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and it is by Thomas Andrew Dorsey. Frequently, credit is given to the Tommy Dorsey bandleader, but he is not the author of this hymn. You may want to look this one up!
It seems one never tires of this song….the truth will set you free!!
That last added verse is a favorite of mine. Just thinking of all those who have gone before us enjoying praising God all the time. I need to take a lesson from that.
This is my first reflection. 🙂
I have seen what a comfort this hymn is to so many families during my 32 years of helping families plan the funerals for their loved ones. It touches my heart in a new way every time I sing it or hear it sung.
My Sweet Adelines Chorus and various Quartets sing this Hymn beautifully. There is something special with 4-part harmony that really adds to the richness and grace of Amazing Grace! Thanks for sharing,
I will have Amazing Grace sung at my funeral (if my wishes are followed thru). It is a comforting song and I’m glad to now know the history behind it. Thank you for another great blog!
I love this hymn. It is so comforting. This rendition is quite moving. I have seen the movie: Wilberforce is a true inspiration. Thank you
Dear Sr. Melanie,
I use “Amazing Grace” as a closing hymn at our weekly jail Communion Service on a regular basis and the inmates really sing with gusto. The men that attend the service are so faith-filled and this song brings tears to their eyes.
Loved your retreat here in FL!
That is very touching. I need to begin thinking that there are prisoners who are faith-filled, but just made a mistake. Thanks for opening my eyes.
I am probably one of the few people in the world who does not like this song. Not really sure why – maybe it is too hackneyed. I have heard many lovely renditions so maybe I’ll change my mind. Often it is not sung well.
God is working…
I have been playing this as a meditation song on my flute for the past couple weeks!
That version you selected was so Sweet and POWERFUL…. Ahhh…!
I am getting ready to go through some snares myself over the next couple weeks… Would you please add me and my family to your prayer list?
I have played for and directed church choirs for nearly forty years, and I have made my present choir promise to NOT sing this at my funeral!! I guess I’ve just heard it too many times, and feel it is overused. However, I do appreciate its appeal and timeless message that obviously touches those who have not heard/sung it so often! That appreciation grew after seeing the film “Amazing Grace” and hearing the song performed by Chris Tomlin. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-4NFvI5U9w) He uses the last original verse, which is so full of hope (“The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine; But God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.”) and added a beautiful chorus (“My chains are gone, I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior, has ransomed me. And like a flood, his mercy reigns: unending love, amazing grace.”) My husband and I sang it for the funeral of our friend, who died of cancer at the age of 51 after a life of questionable choices. It was so fitting for him.
My other “Amazing Grace” memory is rather humorous. I chose it for a Mass for the Sick, and one of our elderly parishioners (and a close family friend) came up to me after and said, “Don’t you think you’re rushing us a bit?”! She has since died, and yes, her family requested this hymn!
Thanks so much for this reflection!
Dear Chandra, I enjoyed your response. Yes, I understand how a particular song can be heard too many times….And I smiled at the elderly parishioner’s response to the song too. Thanks for writing! Melannie