So begins that which is no doubt one of the most familiar and beloved of all Christian hymns; and also one that has long been one my favorites. A quick check of my iPod reveals that I actually have several versions of “Amazing Grace” on my playlist: including the stirring rendition by Judy Collins that was an unlikely hit record in 1970, the version from a couple of years after that with the bagpipes of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and an obscure live recording of Pete Seeger performing the song in “long meter style;” meaning that while the notes of the song do linger much, much longer than you expect, the accapella harmonies that come forth from that particular audience are just so full and rich you’re grateful for every moment it does!
My all-time favorite version of this song, however, has to be the one by Seeger and his frequent collaborator, Arlo Guthrie; a gospel-fueled rendition also recorded live back in the early 1980’s. This is the one where Guthrie tells the moving story of “the man who wrote this song:” John Newton, who was involved in African slave trade in the 1700’s, and eventually became the captain of a slave ship; but, how, after a horrific storm at sea, came to faith, and ordered that the ship be “turned back around” to Africa, and all the slaves freed; and then, how he wrote the words to “Amazing Grace,” to explain his conversion and epiphany which led him to become a minister of God.
It’s a wonderful and yes, a truly “amazing” story; and, I might add, a sermon unto itself that greatly inspired me as a young preacher (and occasional folk singer); in fact, it still does; and Arlo’s telling of the tale stirs my heart every time I hear it.
Unfortunately, the story isn’t entirely true.
It is true that a violent storm at sea in 1748 brought about John Newton’s commitment to Christianity at the age of 23, but it did not bring an immediate end to his involvement in the slave trade; in fact, history records that Newton continued to make a living on the slave ships for a number of years to come. But that incident at sea apparently haunted him all throughout those years, and the seeds of doubt over the practice of slavery – not to mention a calling to Christian ministry – were taking root during that time. Eventually Newton left both the seafaring life and the slave trade, was ordained a priest in the Church of England, and did indeed write “Amazing Grace!” in 1772, 32 years after the storm and his conversion to Christianity! John Newton went on to spend his later years fighting slavery by speaking out against it until his death in 1807.
I must confess that when I first discovered “the true story” of this hymn (ironically enough, while researching it for a “Music Sunday” at the church I was serving at the time!), I was a bit disappointed; so much better it would have been, for the story and for me, that the amazing grace that John Newton wrote about to have happened as the result of a sudden clap and flash of spiritual thunder and lightning! Alas, as is often the case with so much of our lives, for Newton, that divine grace was revealed in a slow process affected over the passage of time; and reflected not only Newton’s ongoing pilgrimage of faith and conscience, but also God’s unending love and patience unto him along the way.
And that’s why I’ve actually come to love this version of the story even more than the first! The story of John Newton and “Amazing Grace” ends up giving us all hope; in the assurance that even the greatest of sinners can ultimately and meaningfully “turn themselves around” in true repentance, and that the most reluctant of believers will, in God’s good time, come to understand more deeply than they ever thought possible.
There are more than a few “alternate” verses of “Amazing Grace” floating around; even the verse we regularly sing that begins, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…” is likely not original to John Newton, but is attributed to one John P. Rees (and first appeared in, of all places, Harriet Becher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). However, my favorite of these “other” verses is one that gets regularly sung in folk music circles, and was likely written by Issac Watts, who gave us such familiar hymns as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come!” Two different composers; and yet it’s interesting how Watts’ words flow so naturally within Newton’s own confession of faith:
“Shall I be wafted through the skies,
On flowery beds of ease,
When others strive to win the prize
And sail through bloody seas.”
That one verse, and indeed the whole of “Amazing Grace,” is a reminder to us of how faith is truly an ongoing journey; that though we’ve already come “through many dangers, toils, and snares,” there will always be more for us to discover; as well as answers to new and essential questions for us to discern as we move through life’s myriad challenges. Given the ever-changing landscape of the world’s culture, it can often be a daunting task to decide the true course of our own discipleship; but the good news is that even as our Lord insists on leading us along heretofore untraveled passageways, he is also infinitely patient with us as we finally, if reluctantly, move forward.
And, thanks be to God, we do… knowing that “’tis grace hath brought [us] safe thus far, and grace will lead [us] home.”
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry