Newton wrote the words from personal experience. Growing up without any known religious conviction, his life journey was formed by a variety of twists and coincidences. After ending his service with the Royal Navy, Newton became involved in the Atlantic slave trade.
In 1748, a violent storm off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland battered his vessel so severely that he called out to God for mercy. While this moment marked his spiritual conversion he continued slave trading for seven more years before ending his seafaring altogether at which time he began studying Christian theology.
Amazing Grace was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year's Day 1773. It is unknown if music accompanied the initial verses; it may have simply been chanted by the congregation. In 1779 the verses debuted in Newton and Cowper's Olney Hymns but settled into relative obscurity in England.
In the United States, Amazing Grace was popularized by preachers in the South during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Over the years it has been associated with more than 20 melodies. In 1835, American composer William Walker set the lyrics to the tune known as New Britain. 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.
Amazing Grace had a particular influence in the revival of folk music in the United States during the 1960s and has become an emblematic, black spiritual hymn. Its universal message has been a significant factor in its crossover into secular music. This most famous of all folk hymns is estimated to be performed about 10 million times annually and has been recorded thousands of times during and since the 20th century.