Dear Friends in Christ,
Amazing Grace is probably one of the best known hymns on the planet. It crosses all music genres, races, colors, nationalities and denominations. You'll often hear me say "it takes a village" and this is certainly one of those cases. It took a few generations and a few key contributors to get the hymn that we know, love and sing today.
The text was written by John Newton (1725-1807). What I love about John is that he was a wild man with a filthy mouth who was a second career pastor. The three previous hymn writers that we have studied were committed to their walk of faith early in the game but not John. He struggled. Later is his life he is quoted as saying, "How industrious is Satan served. I was formerly one of his active undertemptors and had my influence been equal to my wishes I would have carried all the human race with me. A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was." John spent the first part of his career at sea first with the Navy and then working in the slave trade. It was while at sea that he had his big 'Ah ha' moment of faith. It was a dark and stormy night and he watched as waves crashed overboard on the ship and washed his mate overboard in front of his eyes. The night raged on and the storm was so violent that the crew was tying themselves to masts to keep from being flung overboard. When John was speaking to the captain of a plan to keep them afloat he closed by saying, “If this will not do, then Lord have Mercy upon us". This simple phrase was something he pondered for the rest of the storm and was the seed of faith that was planted in him. He still continued working the slave trade for a few years (he was a prominent supporter of the abolition of the slave trade in his later years) and at 30 he retired from the sea and settled in Liverpool working in customs. At this time he began to teach himself Latin, Greek and Theology and fully immersed himself in the church community. He led prayer meetings, bible studies and was a very popular among his fellow parishioners and encouraged to become a minister. He was turned down by the Bishop of York and historians argue whether it had to do with his history, or lack of education, or his association with evangelism and Methodists. However, after writing about his experiences with the slave trade and his conversion the Earl of Dartmouth was so moved that he sponsored him for ordination and he was given curacy, the care of the souls of a parish, in Olney Buckinghamshire. It was common at this time for priests to write out the hymn or poem that would be either spoken or sung each week during the service to support the gospel and sermon, much like the Hymn of the Day that we use each Sunday. John collaborated with celebrated poet William Cowper on many a poem and their works were published in a book titled "Olney Hymns". Included in this book was the poem Amazing Grace which was written in response to 1 Chronicles 17-18 and presented to the congregation for a New Year's Eve service in 1773. The poem was simple and critics felt that the form and language were too common and he didn't use big enough (multi-syllabic) words. It was certainly not his most popular poem at that time and sat on the shelf.
Fast forward to America during the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival moment during the early 1900's. It was during this time that William "Singing Billy" Walker developed shape note singing which was an easy method of facilitating singing among congregations and the community. The shape note tunes were published in a book entitled "Southern Harmony". You'll see at the bottom of many hymns in the ELW, including the sending hymn this Sunday, a reference to this book. People would take these books with them to camp meetings or community get-together and sing for hours. Because the poem Amazing Grace was so simple in form it fit well to the tune New Brittan in the Southern Harmony Book. This is the melody that we recognize today. If you take a close look at the tune you'll see that the melody is only made up of 6 different notes, which was the point of this new style of singing. Simple text and simple tunes for the masses.
Because of the growth of publication and the accessibility of this style of singing the books were in every home. People took these books with them as they explored the west and would undoubtedly teach others the tunes. Soldiers took the books with them to war and they have record of people singing these songs on the battle front. Because of the power of the words in "Amazing Grace" the hymn really became an anthem for the common man in both life and death, was used as an emblem for the religious movement and inspired and rallied abolitionists.
As a side note, in our ELW the first four verses are original to John's poem. There are two additional verses that were not published and I've included the entire poem below. The fifth verse that we know was actually written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and found in her book "Uncle Tom's Cabin".
This simple piece about the wonderful grace that we are given from God has a wild history but still continues to touch hearts to this day. There are over 20 tunes in the repertory with settings of this poem, over 3,000 different copies of it in the US Library of Congress, it is reported to be performed over 10 million times annually, and it has been a chart topper for many popular recording artists. Johnny Cash is quoted as saying, "For the three minutes that song is going on, everyone is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person".
To give you a taste of some of the other versions for our prelude this coming Sunday I will be playing two different tunes including the original composed by John Jenkins Husband and one composed by Dr. Arne from the Companion to the Wesleyan Hymnbook.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd 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 reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ'd!
Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.