Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
Text: Origins. The story of “Amazing grace” often includes the story of John Newton’s seafaring life and the brutal storm he survived on 21 March 1748, a story Newton recounted in a series of letters, published as An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of [Mr. Newton] (1st ed., 1764: PDF), especially letters VII and VIII. This near-catastrophe led to a spiritual awakening that he remembered the rest of his life. Nonetheless, his journey from ocean to Olney was much longer than a singular voyage. In spite of his spiritual renewal on that ship, he continued in the slave trade until 1753, when a serious downturn in his health provoked him to give up his seafaring and enter the ministry.
Newton was appointed to the church at Olney in 1764. “Amazing grace” seems to have been written in connection with a sermon he delivered on New Years Day, 1773, based on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. His sermon notes, held at the Lambeth Palace Library (MS 2940), read:
We had not so much a desire of deliverance. Instead of desiring the Lord's help, we breathed a spirit of defiance against him. His mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired. Yea [a] few [of] us but resisted his calls, and when he knocked at the door of our hearts endeavoured to shut him out till he overcame us by the power of his grace.
A few years later, Newton referenced this amazing grace in a letter to John Thornton, 12 Sept. 1776:
… surely no one could be a greater libertine in principle or practice, more abandoned or more daring than I. But I obtained mercy. I hardly feel any stronger proof of remaining depravity than in my having so faint a sense of the Amazing Grace that snatched me from ruin, that pardoned such enormous sins, preserved my life when I stood upon the brink of eternity and could only be preserved by miracle, and changed a disposition which seemed so incurably obstinate and given up to horrid wickedness.
The hymn was first published in Olney Hymns (1st ed, 1779: PDF | Fig. 1), titled “Faith’s review and expectation,” with the scripture reference of 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, given in six stanzas of four lines, without music.
Text: Analysis. Newton’s scripture reference, 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, poses the question from King David, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” This is reflected in the hymn when the writer speaks of being a “wretch,” “lost,” and “blind,” yet delivered “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” The agency of that deliverance? “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far.” Newton lived those words in very real ways. The final two stanzas look forward to the writer’s ultimate journey to an eternal “life of joy and peace,” to be in the presence of his God.
Literary scholar Leland Ryken penned this assessment of the hymn:
At the level of imagery, the poem is built around a great contrast that puts two worlds on a collision course. One is a world of sin and fallenness—not just spiritually in a sinner’s personal life, but in the whole earthly order. The vocabulary continually keeps this world of decay and misery alive in our awareness, with words like wretch, lost, blind, dangers, toils, snares, fail, cease, dissolve like snow, and refuse to shine. Set over against this lower world of unideal experience is an upper world of ideal experience, portrayed with words like grace, found, good, hope, shield and portion, joy and peace, shining as the sun. The poem thus roots us in the fallen earthly order but promises us the best that can be imagined. It is a song of hope, comfort, and confidence, with misery functioning as a foil to heighten the vision of bliss.
Text: Development. This hymn has come to be known with an altogether different final stanza, beginning “When we’ve been there ten thousand years.” These words were first printed in A Collection of Sacred Ballads (1790 | Fig. 2), edited by Richard and Andrew Broaddus, at the end of hymn no. 3, “Jerusalem, my happy home.” This stanza was not originally part of that hymn either, which is much older. It might have been a poetic addition by one of the compilers, or acquired by them from some other unpublished source. These additional words were not paired with “Amazing grace” until 1910, in Coronation Hymns (Fig. 3), courtesy of the editorial hand of Edwin Excell.
Another popular variation comes from the work of Chris Tomlin. His recording, “Amazing grace (my chains are gone),” from his album See the Morning (2006 | iTunes | Spotify | Amazon), added this additional refrain (co-written with Louie Giglio):
My chains are gone, I’ve been set free;
My God, my Savior, has ransomed me;
And like a flood, His mercy reigns;
Unending love, amazing grace.
Initially, “Amazing grace” was not popular in England. It only appeared with music three times between 1779 and 1820, two of those being collections by the same compiler, William Green. In Green’s collections, A Companion to the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hymns (ca. 1808 | Fig. 4a) and his Clerk’s Companion (ca. 1820), this text was set to the tune HEPHZIBAH by J. Husband. The earlier collection, shown here, coordinates with editions of A Select Collection of Hymns Universally Sung in all the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapels, where “Amazing grace” is given as hymn no. 190, starting with the 1780 edition, and as late as the 1799 edition (Fig. 4b).
2. NEW BRITAIN
By far, the most commonly associated tune is an American folk tune, known mainly by the name NEW BRITAIN. This tune first appeared in Columbian Harmony (1829), in two variations with two different texts, one being named GALLAHER, set to “Come, let us join our friends above” by Charles Wesley, in three parts, with the melody in the second part (Fig. 5). The other was named ST. MARY’S, set to “Arise, my soul, my joyful pow’rs” by Isaac Watts, in four parts, with the melody in the third part, slightly more florid (Fig. 6). Both melodic variants are pentatonic.
In 1831, the tune appeared in Virginia Harmony under the name HARMONY GROVE, with the text “There is a land of pure delight” by Isaac Watts (Fig. 7). The arrangement is in three parts, melody in the second part.
The famed pairing of NEW BRITAIN with Newton’s “Amazing grace” happened in William Walker’s Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1835 | Fig. 8). This one, like the others, was published in shape notes, and it is an arrangement in three parts, with the melody in the second part. Walker’s collection included all six stanzas of Newton’s text. The reference to “Baptist Harmony, p. 123” is a cross-reference to Newton’s text in Staunton Burdett’s Baptist Harmony (1834).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
5 July 2018
rev. 4 September 2019
“Amazing grace: the sermon notes,” The John Newton Project: http://www.johnnewton.org/Groups/32665/The_John_Newton/Amazing_Grace/The_sermon_notes/The_sermon_notes.aspx
Letter to John Thornton, 12 Sept. 1776, Cambridge University, Thornton Papers, Add 7674/1/B19, transcribed by Marylynn Rouse for The John Newton Project (http://www.johnnewton.org).
Leland Ryken, “Amazing grace,” 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2019), pp. 22-23.
J.R. Watson, “Amazing grace,” An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: University Press, 2002), pp. 214-216.
Leland Ryken, “Amazing grace,” 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2019), pp. 21-24.
“Amazing grace: the sermon notes,” The John Newton Project:
Lambeth Palace Library, Database of Manuscripts and Archives, Newton Papers, MS 2940:
“Amazing grace,” Hymn Tune Index:
“The Creation of Amazing grace,” Library of Congress:
“Amazing grace,” Hymnary.org:
“Amazing grace,” Elizabeth Cosnett, Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: