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From non-believer to believer. From sinner to saint. From slave-trading sailor to minister.
If only all slave traders became slaves themselves to African princesses and got slammed against the bluffs of Ireland on their escape trip home. That's exactly what happened to our guy John Newton, a poet and former slave trader, who blessed us with "Amazing Grace" on the other side of his personal nightmare.
Newton, who first published "Amazing Grace" in 1779, wrote the song to record his own personal journey from sinner to saint, and he eventually became a highly influential member of Britain's abolitionist movement. However, "Amazing Grace" wasn't initially one of Newton’s most popular hymns. In fact, it quickly faded into obscurity during his lifetime, but eventually, it went on a journey of its own.
There aren't many songs out there as closely paired with one religion's beliefs and identity as "Amazing Grace," arguably Christianity's—and perhaps even the English language's—most popular hymn. Gaining popularity in the 19th century during the religious revival of what's known as the Second Great Awakening, "Amazing Grace" proved to be more than just a catchy tune. A hymn of redemption, many connected with the song's most important message: the promise that God's grace will save even the most sinful.
Newton led a complex life, and the song's history suggests that much of that may have seeped into his writing, contributing to the enduring legacy of a song that continues to inspire to this day. Come on, it says it right there in the first line: how sweet the sound.
In the late 1700s, members of the clergy were expected to write verses and sermons for their congregations, but few priests were as experienced in the idea of spiritual redemption as John Newton. Having been born to an English shipmaster in 1725, Newton grew up around the sea and eventually became a sailor himself.
Sailors are not known to be particularly pious, and Newton was no different. In fact, he was worse.
After the Royal Navy pressed him into service, Newton attempted to desert, which earned him a demotion, flogging, and public humiliation. He was then transferred to a slave ship, but his antics led to his being stranded in West Africa under the control of a slave trader there. He was eventually rescued and returned to England, but only after he had seen the error of his sinful ways and converted to Christ.
Even though Newton converted to Christianity in 1748, he continued to work aboard slave trading ships for another six years. After that, it was still another decade before he ultimately became a priest in 1764. His road to redemption was long and laborious, but he was finally on the path that he believed God had set for him. Around 1772, Newton wrote the words to "Amazing Grace" as a sermon for his congregation, using his own experiences as a past sinner for inspiration.
While Newton's seafaring experiences certainly helped in writing hymns and verses, it certainly could not have hurt that he had also become friends with the writer William Cowper, another fervent evangelical, as well as several prominent hymn writers of the time. The collection of hymns that first included "Amazing Grace," Olney Hymns, was actually co-written with Cowper. Such strong literary influences most likely affected Newton almost as much as his sinful past.
Jonathan Aitkin: John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (2007)
There are several biographies of the hymn writer and clergyman written by Christian authors. Designed to convert and inspire as much as inform, this is a relatively recent one by Jonathan Aitkin.
Buell E. Cobb, Jr.: The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (2004)
Cobb offers an engaging and authoritative look at the music that grew out of the Second Great Awakening. Sacred Harp singing, named after the hymnal first published in 1844, is a distinctive form of American music that has experienced a revival in recent decades.
William Hague: William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2007)
A former member of Parliament, Hague wrote this biography of his abolitionist predecessor. It is somewhat encyclopedic, and it's meant to be more informative than entertaining, but readers interested in a thorough look at the slaver-turned-sermon-writer will enjoy this one.
Nathan Hatch: The Democratization of American Christianity (1989)
This wide-ranging study includes a section on the role of music in the democratic and revival-based religion of antebellum America.
Hymn writer, mariner, clergymen, and abolitionist
The British statesmen who led the fight to end slavery in Britain
Amazing Grace (2006)
Evangelical cleric and hymn writer John Newton plays a prominent part in this film about British abolitionist William Wilberforce. Sure, the film takes some liberties with historical facts, but it's accurate enough to be educational and well-written enough to be entertaining.
Awake My Soul (2006)
Shape-note singing and The Sacred Harp are the subjects of this first-rate documentary. The origins of the American art form and its survival within rural communities and among folk-music enthusiasts are explored in this fascinating film.
The Moyers Collection: Amazing Grace with Bill Moyers (1990)
In this older documentary, PBS journalist Bill Moyers takes a look at the hymn and its story. The film features testimonials from people whose lives have been touched by the hymn.
John Newton Project
This site, created by Christians who share John Newton’s evangelical and philanthropic ideals, is filled with information, including a short biography and digitized copies of Newton’s sermons and journals.
Library of Congress on “Amazing Grace”
The Library of Congress has posted a short page dedicated to the hymn. Historic images illustrate the song’s publishing and performance history.
“Amazing Grace,” the First Recording
This was the first recorded version of the hymn, recorded in 1922 by the Sacred Harp Choir.
“Amazing Grace,” Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
This military band took the song to the top of the British charts in 1972.
“Amazing Grace,” Judy Collins
The folk singer’s 1970 rendition spent more than a year on the British charts.
“Amazing Grace,” Elvis Presley
This is the King’s gospel rendition of the hymn.
“Amazing Grace,” Soweto Gospel Choir
The South African choir sings the song written by a repentant slaver.
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