John Henry Newton (24 July 1725 – 21 December 1807) was an English sailor and Anglican clergyman. Starting his career at sea, at a young age, he became involved with the slave trade for a few years, and was himself enslaved for a period. After experiencing a religious conversion, he became a minister, hymn-writer, and later a prominent supporter of the abolition of slavery. He was the author of many hymns, including “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.”
“Amazing Grace” is a Christian hymn with words written by the English poet and clergyman John Newton (1725–1807), published in 1779. With the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of sins committed and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God, “Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world.
Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction, but his life’s path was formed by a variety of twists and coincidences that were often put into motion by his recalcitrant insubordination. He was pressed (forced into service involuntarily) into the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel so severely that he called out to God for mercy, a moment that marked his spiritual conversion. However, he continued his slave trading career until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his seafaring altogether and began studying Christian theology.
English: Page 53 in Olney Hymns, the verses that would become known as “Amazing Grace“
The greatest influences in the 19th century that propelled “Amazing Grace” to spread across the U.S. and become a staple of religious services in many denominations and regions were the Second Great Awakening and the development of shape note singing communities. A tremendous religious movement swept the U.S. in the early 19th century, marked by the growth and popularity of churches and religious revivals that got their start in Kentucky and Tennessee. Unprecedented gatherings of thousands of people attended camp meetings where they came to experience salvation; preaching was fiery and focused on saving the sinner from temptation and backsliding. Religion was stripped of ornament and ceremony, and made as plain and simple as possible; sermons and songs often used repetition to get across to a rural population of poor and mostly uneducated people the necessity of turning away from sin. Witnessing and testifying became an integral component to these meetings, where a congregation member or even a stranger would rise and recount his turn from a sinful life to one of piety and peace. “Amazing Grace” was one of many hymns that punctuated fervent sermons, although the contemporary style used a refrain, borrowed from other hymns, that employed simplicity and repetition such as:
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.
Shout, shout for glory,
Shout, shout aloud for glory;
Brother, sister, mourner,
All shout glory hallelujah.
Text: John Newton, 1725-1807 Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.
1. Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
God, whose word cannot be broken,
formed thee for his own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
thou mayst smile at all thy foes.
2. See, the streams of living waters,
springing from eternal love,
well supply thy sons and daughters,
and all fear of want remove.
Who can faint while such a river
ever will their thirst assuage?
Grace which like the Lord, the giver,
never fails from age to age.
3. Round each habitation hovering,
see the cloud and fire appear
for a glory and a covering,
showing that the Lord is near!
Thus deriving from our banner
light by night and shade by day,
safe we feed upon the manna
which God gives us when we pray.
4. Blest inhabitants of Zion,
washed in our Redeemer’s blood;
Jesus, whom our souls rely on,
makes us monarchs, priests to God.
Us, by his great love, he raises,
rulers over self to reign,
and as priests his solemn praises
we for thankful offering bring.