The story of ‘Amazing Grace’
2013 marks the 240th anniversary of John Newton’s extraordinarily popular hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. This currently holds the world record for the most number of different recordings — more than 3000, in the Chasanoff/Elozua collection at the Library of Congress.
This article is an insight, or rather hindsight, drawn from Newton’s private diaries into the days leading up to the hymn’s first performance, on 1 January 1773.
Amidst challenging pastoral burdens, a fortnight before Christmas 1772, Newton began writing hymns in preparation for his ‘busy season’. He would need one for Christmas Day, one for old year’s night, and three for New Year’s Day (one for the morning service, one before the evening sermon, and one after the sermon).
New Year’s Eve, 1772
On Boxing Day he was still struggling — ‘laboured at a hymn but could not finish it’. By the prayer meeting on Tuesday 29 December, he had reached the Slough of Despond in his exposition of Pilgrim’s Progress, not only for Pilgrim, but also for himself — ‘found my own spirit very dry and greatly straightened, though to others I might speak with fluency’.
On Thursday 31 December, the vicarage filled with visitors, including niece Betsy’s school tutors and Newton’s brother-in-law, Benjamin Nind. Newton preached from Job 16:22, ‘a kind of funeral sermon for the old year which is now gone — beyond reach’.
His diary reflection that night hints at the next morning’s hymn: ‘How many scenes have I passed through … By what a way has the Lord led me. What wonders has he shown me!…
‘O Lord accept my praise for all that is past; enable me to trust thee for all that’s to come — and give a blessing to all who may read these records of thy goodness, and my own vileness. Amen and Amen’.
On Friday 1 January 1773, he affirmed his faith in ‘an all-sufficient Saviour and upon his word of promise I build my hope’, continuing, ‘My exercise of grace is faint … my chief sensible burdens are a wild ungoverned imagination and a strange, sinful backwardness to reading the Scriptures and to secret prayer…
‘But my eye and my heart is to Jesus. His I am; him I desire to serve; to him I this day would devote and surrender myself anew. O Lord, accept, support, protect, teach, comfort and bless me.
‘Be thou my arm, my eye, my joy and my salvation. Mortify the power of sin and increase the image of thy holiness in my heart. Anoint me with fresh oil; make me humble, faithful, diligent and obedient. Let me in all things attend to thy Word as my rule, to thy glory as my end, and depend upon thy power and promise for safety and success’.
1 Chronicles 17:16-17
Then followed a brief comment: ‘I preached this forenoon from 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. Hope I was enabled to speak with some liberty, but found my own heart sadly unaffected’.
A pocket notebook of Newton’s sermons in Lambeth Palace Library (MS 2940), begins with this text from 1 Chronicles 17 expounded that New Year’s morning: ‘And David the king came and sat before the LORD, and said, Who am I, O Lord God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?
‘And yet this was a small thing in thine eyes, O God; for thou hast also spoken of thy servant’s house for a great while to come, and hast regarded me according to the estate of a man of high degree, O Lord God’.
It had been Newton’s habit for many years to compare the transition from the old year to the new to climbing a hill, looking back, around and forward. His consideration of past, present and future dovetailed in with David’s experience in this passage.
First Newton counselled his congregation: ‘The Lord bestows many blessings upon his people, but, unless he likewise gives them a thankful heart, they lose much of the comfort they might have in them’.
Noting how these verses illustrated David’s heart was full of praise to the Lord, he suggested: ‘Omitting David’s personal concerns, I would accommodate them to our own use as a proper subject for our meditations on the entrance of a new year.
‘They lead us to a consideration of past mercies and future hopes and intimate the frame of mind which becomes us when we contemplate what the Lord has done for us’.
The Lord reminded David that he was just a shepherd boy when he had taken him ‘from following the sheep’. So, Newton asked, ‘What was I when the Lord began to manifest his purposes of love?’ The answer was a rebel, ‘blinded by the god of this world’: Amazing grace … that saved a wretch like me… I once was blind.
Newton encouraged his hearers to think back to their conversion ‘and the never-to-be-forgotten hour when he enabled us to hope in his mercy’: How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believed!
How incredible that the Lord should reach out to such ‘helpless, worthless creatures’, through ‘his secret guidance, leading us by a way which we knew not, till his time of love came’. This thought had caused David to marvel: ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?’ And so for us: ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far.
The Lord had been with David ‘wherever you have gone and have cut off all your enemies from before you’ (v.8). How comforting, the Lord’s ‘providential care, preserving us from a thousand seen, millions of unseen dangers, when we knew him not’: Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come.
Looking to the future, David was overwhelmed that ‘you have promised this good thing to your servant’ (v.26). Likewise, for each of us: the Lord has promised good to me.
Were these blessings ‘small things’ (v.17)? ‘Yes’, asserted Newton, ‘compared to what follows. He has spoken for a great while to come, even to eternity. Present mercies are but earnests of his love; present comforts but foretastes of the joy to which we are hastening.
‘O that crown, that kingdom, that eternal weight of glory! We are travelling home to God. We shall soon see Jesus, and never complain of sin, sorrow, temptation or desertion any more’: and grace will lead me home.
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.
During the days in which Newton had been writing this hymn it was snowing. Any who have visited his attic study in Olney can easily imagine him looking out through an icicled window across a glistening white field towards the church, pondering how to finish his hymn and then turning to pen his final stanza:
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be for ever mine.
In 1 Chronicles 17, the Lord promises David three times that his throne will be established ‘for ever’. David takes up this phrase ‘for ever’ five times in his prayer of praise. Little wonder that Newton too dwelt on such an astonishing promise, that God himself ‘will be for ever mine’.
Sadly, this last verse has often been replaced by one from an American camp song. It would be most fitting in this 240th anniversary year to restore Newton’s own words whenever we sing his hymn. What inspiration for many pilgrims, as we progress towards our heavenly home, to reflect that this same God ‘will be for ever mine’!
The ‘Amazing Grace’ sermon, with the original verses to Newton’s hymn, can be downloaded from www.johnnewton.org