Then King David went in and sat before the Lord; and he said: “Who am I, O Lord God? And what is my house, that You have brought me this far? And yet this was a small thing in Your sight, O God; and You have also spoken of Your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the rank of a man of high degree, O Lord God.
—1 Chronicles 17:16-17
It’s been quite a while since I used a hymn as my Sunday devotional. During my high school and college years, I was the song leader at the small country church I grew up attending. Half the people at that church were like family to me, and the other half were my family. The song leader I grew up with became unable to lead the singing, so he asked me if I would it. I had taken piano lessons when I was younger, so I had a little musical ability, i.e. I could almost carry a tune. I was never a very good song leader, and I only knew about two dozen or so songs well enough to be able to lead the congregation in singing.
If you don’t know, I was raised in the church of Christ (by the way, it is customary to not capitalize “church” in the name of the denomination, though churches of Christ do not believe they are a denomination nor Protestant, but a restoration of the original church). The churches of Christ have no musical instruments, though some of the more liberal ones today do. The churches of Christ believe that if it is not in the bible, then it should not be part of the religious service. So, the inspiration for a capella singing comes from Ephesians 5:19, “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Being a song leader in a church of Christ is not the easiest task. There are no musical instruments to carry the tune. It is completely up to the song leader to do so. All I can say is, that I tried my best. I was never very good at it, and quite honestly, even after doing it for years, I was never comfortable at it. When I went away to graduate school, they found someone else to take over. I was so relieved.
I had a few favorite song: “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” “Send the Light,” “Shall We Gather at the River?,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and a few others. “Amazing Grace” was always a favorite of mine. The service always began with two songs sung while seated before the main prayer. Then, we would stand for the third song just before the preacher got up to give his sermon, and I often sang “Amazing Grace” for this song. After the sermon, we would sing the invitational, a call for those who wanted to join the church and be baptized. After the invitational, we served communion. Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is served every Sunday in the church of Christ. After communion, we sang the closing song, my favorite being “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” and “Unclouded Day.” The latter begins with “O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,” and as long as I could get out the “O” in the right key, this one always went smoothly because someone else would pick it up and keep it going in tune.
By John Newton
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 has brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
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.
“Amazing Grace” is one of the best-loved and most often sung hymns in North America. It expresses John Newton’s personal experience of conversion from sin as an act of God’s grace. At the end of his life, Newton (1725-1807) said, “There are two things I’ll never forget: that I was a great sinner, and that Jesus Christ is a greater Savior!” This hymn is Newton’s spiritual autobiography, but the truth it affirms—that we are saved by grace alone—is one that all Christians may confess with joy and gratitude. I, however, believe that it takes faith and good works. James 2:26 says, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Now, back to Newton’s story.
Newton was born into a Christian home, but his godly mother died when he was seven, and he joined his father at sea when he was eleven. His licentious and tumultuous sailing life included a flogging for attempted desertion from the Royal Navy and captivity by a slave trader in West Africa. After his escape, he himself became the captain of a slave ship. Several factors contributed to Newton’s conversion: a near-drowning in 1748, the piety of his friend Mary Catlett (whom he married in 1750), and his reading of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ.
In 1754 he gave up the slave trade and, in association with William Wilberforce, eventually became an ardent abolitionist. After becoming a tide-surveyor (customs inspector) in Liverpool, England, Newton came under the influence of George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley and began to study for the ministry. He was ordained in the Church of England and served in Olney (1764-1780) and St. Mary Woolnoth, London (1780-1807). His legacy to the Christian church includes his hymns as well as his collaboration with William Cowper in publishing Olney Hymns (1779), to which Newton contributed 280 hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”
Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” to illustrate a sermon on New Year’s Day of 1773. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses; it may have been chanted by the congregation. It debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns. “Amazing Grace” was published in six stanzas with the heading “1 Chronicles 17:16-17, Faith’s review and expectation.” After being published, the hymn settled into relative obscurity in England.
In the United States, “Amazing Grace” became a popular song used by Baptist and Methodist preachers as part of their evangelizing, especially in the South, during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than twenty melodies. In 1835, American composer William Walker set it to the tune known as “New Britain” in a shape note format; this is the version most frequently sung today.
With the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of sins committed and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God, “Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world.