Amazing Grace Song: The History, Lyrics and Meaning of the iconic song

Updated On: March 23, 2023

Amazing Grace Song

Amazing Grace has become one of the most hauntingly beautiful Christian hymns in the world. Many famous faces have covered the iconic song, from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin and Johnny Cash. Even former US President Barack Obama has lent his voice to the song in a powerful rendition.

It’s estimated that Amazing Grace has been performed over 10 million times and has impressively appeared on over 11,000 albums worldwide. The origin and history of the Amazing Grace song is remarkably fascinating and one that we will explore further in this article.

Keeping reading to learn all about this famous song, its origins, who wrote it, its true meaning and much more! You will also find Amazing Grace lyrics and Amazing Grace Chords below if you wish to play or sing along!

Amazing Grace Song History

The Amazing Grace hymn has an incredible history that begins in Donegal, Ireland. Almost everyone has heard this powerful and uplifting song but not many people know much about its origins.

Explore Grianan of Aileach in Co. Donegal. The county of Donegal plays a part in the origin of this song.

The Story Behind Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace was written by author John Newton when he landed safely in Donegal, Ireland after being caught in a ferocious storm at sea. Newton’s arrival in the beautiful Lough Swilly along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way played an influential role in changing his life, marking the start of his return to Christianity.

Up until the point of coming to Ireland, John Newton was involved in the Slave Trade. At a young age Newton went to sea and worked on slave ships. In 1745 at the age of 20, Newton was captured and became a slave himself.

When he was subsequently rescued he returned to sea and the slave trade once more, becoming the captain of several slave ships. It is difficult to believe that a song so beautiful was written by a person who was part of such atrocious acts, but something happened that would change the course of Newtons life forever.

In 1748, Newton was travelling from Africa to Liverpool and got caught up in an awful storm. The weather conditions were so severe that Newton was said to have called out to God asking for mercy. Newton considered himself to be an atheist at this point, so this was a last-ditch effort in an attempt to somehow survive.

The ship safely reached Ireland which marked the beginning of Newton’s spiritual conversion. Although he didn’t instantly change his ways and was still involved in the slave trade for six more years, it is believed that he began reading the Bible in Ireland and ‘started to view his captives with a more sympathetic view.’

Newton went on to become an Anglican Priest, a vocation that would enable him to write many hymns.

Even though the Amazing Grace Song wasn’t written until 25-years later in 1779, Newton has stated that his time in Donegal was a key moment that inspired the song. The song might not even exist today if it wasn’t for the violent storm that led him to Irish shores.

It wasn’t until 1788, 34 years after his retirement from the slave trade that Newton broke his silence on the subject and advocated against slavery. He lived to see the British passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, after many of years of supporting campaigns.

Has your opinion of the song changed now that you have learned about the life of John Newton?

Fort Dunree, Inishowen Peninsula - County Donegal Deposit Photos Amazing Grace song
Fort Dunree, Inishowen Peninsula – County Donegal, Ireland.

Who Wrote Amazing Grace?

As briefly mentioned above Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, an English poet and Anglican Clergyman. In the early part of his life, Newton once considered himself an atheist and was involved in slave trade. It’s quite surprising to a lot of people that he then went on to write one of the world’s most recognisable songs about God and faith, it was by surviving a storm that Newton began to change his ways and repent for his actions.

Let’s find out more about the writer behind Amazing Grace:

John Newton’s Life

Newton was born in London, England in 1726, the son of John Newton Sr and Elizabeth Newton. His father worked as a shipmaster in the Mediterranean service and his mother was an instrument maker.

Elizabeth died from tuberculosis not long before John’s seventh birthday. Newtown was then sent to boarding school for a few years before he went to live in Essex at the home of his father’s new wife.

At the young age of 11, Newton went to work at sea along with his father. He sailed six voyages before his father eventually retired in 1742.

His father had made plans for him to work at a sugarcane plantation in Jamaica but John had other ideas in mind. Newton signed himself up with a merchant ship that sailed to Mediterranean sea.

Newton’s Time in the British Navy Services

While Newton was on his way to visit friends in 1743, he was captured and forced into the British Navy services. He became a midshipman, an officer of the junior-most rank aboard HMS Harwich. After a failed attempt to escape, he was punished, receiving eight dozen lashes and reduce to rank of a common seaman.

He was later transferred to another Ship ‘Pegasus’, a slave ship that was heading to West Africa. He didn’t get along with his new crew and they ended up leaving him in West Africa in 1745 with Amos Clowe. Clowe was a known slave trader and gave Newton to his wife, Princess Peye. She was of African royalty, and treated him terribly.

Newton’s involvement in Slave Trade and religious awakening

In 1748, John Newton was rescued by a sea caption, sent by his father to find him and they returned back to England. It was on this his trip back home after defeating a violent storm that he began his spiritual conversion. But he still continued to work in the slave trade. He made further voyages including a trip in 1750 as the master of the slave ship ‘Duke of Argyle’ and two more on the ‘African’.

Newton even called himself a heartless businessman who didn’t feel empathy for the slaves he traded. Finally in 1754, after Newton became very unwell he gave up life at sea and stopped working in the slave trading industry.

A couple of years later he applied to become an Anglican priest in the Church of England, but it was over seven years before he was accepted. Newton was officially announced as a priest on the 17th June 1764. Throughout his time as a priest, he became very respected by Anglicans and non-conformists.

Donegal Wild Atlantic Way Reference Free Image
Donegal Wild Atlantic Way – Arriving in Donegal is said to have been a major moment in Newton’s life causing him to reconsider his ways

John Newton and William Cowper

Newton collaborated with William Cowper creating a huge volumes of hymns, including ‘Amazing Grace.’ William Cowper was referred to as one of the greatest hymn writers in the history of the church. They became friends after Cowper had moved to Onley and began worshipping in Newton’s Church.

Newton would begin writing Amazing Grace in 1772.

Their first volume of Hymns were published as the ‘Olney Hymns’ in 1779. The hymns were written for Newton to use in his Parish, which was usually filled with poor people and uneducated followers. The volume included some of Newtons most loved hymns including “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “Faith’s Review and Expectations” the latter of which many people now know as The Amazing Grace Song. The first line of the song would eventually become the title.

By 1836 the ‘Olney Hymns’ had become very popular and had 37 different recording editions. Newton’s preaching also became admired and his small church was soon overflowing with people who wanted to listen to him.

John Newton would come to regret his involvement in the slave trading industry. In 1787 Newton wrote a tract supporting the abolition of slavery that went on to become very influential. It highlighted the awful horrors of slavery and his involvement within it, which he claimed he sincerely regretted.

Later on, he joined forces with William Wilberforce (M.P) in his campaign to end trade slavery. When the abolishing of the Slave Trade Law finally came into place in 1807, Newton on his death bed was believed to have been “rejoiced to hear the wonderful news”.

The Worlds Most Famous Hymn – Amazing Grace Song Chords

Amazing Grace Music Sheet
Amazing Grace Music Sheet – Chords to Amazing Grace with lyrics

Below we have included the lyrics for Amazing Grace. Now that you know John Newtons backstory does the lyric meaning change for you? Personally we think the parallel between the song and the writers time in Donegal are very clear.

Amazing Grace Song Lyrics

The beautiful words of the hymn are below:

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.’

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through 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 promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, 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 called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

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’d first begun.

Amazing Grace Song Meaning

The hymn has gone on to become one of the most powerful songs in the world and a favourite hymn for many. The song offers up a universal message of hope and redemption – everyone who listens to it can interpret a different meaning for themselves.

John Newton is said to have written the hymn as a heartfelt expression to God. It was a pivotal time in his life when God had saved him from the storm and through the Bible has helped him to leave behind the wicked business of slave trading. The song also became a well-known anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

It wasn’t until later on in life when Newton was a priest that he debuted the hymn. It was originally known as “Faith Reviews and Expectations” before it was changed to the opening line of the song.

The hymn opens with the powerful lyrics “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Newton drew on his own life working in the slave trade and his near-death experience on a boat, where he believed God saved him and prompted him onto a Christian path. “I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind but know I see”

Some people argue that part of the huge appeal of Amazing Grace is the incredible backstory that brought it to life. Newton went from being a cruel slave trader to a highly respected minister. However, many people don’t know the songs backstory before hearing it. The message of the song is vague enough that it can be applied to anyone’s life.

The song represents the personal journey many people can relate to; wanting to find meaning in our lives through faith. It offers hope to those who are wishing to become better and positively change their life around, yet is does not appear judgemental. It is a song that has transcended any one meaning but its universal message stays the same.

The Popularity of the Amazing Grace Song

Amazing grace the song wasn’t an instant hit; Newton had written around 300 hymns, many of which became British standard songs. But the Amazing Grace song was rarely sung and wasn’t included in most of Newton’s compilation of hymns.

It wasn’t until the hymn had crossed the Atlantic ocean over to America when it became hugely popular. It was a favourite among Americans during the 19th century and was cherished by the religious movement known as the ‘Second Great Awakening.’

Preachers of the movement used the song as a way for people to repent their sins as the message of the song wasn’t filled with complex understandings. People like the idea of starting fresh with their faith, owning their mistakes and learning to be better; devoting themselves to something that doesn’t judge them but wants them to be better.

The song continued to grow in popularity, especially in Protestant churches. In previous centuries music had not been a huge focus during services. Many believed that music acted as a huge distraction for people in the church. But as we approached the 19th century, many Christian leaders believed that music would help to enhance the mass experience.

Its worth noting in history that literacy was not always widespread, especially among poorer people. Songs and artwork could spread the message of faith to everyone – including those who could not read – in ways that pamphlets and even the Bible could not. Music had the potential to break down barriers between those who could afford to read and those who could not, creating a sense of unity.

Therefore the real problem hymns faced was that most people could not sing or read music at that time. So American Hymn composers created their own form of musical notation. This came to be known as ‘shape-note singing’, an easier way to learn and it allowed people to be able to sing in churches.

Amazing Grace was sung for many decades at revivals and evangelical churches. The lyrics remained constant, but a lot of the time, depending on the location of the church the song was conducted with different music. This brings us on to our next section which explores the tune behind the song.

The Standard Version of Amazing Grace

Surprisingly, there was never any music written for the song. Newton’s lyrics were attached to several different traditional tunes. Eventually in 1835 composer William Walker added the lyrics of Amazing Grace to a recognisable tune called “New Britain” and the rest is history. Ever since then this has become the standard version of the Amazing Grace hymnary that is recognised all around the world.

Amazing Grace has a very interesting and complex history; the song became a symbol of hope through social and political turmoil, becoming one of the greatest hymns ever. John Newton’s own personal experience on redemption added more meaning to the hymn, but it became much bigger than him. It is a song people sing at defining moments in their lives, including funerals. It was also a song sung by human rights activists.

To think it all began in a violent storm that led a man to the shores of Ireland, inspiring him to take a new path in life. The story behind the song is pretty remarkable.

Famous Performances of Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace has taken the world by storm and many famous musicians have taken offered up their own uniquely beautiful versions for people to enjoy. It’s without a doubt one of the most recorded songs in the world. Even centuries later bands and artists are still covering the beautiful song by John Newton. The hymn has also become famous for being played at funerals.

Now that you know the lyrics to one of the most iconic hymns of all time, you may believe that every version is just a generic cover. However, it is clear that this song means a lot to the many people who sing it. From soulful renditions to vulnerable performances, the song has the power to bring communities together and to remember loved ones we have lost.

Here are some of the most famous Amazing Grace Covers:

Judy Collins Amazing Grace Cover

Judy Collins, an American singer-songwriter first sang a stunning rendition of Amazing Grace at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993. Throughout her music career, she has covered it many times. Between 1970 and 1972, Judy Collins’ recording of the song spent 67 weeks on the chart and even reached number five.

Here is one of her best version of Amazing Grace with the Boys Choir of Harlem in 1993 at a Memorial Day concert.

Elvis Presley Amazing Grace Cover

Elvis Presley needs no introduction as the undisputed ‘King of Rock and Roll’. He is one of the best rock stars to ever grace the world and his music has been loved by generations. Elvis offered his own unique performance of ‘Amazing Grace’ that is intertwined with a country style.

Check out Elvis Presley singing a striking cover of the Amazing Grace Song below.

Amazing Grace Elvis Presley – Do you like Elvis’s cover?

Celtic Women Amazing Grace Cover

The Celtic Women are a famous all-girl musical ensemble from Ireland, they have beautifully covered many iconic songs such as Danny Boy and ‘Amazing Grace’.

Check out their spectacular version of the song below that’s sure to leave you speechless.

Amazing Grace Bagpipes Cover

One of the most loved versions of Amazing Grace is performed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Just a few years after Judy Collins had recorded the song, The Royal Scot Dragoon Guards recorded an instrumental version featuring a bagpipe soloist. Their version rose to number 11 in the U.S charts

Check out their version of the song below:

Amazing Grace with bagpipes

Aretha Franklin Amazing Grace Cover

Aretha Franklin was another famous singer who lent her voice to the lyrics of Amazing Grace, which has become a fan favourite version.

Check out her live performance below:

Amazing Grace Aretha Franklin

Johnny Cash Amazing Grace Cover

Another popular version of Amazing Grace is by Johnny Cash who recorded the song on his album ‘Sings Precious Memories’ in 1975. Johnny Cash dedicated the song to his brother, who passed away after a mill accident, so it was naturally a very personal and emotional performance for him.

He would often sing the song when he toured prisons saying: “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”

Obama Amazing Grace

One of the most powerful versions of the song was heard when the former President of the United Stated covered it when speaking at the Eulogy for Reverend Pickney. During a memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston 2015, Barack Obama broke into a powerful rendition of Amazing Grace.

Before he started singing the song he said: “This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of Grace”. The song has meanings of grace and was a fitting choice for Reverend Pinkney, who Obama referred to as a kind and diligent person.

Check out Obama’s Amazing moment of Grace below:

Amazing Grace Broadway Musical

The famous song was even turned into a Broadway musical that follows the awe-inspiring real-life story of the beloved song. The musical gave a captivating look into the life of John Newton, the talented writer behind the song and how he came to write the worlds greatest hymn.

The Amazing Grace Musical created by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron. The musical was Christopher Smith’s first professional job as a writer and composer. The production of the musical first opened in 2012 in Connecticut and had a Pre-Broadway run in Chicago in 2014. It then officially opened on Broadway in July 2015 and finished in October 2015.

You can check out highlights from the Broadway Musical below:

Amazing Grace Film

Long before the song was turned into a Broadway Musical it was made into a film adaptation in 2006. The filmed was titled as ‘Amazing Grace’, an obvious reference to the famous Hymn.

It is a British-American Biographical drama film, loosely based on John Newton’s life and like every film, parts are dramatized or adapted to make for better viewing. The film recounts an important time in Newton’s life, as a crewman on a slave ship and his subsequent religious journey.

The film received positive reviews and grossed over £21 million dollars in the United States.

Amazing Grace 2018

Amazing Grace movie (2018) is a concert film starring Aretha Franklin while she was recording her 1972 live album of the same name. It was planned to be released in 1972 but because of various issues throughout the decades the film released 46 years later! As for delays in release, this film surely ranks on top!

The film documentary was released to critical and commercial success.

Amazing Grace and Ireland

One person who has helped to put Buncrana (a town in Donegal) on the world map is Kieran Henderson. Sadly Kieran passed away at the young age of 45 but he leaves behind an incredible legacy in his home.

While Henderson was working with Inishowen Tourism he became aware of John Newton and how his time in Ireland inspired the words of the hymn. He quickly realised a marketing opportunity to promote tourism in Ireland with the help of the song.

A decade on, a once forgotten part of Ireland is now known as ‘Amazing Grace Country’, welcoming visitors from all around the world. Buncrana is now home to the Amazing Grace park which has a great viewing point and an annual festival that celebrates the song. Kieran saw the towns historical connection to the global story of the song as an opportunity to attract people to Donegal. His ambition worked hugely in his and his communities favour.

Amazing Grace Festival

In April, the annual Festival celebrates the dramatic story of John Newton’s arrival in Ireland in 1748. The festival offers a variety of attractions from heritage tours and walks, to live music, art and crafts and more.

Check out some of the highlights from the 2016 Amazing Grace Festival in Ireland:

So now that you know who wrote Amazing Grace, its meaning and the many famous faces that have sang it, how do you feel about the song? With the lyrics and chords for Amazing Grace included in this article you may even choose to sing a version of your own!

Frequently Asked Questions about Amazing Grace

Who wrote Amazing Grace?

Amazing Grace was written by John Newman when he landed safely in Donegal, Ireland after being caught in a terrible storm at sea. The song reflected his return to faith and the start of his conversion to Christianity.

What is the story behind Amazing Grace?

John Newton is said to have written it as a heartfelt expression to God in 1772. It was inspired by a pivotal time in his life after surviving a ship wreck. Newton was involved in the slave trade, but would go on to regret his actions and became a priest who advocated for the abolishment of slavery.

Is Amazing Grace a true story?

Amazing Grace is indeed a true story about a man who drastically changed his life after a near death experience at sea. He rediscovered his faith and eventually abandoned his role in the slave trade to become a priest who advocated for the abolishment of slavery in the UK.

Why is Amazing Grace played at funerals?

Amazing Grace is a perfect song for funerals, it is about forgiving our past and rediscovering our faith. It has become a song used in the Civil Rights movement and its meaning is different to everyone, even though it has a universal message.

Why did John Newton write Amazing Grace?

John Newton wrote the song after his near death experience. He believed that God had saved him, he had lost his faith in the past but this incident encouraged him to change his ways.

Who sings the best version of Amazing Grace?

There are so many iconic versions of the most recognisable hymn of all time, including versions by Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins and Johnny Cash. Instrumental versions such as the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards bagpipe cover are also popular and each rendition has its own unique sense of character and emotion.

Do you like this Acapella version of the hymn by BYU Noteworthy?

Final Thoughts

Let us know your thoughts on the Amazing Grace Song! Do you have a favourite version of the song? What does the song mean to you? We would love to know 🙂

Also, If you enjoyed this article then check out the history, lyrics, and meaning of another famous song ‘Danny Boy‘.

Alternatively, we also have more historic articles that you may enjoy, including:

The interesting history of Galway | Irish Art History: Amazing Celtic & Pre-Christian Art | Ancient Gods: History of the World | Famous Irish Traditions: Music, Sports, Folklore & More