“Amazing Grace” is a song recognizable to nearly anyone; it’s been around since 1779, but gained popularity in the United States in about 1835. The song started off as a poem and was eventually combined with the tune of a British folk song called “New Britain”.
The song “Amazing Grace” was quoted in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Tom sings the final verses of the song, after having a vision of Jesus that renewed his faith and will to carry on living, giving him the desire to overcome the pain of living as a mistreated slave under a harsh master.
The song is uplifting and beautiful and has been wildly popular for centuries; it is a hymn that has been performed and recorded by thousands of people, and in part due to its mention in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely associated with abolitionism and African-American people’s freedom from slavery.
It experienced surges in popularity during US national crises: the Civil War, and the Vietnam War – between 1970 and 1972, Judy Collins’ recording of the song spent 67 weeks on the charts (it’s definitely worth a listen, and will definitely give you chills). Countless other artists have performed amazing covers of the song - Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, and Elvis. President Obama sang the song during the memorial service of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
Because it is so closely associated with abolitionism, the Civil War, and generally regarded as an African-American spiritual, it might be a shock to learn that the original poem was written by a white man – not only that, a white, British, slave trader.
John Newton was raised by Puritans, which perhaps contributed to his lack of religious conviction growing up. He was forced into the British military and attempted to desert, causing him the punishment of being forced to work as a seaman on British slave-trading ships.
Newton, however, did not get along with the crew of the slave ship Pegasus he had been assigned to work on, and they left him behind. He was left behind in West Africa and given to a princess of the Sherbro people of Sierra Leone, who owned slaves, and was treated as a slave himself.
After his time working on the slave-trading ships and then as a slave himself in Africa, he was rescued in 1748 by a sea captain his father had sent to search for him. During his journey back to England, the ship passed through a terrible storm. Newton prayed to God for his safety, and somehow the cargo of the ship shifted to cover a hole in the ship, allowing the ship to arrive on shore safely.
After this, Newton began reading the Bible and converted to evangelical Christianity. Newton remained a slave trader, however, until 1778, when he published a pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade”, describing graphically and frankly the conditions that the people upon the slave-trading ships experienced.
He released the following statement regarding his own participation in the slave-trading business:
Newton renounced his former trade and became the Rector of a church in London, which he remained until his death. He published numerous well-known hymns, including his most famous, originally titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation” – which came later to be known as “Amazing Grace”, after its opening phrase.
He lived to see the abolition of slavery in England in 1807, and his legacy of renewed faith lives on to this day with the instantly recognizable and beautiful words and melody of “Amazing Grace”.