It just dawned on me that though I have been blogging for almost a year now on the subject of music and grace, I haven’t even made a single mention of that most famous combination of music and grace: John Newton’s “Amazing Grace“. It has been an anthem of hope and faith for generations.
But why has this hymn had such an impact? What does Newton point out about God’s grace that resonates with us so strongly? Is there something in the music which made it so popular?
At the time Newton penned Amazing Grace, hymnbooks did not contain music; they were simply religious poetry books. The first time Newton’s lines were joined to music was in 1808, in A Companion to the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hymns, set to the tune “Hephzibah” by English composer John Jenkins Husband. More than twenty musical settings of “Amazing Grace” circulated with varying popularity until 1835 when William Walker assigned Newton’s words to a traditional song named “New Britain”.
According to author Steve Turner, the joining of these words and melody was a “marriage made in heaven . . . There was a rise at the point of confession, as though the author was stepping out into the open and making a bold declaration, but a corresponding fall when admitting his blindness.”
Sing through the lyrics at the end (if you need them to test his theory). I think Turner is quite right. It is at this very point we can see why the hymn works so well in communal praise. As we sing this appropriately-shaped melody together, we step out into the open and make a public and communal confession of our wretchedness, our need for God’s forgiving grace. We declare we have moved from ‘lost’ to ‘found’, from hopeless to being filled with hope! As we declare this together, the Spirit works.
It probably has a lot to do with the truth which James expresses here:
“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (James 5:16)
This hymn is a prayer! We pray together as we sing. We confess (our wretched need for God’s grace) to one another, and look with eyes of faith to the glorious future for us who are ‘found’. The power of this prayer-song transcends time, culture and place. I would predict that there are many more centuries of life in Newton’s hymn.
(Nb. If you are so young that you only know of Amazing Grace as being part of Chris Tomlin’s “My Chains are gone” then you should note how skilfully Tomlin has mimicked the rise and fall of the “New Britain” melody in his additional chorus. In this way he moves our focus to the flood of mercy experienced by all who are in Christ. Such amazing grace!)
Here are the 6 verses of the hymn:
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
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
The Lord has promised good to me
His Word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures
Through many dangers toils and snares
I have already come
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home
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
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 first begun
And Tomlin’s clever chorus:
My chains are gone, I’ve been set free
My God my Saviour has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy rains
Unending love, Amazing Grace!
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