Amazing Grace has become one of the most beautifully haunting Christian hymns in the world. Many famous faces have covered the iconic song from Elvis to Aretha Franklin to Johnny Cash. Even former President Barack Obama has lent his voice to the song for powerful rendition.
It’s estimated that Amazing Grace has been performed over 10 million times and has appeared on over 11,000 albums worldwide. The origin and history of the song are remarkably fascinating and one that will explore below.
Amazing Grace History
The Amazing Grace song 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.
The Story Behind Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace was written after the author, John Newton, landed safely in Donegal, Ireland after being shipwrecked. Newton’s arrival in the beautiful Lough Swilly along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way played an influential role in changing his life. His arrival marked the start of his conversion to Christianity.
Up until the point of coming to Ireland, Newton was involved in the Slave Trade. At the time he was travelling from Africa to Liverpool and was caught up in an awful storm. The storm was so severe that Newton was said to have called out to God asking for mercy.
The ship safely reaching Ireland, was marked at his spiritual conversion. Although he didn’t instantly change his ways and was still involved in the slave trade for 6 more years. But its believed that he did begin reading the Bible in Ireland and ‘started to view his captives with a more sympathetic view.’
Even though Amazing Grace wasn’t written until 25-years later, 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 that violent storm that led him to Irish shores.
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 a slave trader. 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.
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. His mother died not long before his 7th birthday from tuberculosis. 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 sugarcane plantations in Jamaica but John had other plans 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 desert, he was punished, receiving eight dozen lashes and reduce to rank of common seaman.
He was later transferred to another Ship ‘Pegasus, a slave ship that was heading to West Africa. He again didn’t get along with this new crew. They ended up leaving him in West African in 1745 with Amos Clowe. Clowe was a known Slave Trader and gave Newton to his wife Princess Peye. She was an African royalty who treated him terribly as she did with other slaves.
Slave Trader and Spiritual Conversion
In 1748 he was rescued by a sea caption after his father had sent him out to look for him and return home 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 one 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 Africans he traded. Finally in 1745 after Newton became very unwell he gave up life at sea and stopped slave trading.
A couple of years later he applied to become an Anglican priest 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-conformist.
John Newton and William Cowper
Newton collaborated with William Cowper creating huge volumes of hymns, including that of ‘Amazing Grace.’ Willaim 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 worshipped in Newton’s Chruch.
Their first volume of Hymes where published as the ‘Olney Hymns’ in 1779. The hymns were written for Newton to use in his Parish, that was filled with poor 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” that many people now know as “Amazing Grace.”
By 1836 the ‘Olney Hymns’ had become very popular and had 37 different recording editions. Newton’s preaching also became very popular and his small church was soon overflowing with people who wanted to listen to him.
He soon became 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 powerful. It highlighted the awful horror of slavery and his involvement within it.
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 Chords
Amazing Grace Song Lyrics
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
Amazing Grace has gone on to become one of the most powerful songs in the world and favourite hymn for many. The song offers up a universal message of hope and redemption – everyone who listens finds a different meaning for themselves.
But John Newton is said to have written it as a heartfelt expression to God. It was a time in his life when God had helped him to leave behind a wicked life of slaving trading. The song 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 changing to the opening line of the song “Amazing Grace”.
The hymn opens with the powerful lyrics “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Newton drew on his own experience here as a Slave Trader and his near-death experience on a boat where he believed God saved him and prompted him onto a Christian path.
Part of the huge appeal of Amazing Grace is the incredible backstory that brought it to life. Newton went from a horrible Slave Trader to a respected minister.
The concept of the song was created during his sailing days and took 25 years later before he put it out to the world. The song represents his own personal journey that saw him change his life around for the better and many people can relate to this.
The Popularity of the Amazing Grace Song
Amazing grace wasn’t an instant hit, Newton had written around 300 hymns, many of which became British standard songs. But with the Amazing Grace song, it was rarely sung and wasn’t included in most of Newton’s compilation of hymns.
It wasn’t until the song had crossed the Atlantic ocean to American 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 took the meaning of Amazing Grace as even if you’ve sinned, with faith you can be redeemed.
The song continued to grow in popularity with it being sung 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 church. But as we approached the 19th century, many Christian leaders believed that music would help to enhance the experience.
However, the real problem was that most people couldn’t 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’ as an easier way to learn, allowing people to be able to sing in churches.
The words for Amazing Grace for many decades were sung at revivals and evangelical churches. A lot of the time depending on the location of the church the song was conducted with different music.
The Standard Version of Saving Grace
There was never any music written for the song, Newton’s lyrics were attached to several different traditional tunes. Eventually, in 1835, Compose William Walker used the lyrics of Amazing Grace to a recognisable tune called “New Britain”. Ever since then this has become the standard version of Amazing Grace that recognised all around the world.
Amazing Grace has a very interesting and complex history that has seen it power through many social and political turmoils to become on the greatest hymns to ever to exist. John Newton’s own personal experience on redemption had long be treasured by many. To think it all began in a violent storm that led him to the Irish shores, 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 the song and offered up their own uniquely beautiful versions for people to enjoy. It is 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 song has become famous for being played at funerals.
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 5.
Here is one of her best version of Amazing Grace with the Boys Choir of Harlem in 1993 at a Memorial Day concert.
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:
Aretha Franklin Amazing Grace Cover
Aretha Franklin was another famous singer to lend her voice to the lyrics of Amazing Grace that has become a fan favourite version of the song. Check out her live performance of ‘Amazing Grace’ in 2014 below:
Johnny Cash Amazing Grace Cover
Another popular version of Amazing Grace is by Johnny Cash, he 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. 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 Amazing Grace was when former President of the United Stated covered it in speech. During a memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston 2015, 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, of course, has meanings of grace and was a fitting choice for Reverend Pinkney who Obama referred to him as kind and diligent. Check out Obama’s Amazing Grace moment below:
Amazing Grace Broadway Musical
The famous song was even turned into a Broadway musical that follows the awe-inspiring story 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 Christophers 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 Amazing Grace Broadway Musical below:
Amazing Grace Film
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 leaves behind an incredible legacy in his home.
While Henderson was working with the Inishowen Tourism he became aware of John Newton and how his time in Ireland after surviving a violent storm inspired the words of Amazing Grace. He quickly realised a marketing opportunity to promote tourism in Ireland with the help of Amazing Grace.
A decade on in a once forgotten part of Ireland is now known as the ‘Amazing Grace Country’ that welcomes visitors from all around the world. Buncrana is now home to an Amazing Grace park with a great viewing point and an annual festival that celebrates Amazing Grace. Kieran saw a historical connection with the global story of the song to attract people to the area and it worked hugely in his favour.
Amazing Grace Festival
In April, the annual Amazing Grace Festival takes place celebrating the dramatic story of John Newton’s arrival in Ireland in 1748. The festival offers a variety of attractions from heritage tours and walks, live music, art and craft and more.
Check out some of the highlights from the 2016 Amazing Grace Festival in Ireland:
Let us know your thoughts on this 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‘.