The Spiritual Biography of Amazing Grace

by M-Gillies

John Newton wrote the lyrics for "Amazing Grace" in 1772.

Music, for the myriad existence of human culture has been a commonly shared trait. With an ability to elicit emotions of anger, love, passion and hope, it can inspire, motivate and incite within us a sentimental desire to keep going. It has the ability to summon memories with effortless ease, allowing a reminiscence of nostalgia to overshadow our present thoughts; and perhaps this is why music has long been an important part of any funeral.

From its ability to trigger emotion, to its association with memory, music fills the air with a familiarity imbued with solace. The sound of music, particularly in a funeral home can set the tone and create an ambiance, and none has been so moving, touching and awe-inducing as the song Amazing Grace.

For as long as the funerary industry has been around, Amazing Grace has been a fixed staple, filling the parlors and evoking emotions. From its opening “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” the song has long been a staple in the hymnals of many religious denominations with its story of repentance of past sins, its request for absolution and its reception of spiritual guidance. But it is the history of the song that has forever cemented its place as the most recognized hymn of all time.

It was in 1744 when a young man by the name of John Newton was press-ganged aboard the H.M.S. Harwich to begin his naval service to the Royal Navy. Newton, who had a previous history of unsettled behaviour and impatience of restraints soon rebelled against the disciplines of the Royal Navy, going as far as attempting to desert his post. But it wasn’t long before he was eventually caught, placed in irons, stripped to the waist, tied to the grating and flogged in front of the crew of 350.

Even after his public humiliation, Newton continued to display his freethinking principles and remained insubordinate. While en route to India, Newton, upon his own request was transferred to the slave ship Pegasus. However, it was there that he continued with his behavior, going so far as openly mocking the captain by creating obscene poems and songs about him – songs, which would grow so popular that the crew would join in. His actions would see him nearly starved to death, imprisoned while at sea and chained like the slaves they carried until bound for West Africa, Newton was soon enslaved and forced to work on a planation in Sierra Leon in the care of a slave dealer named Amos Clowe.

However, Newton’s fate further spiralled as Clowe gave the young man to his wife, Princess Peye, an African Duchess. It was under the care of the Duchess that Newton was abused and mistreated along with her other slaves. He wrote of this period in solemn remembrance of how he was “Once and infidel and libertine, (now) a servant of slaves in West Africa.”

He was soon rescued in early 1748, by a sea captain who had been commissioned by Newton’s father to find the young man. But his notoriety quickly got the better of him. While Newton had some religious instruction from his mother, before her death when he was seven, he had long given up his religious convictions. Having been influenced by shipmates at a young age, Newton was known for exceeding the limits of verbal debauchery.

On his homeward journey back to England, he experienced a spiritual conversion. It was in March of 1748 when the ship known as the Greyhound was sailing through the North Atlantic. A violent storm was raging with ominous foreboding. In one moment, a crew member who had been standing where Newton had been moments ago was swept overboard. Even after hours of emptying water from the ship, Newton and another crew member anticipated the worst and feared the ship would capsize.

Newton who had been reading Thomas Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ recalled the line about “uncertain continuance of life”. But it was the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused… I also will laugh at your calamity” which left the biggest impact with him, and while not having been a man of religious convictions found himself asking the Lord to have mercy upon them.

Even after the ship had docked in Ireland, Newton’s conversion was not immediate. After that day, Newton went on to serve as a mate and then as captain of a number of slave ships. It was his hope that as a Christian he could restrain the worst excesses of the slave trade by “promoting the life of God in the soul” of both crew and his African cargo, and further see to it that his slaves were treated humanely.

In 1755, after a serious illness, he retired from seafaring forever and began to educate himself, learning Latin as well as other subjects. He soon held Bible studies in his Liverpool home and befriended George Whitefield, deacon in the Church of England, evangelistic preacher and leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church. Through these teachings, Newton grew increasingly disgusted with the slave trade and his role in it, and soon became ordained into the Anglican ministry, taking a parish in Olney in Buckinghamshire in 1764,

After a few years living in Olney, a poet who experienced bouts of depression by the name of William Cowper settled into the village and became a lay helper in the small congregation. It wasn’t long before Cowper and Newton developed a friendship.

For every weeks service, Newton would begin the Thursday evening prayer service reciting a hymn he had written and soon challenged Cowper to do the same. However, after Cowper fell seriously ill in 1773, Newton soon combined 280 of his own hymns with 68 of Copwers’ in what would become the popular Olney Hymns. Among Newton’s contributions was one that would forever find a permanent place within every church known as Amazing Grace, first written in late 1772.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

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

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

While the six stanzas of the song describe Newton’s repentance toward his past sins and his conversion toward Christianity, it is the haunting melody that has helped to make the hymn a familiar piece in the minds of every person. Though the origin of the melody has been speculated to have originated as the tune of a song slaves would sing, the version of Amazing Grace we know of today was created through composer William Walker’s combination of the words from Amazing Grace with a traditional Appalachian melody known as New Britain, in 1835.Though Amazing Grace has been sang to the melody of several (if not more) tunes, it was New Britain that would mark the finalized version of Newton’s spiritual autobiography, becoming the most recognized and popular hymn in the United States. Because of the heavy influence of Christianity in the United States, Amazing Grace would be performed by numerous artists in a variety of different styles. From Aretha Fanklin, Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers, to Elvis Presley, The Byrds and even The Dropkick Murphys. This simple traditional hymn has forever found its place not only as a requiem meant to seek forgiveness and assurance of pardon for sins committed, but as a confession of faith.




Rythym & Blues



Adult contemporary




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