This was first published in the Fishkill UMC July 2020 Newsletter.
There are two stories about the hymn “Amazing Grace”. One of the stories is about the hymn itself. I wrote about how people learned to sing this hymn (and other hymns) using shape notes back in the April 2020 newsletter.
But there is the story about the author of the words of the hymn, John Newton.
Do you remember the first time you ever heard the story about John Newton? We often think that the story of the hymn is the story of the author but that is not the case.
I believe that I heard the story when I went to an Arlo Guthrie concert when I was in graduate school at the University of Memphis. But the story that Arlo told that night was slightly off. Newton did embrace Christianity on the night of March 10, 1748 during a rather intense storm at sea. He had previously denounced Christianity, but something drove him to begin studying it and on the night in 1748, he called out to God to save him.
But he did not turn the ship around and free the slaves, as some have said. He would ultimately quit the slave trade and become a priest in the Anglican Church in 1764. (The Methodist connection here is that John Wesley encouraged him to enter the ministry.)
After becoming a priest in the church, he joined the anti-slavery movement in Britain, working with William Wilberforce to abolish slavery. History will note that the information that Newton provided Wilberforce allowed other important and influential individuals to realize the horrors of the slave trade.
John Newton wrote the words for this hymn in 1772 as a poem for his church’s prayer service. The central idea for this hymn is the grace of God.
While the United Methodist Hymnal gives 1 Chronicles 17:16–17 as the basis for the hymn, it is probably better based on Ephesian 2: 4 – 9. In Chronicles, the prophet Nathan has pointed out how he had failed in the eyes of God, but that God has plans for him. David recognizes that it is only by the Grace of God that he will continue.
For John Newton, it was God’s grace that saved him from the life that he was leading. In selecting the passage from Chronicles as the basis for his poem, Newton showed that God’s grace allowed David to move forward with his life.
So how is this a song of freedom?
In 1990 Bill Moyers presented a documentary about “Amazing Grace” for PBS (there is a copy of this on YouTube if you are interested (https://youtu.be/wKH1lkUjAgA ;it is an old copy and has some flaws from the recording, but it is worth watching).
Moyers spent some time talking with people about how they sang the hymn, but he also spent time with several individuals including Judy Collins and Johnny Cash about what it meant to them to sing it.
Judy Collins told Bill,
For me, it was always the song that gave me an inner experience of another dimension. When I sing this song with a group of people, I always feel that there’s a mystical territory between the singer and the audience. It’s not just me singing, it’s something else that’s singing. And it’s all of those people and all of their spirits, so that somewhere or other, there is some experience going on which gives something to them and gives something to me that’s more than the sum of any of us.
I always think that the experience of bliss, of pleasure, of joy, of singing is something that you experience on different level not a material level. And ‘Amazing Grace’ has always locked into that center for me. It kind of hits me on the same place every time.
She would add:
I had heard that the song was written by a man who had had a wretched life and been a slave trader. What an expression of, yes, of gratitude and of joy to know that there was the other side to that, which can only be given by such a profound and I would call spiritual experience. I mean, “Amazing Grace”-I mean, it really says, “This choice is wretched and this other one is worlds apart, indescribable.”
Did you ever feel like a wretch?
Oh, yes, enough so that it always reminds me that there have been those very, very dark times in my own life, some of which, during some of which, this song, I think, really carried me through. “Amazing Grace” is almost like a talisman.
In his interview with Johnny Cash, Johnny indicated that when he sang the hymn, he felt a sense of freedom from the things that had imprisoned him. It was an idea that was reflected by the comments of others in the video.
We all do have our prisons, don’t we?
Yeah, we do. We can get ourselves into a little prison of, you know, drugs, alcohol, a relationship or a habit or a situation, you know, that we weave ourselves into that can be like a prison, with bars that you can’t break out of.
Cash would say later in the interview:
When I sing that song, I could be in a dungeon, or I could have chains all over me, but I would be free as a breeze. It’s a song that makes a difference. There are some songs that make a difference in your life, and that song makes a difference.
I would think that many others have a sense of God’s grace in their lives when they sing this hymn. Even in settings where one might not expect it, the celebration for Nelson Mandela a few years ago, for example, people joined with Jessye Norman to sing this hymn. It says something of its power and the power of God’s grace that a group of people, expecting a rock concert, would join in singing this hymn.
So “Amazing Grace” is a song of freedom, the freedom given to each one of us through God’s grace, freely given and freely accepted.
Note posted on Facebook by Sarah Tillery Caldwell on 23 December 2018 about the nature of the verses of “Amazing Grace” in reply to my comment that we sang carols to tell the story of Christmas, she replied,
All our best hymns are theologically based. Case in point, the five original verses of Amazing Grace describe John Wesley’s teaching on the stages of grace.