“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” Of course, those words are the opening stanza of the most beloved hymn in the English-speaking world, and one of the most recorded songs in history: “Amazing Grace.”
The legendary hymn was written by Englishman John Newton, whose birthday is this week, a man who in his youth had likewise achieved a legendary reputation, though “notorious” would be more accurate. Newton began his career, not as a hymn writer, but as a sailor; a sailor so filthy, vile, and foul that his captain wrote of him, “Newton is the most profane man I have ever met, not only using the worst words I have ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”
This captain wasn’t writing as some moralistic Puritan, either. He was the skipper of a slave ship, trafficking in human flesh, transporting natives from West Africa to locales across the British Empire. Newton was an eager participant and perpetuator of slavery – until he became a slave himself. He was so onerous and impossible to deal with, that the captain and crew sold him as a slave in Sierra Leone, Africa. After some time he escaped, only to go back to shipping slaves as an occupation.
Then one night he got caught in a storm, a storm so severe he had to tie himself to the rigging of his ship to keep from being swept away. It was there, in the “dangers, toils, and snares” that he prayed for the first time since he was a child: “Lord, have mercy on us.” The storm miraculously passed, and Newton took it as divine intervention. His conversation began.
In time John Newton become an ordained minister and, of course, a writer of poetry, hymns, and songs. He would use those same writing skills to eventually author a pamphlet that led directly to the ending of slavery in the British Empire; and he lived to see it. Newton died in late 1807, the same year that Parliament passed “The Abolishment of Slavery Act,” bringing centuries of English slave trade to an end.
What Newton did not live to see was an addition to his most popular hymn. He wrote six verses to “Amazing Grace,” but a seventh was added several decades after he died. The tardiness of its arrival has not diminished its popularity: “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 first begun.”
Ironically enough, those are anonymous lyrics of an African-American spiritual from the Deep South, older than Newton’s original stanzas. The former slave trader – and slaves – together wrote the most well-known hymn in the English language. It’s no wonder we love the song, for it is God’s grace that breaks all of our chains: God’s saving, redeeming, freeing, amazing grace.