Posted by: rcottrill | September 10, 2018

Amazing Grace

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Words: John Newton (b. July 24, 1725; d. Dec. 21, 1807)
Music: New Britain, composer unknown; tune first used with this hymn in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, 1835.

Links:
Wordwise Hymns (for another article see here)
The Cyber Hymnal
Hymnary.org

Note: There are many personal references in this hymn (I, me, my)–unusual for hymns of that day. In that, it resembles the gospel songs that came along in the nineteenth century. Newton revels in the grace of God that he himself experienced. Before he died, he composed what would become his epitaph:

John Newton, clerk
Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
Jesus Christ,
restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.

Amazing Grace is certainly the best known hymn in the English language. According to Hymnary.org, it’s found in over 1200 hymnals. And it could well be the favourite of more people than any other. But that wasn’t always the case.

The song remained in relative obscurity for the first 191 years of its existence, until an American folk singer made a recording of it in 1970. Judy Collins, as far as I know, makes know profession of being a Christian, but her haunting rendition of the hymn became a much-played hit, and she sang it many times in concerts.

John Newton, an Anglican clergyman, published a new hymnal he produced in 1779. Called Olney Hymns, after his parish town of Olney, in England, the historically significant volume included Amazing Grace, which he entitled “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

The biblical inspiration for it is interesting. King David of Israel received a visit from the prophet Nathan, who brought a message from the Lord, the essence of which is now known as the Davidic Covenant. God promised:

“I will establish him in My house and in My kingdom forever; and his throne shall be established forever” (I Chron. 17:14).

This will be accomplished through Christ, who in His human incarnation was a descendant of David (Matt. 1:1; Rev. 11:15). And when the king heard these words, he marveled at the grace of God that would grant him and his family such an undeserved privilege. He responded:

“Who am I, O Lord God? And what is my house, that You have brought me this far? And yet this was a small thing in Your sight, O God; and You have also spoken of Your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the rank of a man of high degree, O Lord God” (vs. 16-17).

It was those last two Bible verses that Pastor Newton referenced in the heading of his hymn. They expressed how he felt himself, a formerly wicked and profane slave trader, saved by grace. And if there was hope for John Newton, there is surely hope still for those who have wallowed in the dregs of sin. This is why Amazing Grace has long been a favourite of whose who are in prison. “A wretch like me” has special meaning for them!

The Bible says those who become Christians weren’t saved by the merit of their good works, but by the grace (the unmerited favour) of God.

“By grace you have been saved through faith [in Christ], and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified [declared righteous] freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24).

The hymn’s celebration of God’s grace begins with the familiar words:

CH-1) 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.

The original song had six stanzas. But even hymnals that include six rarely use Newton’s last:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me hear below,
Will be forever mine.

This is replaced now by a stanza whose author is unknown. Below is Newton’s fifth stanza, followed by the replacement for the sixth. The two certainly go well together. (“The veil” is an allusion to the curtain that separated the holy of holies in Israel’s tabernacle–and later, the temple in Jerusalem. It’s a way to describe heaven, and our entry into the presence of God.)

5) And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

6) When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.

Questions:
1) What is the opposite of God’s grace–what we all deserve?

2) What makes God’s grace so “amazing”?

Links:
Wordwise Hymns (for another article see here)
The Cyber Hymnal
Hymnary.org


Responses

  1. Thank you for what you are doing!
    My wife only recently pointed me to your website and I have found it very beneficial.
    I am always astounded at our Lord’s providential mercies and generosity. Like many, Amazing Grace, is my favorite hymn and it is providential that the first blog article that you post after I came to your site is about it.
    I am curious as to whether you have any notion of when that 7th stanza began to appear. I have seen sources that state that it actually was “borrowed” from another hymn, possibly unknown today.
    I also recently became aware that part of the reason for the early popularity of Amazing Grace in America may have been because of its inclusion in the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Of course, that was written in the mid-nineteenth century and was popular amongst the Abolishionists, most of whom were God-fearing people and probably knew of it.
    By the way, I was born and grew up in Ontario, but born again and am growing up into Christ in Texas!
    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for your kind and encouraging note–and thank your wife for me, for suggesting you take a look at my site. 🙂

      As to Amazing Grace, it’s a truly great and well-known song, but there continue to be mysteries connected with it. And yes, Tom does sing this hymn in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’d forgotten that, though I’ve read the book several times. But I looked it up, and there it is in chapter 38. Not only that, but Tom sings the verse that’s been added, and was not part of Newton’s original: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…” The novel was published in 1852, and that may be the first pairing we have of the stanza with Newton’s song.

      In 1779 John Newton published Olney Hymns which contains the hymn. Then, in 1790, Richard and Andrew Broaddus published a book called A Collection of Sacred Ballads. It’s there the earliest known appearance of the stanza in question came in sight. (I don’t know what the song was.) The first appearance of Amazing Grace in a hymn book, which also used the stanza in question, comes in 1910, in Coronation Hymns, edited by Edwin Excell (who also gave us words and music for the gospel song Since I Have Been Redeemed.

      Well, there you are, the origin of the tune is also uncertain, but I’ll leave it there for now. God bless you and your wife.


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