This past New Year’s Day marked the 250th anniversary of the hymn Amazing Grace. Written by former slave ship captain, the Reverend John Newton, it is probably the best-known hymn in the Christian Church. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, much was written about Newton, his conversion from a slave trading seaman to a man of the cloth. The website hymncharts.com offers the following summary of the story behind the hymn. I hope it encourages you today.
The Story Behind: Amazing Grace
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
Wretch indeed. The man behind the lyrics did not write them lightly. His story is one of many throughout history that show the amazing grace of God, and that no one is beyond His forgiveness.
John Newton was a slave trader in his early years, and openly mocked religion. What better way to start a story of God’s grace? Newton thought himself invincible – beyond the need of God – yet all that changed on a stormy sea in 1748. Newton would have been used to storms at sea, for most of his life was spent there; first with the British navy, then transporting slaves. But this storm was especially violent, and it brought Newton to his knees as he pleaded to the God he loved to mock to save him and his crew. Newton first felt the grace of God when he was replaced on deck by another crew member. Within mere minutes, the storm increased its rage and killed the crewman on deck. All the rest of the crew, including Newton, survived.
The experience at sea planted the seed of Newton’s faith, but it remained a seed for a few more years still. Newton continued in the slave trade for six more years, but upon retirement he began studying theology. This is when the seed began to sprout into something much more. Newton became a minister, and, using his life experiences, wrote the lyrics of Amazing Grace.
Originally, it was simply an accompaniment to one of his sermons, and perhaps he never meant it to be more. But the hymn took on a life of its own and was published in more than a few books during Newton’s life. Eventually, Amazing Grace was put to music and became the hymn we know today.
During life as a minister, Newton became an advocate for the end of the slave trade. “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders,” wrote Newton.
His stance greatly impacted a man by the name of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce attended Newton’s church as a child and was later mentored by him. Under Newton’s influence, Wilberforce’s purpose became working to end the slave trade, and his efforts as an English lawmaker led to the release of over 800,000 slaves.
John Newton was a wicked man who deserved death at sea. But the key component of God’s grace is that it is not earned; it is a gift made of pure, undeserved love. This is perhaps the most important concept any human can understand. It is easy, then, to see why Amazing Grace drew so many people when Newton wrote it, and why it continues to draw us today.