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The Story of Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is one of the most popular pieces in any genre here on 8notes (and we have over 70s versions of it from beginner piano, through to Saxophone Quartet). It is a piece with a remarkable history. Based on a poem written by a slaver, it became associated with the abolitionist movement; originating in the UK, it was largely ignored there for 100 years; a Christian anthem, it took on a life outside the church, becoming a seminal influence on pop musicians.

Here is the full story...

A Rogue Repents

John Newton

The lyrics of Amazing Grace were written by John Newton (1725–1807), a man with a troubled past. Mistreated at school, he became a disobedient and difficult youth. After being forced into service in the Royal Navy, he deserted, eventually finding work aboard a slave trader, where he was frequently punished for his disobedience and profanity. Miraculously surviving an accident at sea, however, he turned towards God.

Curacy in Olney

Leaving his seafaring life, Newton married and, after a period of study, he became a curate in the Church of England in Olney, Buckinghamshire. His ministry there was a big success and, under the influence of the writer William Cowper, Newton began writing verses for his congregation. The result of this was the poem ‘Faith’s Review and Expectation’ written for New Years Day 1773. It is now known by its opening line ‘Amazing Grace.’

To the U.S.

Newton’s poem was published in a collection of works known as the ‘Olney Hymns.’ Though many of these pieces were reproduced in hymnals in the UK, “Amazing Grace’ was largely ignored in the British Isles. It was in the US, where it became associated with the nineteenth century religious movement known as the ‘Second Great Awakening,’ that it became popular.

A Hymn in Search of a Tune

In its early years in the US Olney’s poem ‘Amazing Grace’ was set to number of different melodies. The famous tune we know today, ‘New Britain’ was first assigned to the poem in 1835 by U.S. composer William Walker. The melody is of traditional origin, the composer being unknown. Its meditative nature fits the transformative nature of the poem perfectly and is in no small part responsible for the remarkable growth in the ‘finished’ hymn’s popularity in the U.S. thereafter.

Abolitionist links

That ‘Amazing Grace’ has been embraced by African American churches makes a good deal of sense when one consider’s Newton’s spiritual journey and the sentiments his lyrics encapsulate.

Though Newton worked as a slaver, his spiritual journey led to him publicly condemning the trade in 1788. His arguments helped to persuade M.P. William Wilberforce to turn this into a moral crusade, his efforts leading to the abolition of slavery in the UK.

The words also seemed to encapsulate the struggles of slaves, burnished with a message of hope, that made the hymn popular in African American slave communities:

Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

A Christian Pop Anthem

The conversion of Amazing Grace into a Gospel Hymn, led to many fine African American gospel performances of the song, including those by Mahlia Jackson...

...Aretha Franklin...

...and Wintley Phipps.

The popularity of the gospel style also led to the work profoundly influencing white stars such as Elvis Presley, who released his own version in 1971:

Singers such as these made ‘Amazing Grace’ a globally popular song, even leading to its readoption in its country of origin, the UK, where it has also been adapted as a haunting bagpipe tune:

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