The story of how “Amazing Grace” came to be is a fascinating and surprising account.
“Amazing Grace” is a Christian hymn penned by the English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton to accompany a sermon he preached on New Year’s Day, 1773. Over the last 250 years, it has become an immensely popular hymn, particularly in the United States where it is used for both religious and secular purposes. The text for the hymn is drawn from 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, in which King David responds to the prophet Nathan’s words that God intends to continue David’s royal line for eternity. The text reads:
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God; you have also spoken of your servant’s house into the distant future. You regard me as someone of high rank, O Lord God!
Newton wrote the words of “Amazing Grace” from his own personal experience. He was once a man far from faith who was brought near to God by a harrowing event in his life. In 1748, while Newton served as a sea captain of a ship in the Atlantic slave trade, a violent storm off the coast of Ireland struck his vessel so severely that he called out to God for mercy. This moment marked Newton’s turn toward God, what he called “the hour I first believed.” Eventually leaving sailing behind, Newton then began studying Christian theology and was ordained in the Church of England in 1764. He served as a minister in Olney, England, where he began writing hymns.
“Amazing Grace” was published in Olney Hymns in 1779 but was rarely sung in England. It was in the United States where the song would become widely known during the early 1800s. While the hymn was associated with more than 20 melodies over the years, in 1835, American composer William Walker set it to the tune known as “New Britain,” and the melody stuck. Today “Amazing Grace” remains one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world.