Whether or not you have a Christian faith, Amazing Grace is probably the most recognised hymn there is. It tells the tale of joy of personal salvation and has become synonymous with the fight to abolish slavery at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. On New Year’s Day, the song had its 250th anniversary and so it feels necessary to share the story behind the hymns creation by John Newton.
On New Year’s Day 1773, John Newton shared the hymn with his congregation in Olney, Buckinghamshire. It would not have necessarily been shared in the church, for the Church of England didn’t permit the sharing of new songs in church. The hymn was written to coincide with the reverend’s sermon based on 1 Chronicles 17:16: ‘Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said “who am I, O Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?”. It was an ideal sermon to give at the start of a new year as it was scripture that reflected on both the past and the present. Little must Newton have known that what happened during that service would still be remembered to this day.
John Newton’s life before becoming a Church of England minister could not have been very different. He was born in Wapping, London, in 1725, as the son of a merchant ship’s captain. His father was frequently away from home on voyages and sadly whilst he was away, his wife died, leaving John in the care of friend’s in Kent (the daughter of which he later went on to marry). When he was grown, John followed on in his father’s footsteps and took on a life at sea, albeit not initially of his own free will. In 1744, at the age of 19, he was press ganged into the Royal Navy, a common practice then, but he was later swapped for another man who was onboard a passing merchant slave ship. This moment started Newton’s association with the slave trade as he eventually rose to captain aboard a slave ship.
Throughout Newton’s life, he experienced many near death experiences, but there was one in particular that was to change the course of his life. It was whilst he was a captain that the ship he was on encountered a terrible storm in 1748, with the fear that they would sink. In that moment, he read a bible and prayed for salvation and he got it. From that moment on, he saw the storm as punishment for his career and vowed to treat the slaves under his care more humanly, even though they would be passed on to slave owners who probably wouldn’t do the same. In 1753, a stroke finally stopped his career at sea and he was finally began to explore his religious beliefs more.
As he had had no university education, he was unable to become a minister in the traditional way. Instead the then incumbent of Olney had seen some of the Christian based letters and writing Newton had made and invited him to see town. He was impressed and agreed to help Newton become ordained in 1764, as well as offering him the parish. This was a smart move as Newton’s style of preaching was progressive for the time. He wrote weekly hymns for his congregation, and as said previously, as these were new songs, they would not have been permitted to be used in the church. Newton had to come up with a way around this and instead he held some meetings at the vicarage.
Newton was also interested in reaching a wide variety of people. In a letter written to a local landowner, Lord Dartmouth, who was also a patron of Newton’s church, Newton writes about his ideas for groups he would like to develop “one for children, another for the young and enquiring persons, and a third with the more experienced and judicious for prayer and conference’. Each of these meetings comprised of prayer, bible study and hymns for worship, something that appears familiar even today. These meetings were put into place and became so popular that they couldn’t be held in the vicarage alone. Thankfully Lord Dartmouth allowed them to take place in his big house when he wasn’t in residence.
It is within this context that the hymn Amazing Grace was written. It was meant to be an almost autobiographical song based on Newton’s own experience of salvation. It has also been suggested that it was also used as an aid to help his friend, the poet William Cowper, with whom he wrote some of his hymns with, out of his reoccurring bouts of depression. In that sense, it shows just how versatile the lyrics are as they can be used for all manner of people and their circumstances. In fact, following its first publication in 1779, under the name Faith’s Review and Expectation in a book called Olney Hymns, featuring songs by Cowper and Newton, that was one of the reasons for its almost immediate popularity. It was used by churches across Britain and America, no matter what denomination. However, the original tune has since been lost to us. Newton was known for keeping notebooks he used for writing his hymns in, but the one for Amazing Grace has since been lost, and the original publication didn’t have music, just the lyrics. In fact the tune we now know was first created by Americans sixty years after the song was created.
In modern times, Amazing Grace has become connected with the abolition of slavery, largely thanks to Newton’s own campaigning against slavery following his move into ministry, as well as his friendship with the famous abolitionist, William Wilberforce. This was not necessarily Newton’s thinking when composing the hymn, but I think he would have been happy with the connotation it now has, as well as it’s enduring popularity. Newton wrote an essay on the issues of slavery entitled Thoughts on the African Slave Trade, in which he admitted his past life as a slave trader. He succinctly wrote his own reflections on this in this sentence: ‘I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection for me… that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders’. That is why he was glad to share that God had saved a wretch like him and it will always be remembered for as long as his beloved hymn Amazing Grace endures, just like the video below of the then President Barack Obama spontaneously singing it during the funeral of the victims of a mass church shooting in South Carolina in 2015.
 The Christian Institute, John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace celebrates 250th anniversary, 4 January 2023, https://www.christian.org.uk/features/john-newtons-hymn-amazing-grace-celebrates-250th-anniversary/
 Library of Congress, The Creation of “Amazing Grace”, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200149085/
 The Christian Institute, John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace celebrates 250th anniversary
 Cowper and Newton Museum, Amazing Grace, https://cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk/amazing-grace/
 Cowper and Newton Museum, Amazing Grace
 Library of Congress, The Dissemination of “Amazing Grace”, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200149086
 Library of Congress, The Creation of “Amazing Grace”
2 thoughts on “250th Anniversary of the Hymn Amazing Grace”
I recommend a visit to the Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney! https://cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk/
A friend of mine’s Mum used to volunteer there. I have a (modern) copy of Newton’s own book of hymns 🙂
Oh that’s good to know. Hopefully this post has provided a bit of context to Newton’s hymns.