Amazing Grace

John Newton (contemporary portrait)

“Amazing Grace” is a Christian hymn published in 1779, with words written by the English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725–1807).

Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction, but his life’s path was formed by a variety of twists and coincidences that were often put into motion by his recalcitrant insubordination. He was pressed (conscripted) into service in the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service, he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland, so severely that he called out to God for mercy, a moment that marked his spiritual conversion. He continued his slave trading career until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his seafaring altogether and began studying Christian theology.

Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began to write hymns with 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 simply been chanted by the congregation. It debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns but settled into relative obscurity in England. In the United States, however, “Amazing Grace” was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies, but in 1835 it was joined to a tune named “New Britain” to which it is most frequently sung today. Source – Wiki

Music video by Il Divo performing Amazing Grace. (C) 2008 Simco Limited under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment UK Limited

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2 Responses to Amazing Grace

  1. alfy says:

    Thank you, Jim, for a beautiful post. You won’t be surprised that I had never heard of “Il Divo” until you introduced me to them. Looking them up on Wikipedia, I can see that they have a stunning reputation based on a large body of work. This concert at the Coliseum in Rome was magic. It was the piper, with the light breeze ruffling his plaids and hackle, that finally started the tears to flow.
    I have a recording of the Royal Scots Greys Pipe Band playing “Amazing Grace” with solos and the whole ensemble. It always reminds me of Don. He was a colleague and friend when I worked in West Sussex in the sixties. He was Highlander, from Tongue, on the far north coast of Scotland. He was also a bonny piper. During WW2 he served as an officer in a Scottish regiment. I suspect he had been quite seriously wounded but never spoke of the war, except in jocular terms.
    When I knew him, he often acted as a judge in piping competitions held in London. He no longer played, because of weak lungs, and even his miniature “practice pipes” defeated him. I remember other qualities he had, which at the time, I did not recognise. It is relatively easy to be popular as a teacher, when you are young, and your subject is popular. I was in my early twenties and taught sciences.
    By contrast, Don was in his fifties, and taught Maths. It was quite clear he was loved by the children. Boys of twelve would come up alongside him with the question, “Carry your bag, Mr Allan?”. Don was a small man, who walked with a slight stoop, and was no doubt grateful to have a bag carrier before he went upstairs to his classroom.
    Whenever I visited Sussex, I would always drop in to see Don and his wife. He was a cheerful host, and it was not long before the single malts appeared. He died not long after his retirement, and is buried in a beautiful rural churchyard in Sussex, far from his Highland roots. All these thoughts came flooding back with the sounds of “Amazing Grace”.
    On a sourer note, Newton has been criticised for regretting his earlier life of drinking, fighting and gambling, but not regretting his part in the far more serious business of the slave trade.

    • Deskarati says:

      Thank you for those lovely words Alfy and the wonderful story of you friend Don.
      I did read the rather chequered past of Newton but, like you, I always try to not judge too harshly the faults of others from a different time. Who knows what we would have been like under different circumstances.

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