The pastor of a large rural congregation was preparing his New Year’s Day sermon, based on the Old Testament text, 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. As he often did, he wrote a hymn to go with his message. Little did he know that his words in that simple hymn would be sung throughout the world for the next 250 years, and become one of the most loved hymns of all times, “Amazing Grace.”
Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023 is the 250th anniversary of this famous hymn written by Rev. John Newton, an Anglican priest and former captain of slave ships, who later in life joined William Wilberforce and worked to abolish slavery in the British Empire.
Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” for his Anglican congregation — St. Peter and Paul Church in Olney Buckinghamshire, England — to sing on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1773. The former wicked seafaring blasphemer, whose life took a dramatic turn when spared from a deadly storm, contemplated with King David, “Who am I, O Lord God…that you have brought me thus far?”
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me!I once was lost but now I’m found,Was blind, but now I see.
“Amazing Grace” is a hymn of faith in a God whose mercy eclipsed the heathenish, wretched life Newton had lived on the seas. “I can see no reason why the Lord singled me out for mercy…unless it was to show, by one astonishing instance, that with him ‘nothing is impossible’” Newton wrote in his authentic narrative of his life.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
“Amazing Grace” has a universal appeal. It has been sung an estimated more than 10 million times and recorded on more than 7,000 albums, according to Newton biographer Jonathan Aitken. It’s been sung by a U.S. president, folk singers, rock and roll stars, and congregations around the world.
During the Covid lockdowns, it was recorded by singers from 50 countries with the message that “the amazing grace and love of Jesus is stronger than life and death itself.” Translated into more than 50 languages, including Inuit, it was even played on the bagpipes by NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren at the International Space Station.
The hymn in the Olney Hymnbook, published in 1779. Public domain.