Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

The words to the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, were written by John Newton, a Church of England priest who was ordained in 1764. Long before ordination however, Newton saw service in the Royal Navy, where he gained a reputation for profanity and blasphemy. After deserting the Royal Navy, he found new work on board the slave ships coming out of Sierra Leone. 

One night their ship was caught in a fierce storm off the coast of Ireland. The waves rose up and several crew members were washed overboard. Newton and a fellow sailor tied themselves to the ship’s pump and worked for seven hours to keep the ship aloat. Newton then took the wheel, and for the next eleven hours steered the ship through the storm. 

That was the beginning of Newton’s conversion to Christianity. The man who once ridiculed believers and blasphemed against God, now pondered the future of his own soul. Could such a sinner ever be forgiven? The opening verse of “Amazing Grace”, written in 1772, provides an answer,

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found,

was blind, but now I see.

Today, it is thought that the hymn is sung around 10 million times each year. It was the closing song at a concert Ruth and I attended last week at Ocean City Music Pier, NJ, featuring Judy Collins and Richard Thompson. Collins invited Thompson to join her on stage for the final number, with Thompson playing guitar. They began to sing “Amazing Grace”, and then Collins called out to the audience to sing along. 

It was a memorable finale to a wonderful concert. For me, this hymn has long has been a fellow traveler in my journey of faith. With simplicity and directness it conveys the generosity of God’s grace, to pardon the sinner and rescue them from oblivion and death. It is a song of gratitude from the penitent who has turned back, and now faces a life of hope instead of one of rancor and bitterness. 

The hymn also awakens a sense of belonging. If we belong to God, how do we live secure under God’s grace? The answer may best be found in John Newton’s own experience during the storm, of being tied to the ship’s pump. In doing so, he prevented himself from being swept overboard. If we belong to God, we bind ourselves to him by carrying the yoke of his law and accepting the moral claims of his religion. In return, God will protect and bless us. The alternative – a freedom to choose what you want on your own terms – is a dead end, as John Newton discovered. Only a life invested in God offers the hope of forgiveness and redemption. 

Singing “Amazing Grace” in the concert hall was a different experience to singing it in church. At the gradual swell of sound from the audience rose, it became apparent that not everyone knew the words, or perhaps some felt awkward singing together. Judy Collins had introduced the song by describing it as the conversion song of a slave trader, and it is certainly true that John Newton in later life teamed up with the MP William Wilberforce to campaign against slavery. However, “Amazing Grace” is essentially a personal hymn about conversion and trust in God. 

After the concert, it occurred to me that Judy Collins was following a time-honored practice among folk singers, of inviting the audience to sing along. As in church, it made one voice out of many. The power of “Amazing Grace” is to draw us in praise and thanksgiving to God. Sung together, or alone, or in a concert hall, it never fails to remind us of the eternal and amazing God, rich in mercy and abundant in grace.

May grace lead you home,

Father David

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