Updated: May 4
On Jan 1 1773, the Anglican priest and former slave trader, John Newton, was delivering his new year sermon in the town of Olney, Buckinghamshire, England. As his sermon came to an end he introduced a new hymn, with the cumbersome title of "1 Chronicles 17:16–172”. This Hymn has since become known as "Amazing Grace”...... we look at its popularity, its revival during the 'Second Great Awakening' in America, had it is has been adopted as a negro spiritual and crossed over into popular /secular musical traditions. Find out more about it by listening to todays podcast ....
The Anglican priest and former slave trader, John Newton, was delivering his new year sermon in the town of Olney, Buckinghamshire, England. As his sermon came to an end, he introduced a new hymn, with the cumbersome title of "1 Chronicles 17:16–172”. This Hymn has since become known as "Amazing Grace”. It took roots and became popular in the United States during the early nineteenth century when it was used by Baptist and Methodist preachers during a period of evangelical revival called the second great awakening. According to the Dictionary of American Hymnology, "Amazing Grace" is John Newton's spiritual autobiography.
Newton led a colourful life before experiencing a spiritual conversion during a storm at sea. He had lived on both sides of the brutal slave trade, working on slave ships and then having been abandoned in west Africa into the hands of a slave traders wife, who treated him terribly. After being rescued he was appointed as tide surveyor (a tax collector) in the City of Liverpool in the North West of England, the most important port in the British Empire and the gateway to the Atlantic. Processing his conversion experience, he prepared for Christian ministry, in his spare time he studied Greek, Hebrew, and the Aramaic dialect of Syriac (reputedly what Jesus had used in daily life). He became well known as an evangelical lay minister. In 1757, he applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, but it took seven years for him to be eventually accepted. He became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began to write hymns with the poet William Cowper. "Amazing Grace" was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year's Day of 1773. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses; it may have been chanted by the congregation.
It has been associated with more than 20 melodies. In 1835, the American composer William Walker set it to the tune known as "New Britain". This is the version most frequently sung today. It became newly popular during a revival of folk music during the 1960s and has become an emblematic black spiritual. Its universal message of survival, redemption and hope has been a significant factor in its crossover appeal in the world of secular music. "Amazing Grace" has been recorded thousands of times during and since the 20th century, and one of John Newtons biographers estimates that it is sung ten million times a year, most famously recently at Barack Obamas inauguration.