Of all the English hymns written in the 18th century, “Amazing Grace” stands out as the most popular and the most performed hymn of all time. The song reaches out across cultures and nations and was translated in various languages.
I recently started to attend a Laotian church in Kansas and was surprised that the congregation sang this song in Lao, not in English. As a native Thai, I am familiar with this hymn in Thai language, which is often sung in churches in my country.
The story behind the song “Amazing Grace” might not be as well-known as the composition itself. Most people know it was composed by John Newton, an English clergyman. Newton was a captain of slave-trading ships, but after his dramatic religious conversion while he was at sea, he forsook the lucrative trade and became a parish priest of the Church of England and later, a staunch abolitionist. It was during his overseeing of the church in Olney that he began penning “Amazing Grace” and other hymns to be accompanied with his sermons at religious and social gatherings.
I researched the history of this universally-known hymn and finally came across a book called Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song, by musical history expert and English biographer Steve Turner. Before Amazing Grace, Turner authored quite a few biographies of famous performers in the music industry, including Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, and Van Morrison.
I found Amazing Grace rich in historic detail but not at all discursive. He selects to explain only pivotal events in Newton’s life that contributed to the writing of “Amazing Grace.” Turner divides his book in two parts, Part One: Creation, and Part Two: Dissemination. The former deals with the adventurous, unusual life of Newton; the latter discusses how the song, after Newton’s death, spread across the continent and increased its popularity in America.
The book includes lesser-known accounts gathered from historical and current sources. Among them are Newton’s own autobiography, Out of the Depths, slave ship journals, his biographies written by 19th-century biographers, newspapers, legal documents, logbooks, diaries, and letters.
“I felt that there could be no real understanding of ‘Amazing Grace’ without an understanding of Newton’s life,” Turner writes, “and no real understanding of Newton’s life unless it was covered from birth to death, because at every stage there are occurrences that illuminate the song.”
One such occurrence happened after Newton was forcibly enlisted as one of the sailors for the new warship, the Harwich. He then was arrested for deserting the navy and was flogged in front of the crew and demoted. He was later transferred to the Levant, a merchant ship that bought slaves from the Guinea Coast to sell in the West Indies. Settling on Plantain Island with his English master, his life situation and health deteriorated as he suffered sicknesses, starvation, and mistreatment at the hands of his master’s African mistress.
It was during this time of hardship that Newton looked back and saw the events as steps to his spiritual progress. As Turner puts it, “This was the state he had in mind when he referred himself as a ‘wretch.’” The first two stanzas of “Amazing Grace” might have come from Turner’s pondering on his own life in this part of Africa.
Newton embarked on another ship, the Greyhound, on March 9, 1748. This time a fierce wind and storm hit the ship and killed part of the crew. Struggling to survive, he cried to God to save him and his life was spared. “He had said that when all human effort proves insufficient it is only the mercy of God that can save,” Turner writes. “He felt he had been privileged to see his wretchedness for what it was. Only by catching a vision of himself as helpless did God’s grace seem so appealing, so amazing.”
Contrary to a popular assumption, John Newton, after his spiritual conversion, did not stop sailing and trading slaves right away. It wasn’t until he was given an onshore job as a customs officer and tide surveyor in 1755 that he completely left the slave-trading business. Later in Newton’s life, he influenced Prime Minister William Wilberforce to become a leading figure in a campaign against slavery. Newton also played a major role in strengthening Wilberforce’s Christian beliefs.
Meticulous, inspiring and insightful, Amazing Grace is a must read for anyone who is interested in English history, hymnology, and biography. In addition to the print version, it's available as an ebook from OverDrive.
About the Author
Sukalaya Kenworthy is a senior library assistant at the Westport Branch. To join the Inspirational Book Group, e-mail her at email@example.com or call 816.701.3488 for more information. The group meets the third Wednesday of the month at 4:30 p.m.