The right song at the right time can change history. Pete Seeger
Apparently, back in 2011, when Christianity Today published Robert T. Coote’s article, The Hymns That Keep on Going: The 27 Worship Songs That Have Made The Hymnal Cut Time And Again, the pushback was so strong, Coote needed to write a follow-up article explaining why in the world Amazing Grace was not included in his original list of twenty-seven top hymns! You see, in today’s society, no one in their right mind can imagine a list of all-time favorite hymns that doesn’t include John Newton’s classic tune!
Written by one of England’s top hymn-writers way back in 1779, Amazing Grace, at first glance, seems to fit the qualifications Coote was looking for in his search. Certainly this hymn is old enough to have maintained a certain level of popularity over numerous generations. Right?
But here’s the rest of the story…
For the first 150 years of its’ existence, Amazing Grace was, at best, a little known, add-on hymn in the larger collection of better-known works by John Newton. You see, Newton, who became an Anglican pastor after his dramatic conversion to Christ on a slave ship in the mid-1700’s, wrote hundreds of poems and hymns for his own personal use as a clergyman. The church he served in the small village of Olney, England was composed primarily of illiterate parishioners, so with nearly every Sunday morning sermon, Newton would also incorporate a poem to help his people remember the theme he was preaching on.
This approach to pastoral ministry kept John Newton very busy, for sure, but it also left us with an immeasurable treasure entitled The Olney Hymns, which is a marvelous collection of 359 poems and songs, with most being written by Newton (281) and his next-door neighbor, William Cowper (67). Yet long after Newton’s death in 1807, Amazing Grace was simply known as “just one hymn among many” when people spoke of the collection of great hymns left behind by the man who once said of himself…
“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
In 1829, Newton’s Amazing Grace poem appeared in a publication called The Baptist Songster, and it contained an added 7th verse (When we’ve been there ten thousand years), which was apparently added from a song by an unknown author called, Jerusalem, My Happy Home! Historians believe that it was this version of the song that Scottish immigrants might have brought with them to Tennessee and Kentucky when they crossed the pond sometime earlier in the 1800’s.
During the last two decades of the 19th century, Dwight Moody, the great evangelist, re-discovered Newton’s song and utilized it during his crusades. But his song leader, Ira D. Sankey, never really found the right music to match with the words, so it began to fade once again by the turn of the century. Actually it wasn’t until that point in history when the tune, New Britain, written in 1831, was finally paired with Newton’s poem, giving us the version we all know and enjoy today!
This brings us now to the 20th century. In 1900, Amazing Grace was one hundred and twenty one years old, but it still hadn’t found its’ wings. The song was having limited success in the southern portion of the United States, receiving a favorable response particularly at Methodist camp meetings; but elsewhere, there just seemed to be little attention given to this hymn that was so easily lost amongst the great works of other hymn-writers. But that all changed when a young gospel singer named Mahalia Jackson recorded a version of Amazing Grace which made its’ debut on national radio in 1947. Then, during the turbulent 1960’s, Judy Collins recorded it as an anti-war ballad, and Arlo Guthrie sang it as a “song of peace” at Woodstock in 1969. Soon, other well-known artists such as Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, and others were releasing recordings as well. The song was featured in several hit movies (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Alice’s Restaurant, etc.), and before long people all over the nation were humming the tune.
During this same era, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement embraced the song, and began to use it very effectively in stirring people of all colors toward a vision of a free America, where men and women from all tribes and tongues can work together toward a nation where liberty and justice is available for all. It was during the height of the Civil Rights movement, when the amazing conversion story of its’ author, John Newton, was revived and retold…a white man, a captain of a slave ship, radically converted to Christ, turning from his evil ways, only to become an advocate alongside William Wilberforce, working for the abolition of slavery in late 18th century England! One African-American friend of mine likes to chide me from time to time, saying, “Marty, Amazing Grace belongs to us, bro. Tell me what other hymn do you know that can be played in its’ entirety using only the black keys of the piano?”
Today, Amazing Grace has crossed all boundaries, having been called by some as the most recognizable song on the planet! Just think of it. A day rarely goes by when some-one, some-where in the world isn’t singing the tune on YouTube, FaceBook, or via one of the other tools of instant communication so readily available to this generation.
I’m guessing that John Newton is looking down from heaven, thinking to himself, “Hmm…not bad for one of my little Olney poems that started off a bit slow!”
Not bad at all, Mr. Newton, not bad at all!
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 hath 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.
Yea, 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.
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’d first begun.
My prayer: Jesus, what more can be said than “Thank You for Amazing Grace!” For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: What lessons can be learned from the slow and steady way a song like Amazing Grace has emerged from what was a very humble beginning as a Sunday morning poem in Olney, England to now being a masterpiece that is has literally blessed millions and millions of people all over the world?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
If you like what you’re reading, might we suggest you share this page with others! Click here to go on to the next blog in our series.