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The Hymn "Amazing Grace", John Newton and William Wilberforce

Updated on July 9, 2012
Olney Hymns in which "Amazing Grace" appeared in 1779.
Olney Hymns in which "Amazing Grace" appeared in 1779. | Source

Amazing Grace - lyrics by John Newton

What does a Christian hymn, a slave trader and a respresentative in British parliament all have in common? All three converged in the fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire.

The well-known Christian hymn, "Amazing Grace," written by John Newton, became in Britain, the well-known Christian hymn advocating the abolishment of slavery throughout the British Empire. British parliament finally abolished slavery in most of the British Empire in 1833, thirty years before the U.S. did the same. And, this hymn was instrumental in the British abolishionist movement.

This beautiful hymn was published originally in 1779, and was written by John Newton upon his conversion to Christianity and to express his regret for ever having been involved in the slave trade for Britain. It's message is of forgiveness and redemption and that both are possible regardless of the sins people commit. The soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God.

"Amazing Grace," is one of the most recognizable songs in the English speaking world today. John Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction, and he was very insubordinate and rebellious the first part of his adulthood.

He was pressed into service in the Royal Navy of Britain and became a sailor sailing the seas participating in the slave trade. One terrible stormy night at sea, his ship being battered by the storm, Newton became so frightened he called out to God for mercy -- this was the moment of Newton's religious and spiritual conversion.

Newton's career in the slave trading business lasted a few years more and then he quit the slave trade and the sea life and began studying theology. He was ordained in the Church of England (Anglican Church) in 1764 and became the curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire. He wrote a book of hymns with William Cowper, which was published in 1779 known as "Olney Hymns."

At the time of publication it is not known which melody was used with the song and so it became obscure in England. But in America it was sung extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. From this time on, it has been a popular tune in the U.S. In Great Britain, it was recognized as a song to herald the anti-slavery movement, but the famous melody we sing with the words today, did not come until much later.

In 1835, the words were joined to a tune named, "New Britain," to which it is most frequently sung today. The tune was written by William Walker and it created the song that has become "Amazing Grace" as we know it today.

William Joseph Wilberforce
William Joseph Wilberforce | Source

Willliam Joseph Wilberforce

William Wilberforce was a British politician and leader of the abolitionist movement against the slave trade in Great Britain. He became the independent member of Parliament for Yorkshire. In 1785 he underwent a religious conversion experience and became an Evangelical Christian and from then on had a liflong concern for reform in British society and a return to morality because he saw British society as amoral, especially when it came to the slave trade Britain was involved in.

He met Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Hannah More, and Charles Middleton, a group of anti-slave trade activists, and they persuaded Wilberforce to take on the cause of abolition. He became the leading English abolitionsist and campaigned in Parliament against British slave trade for twenty-six years. In 1807 Wilberforce saw the Slave Trade Act passed by Parliament.

After the passage of the Slave Trade Act, Wilberforce supported the campaign for complete abolltion of slavery and continued his involvement even though he became ill and was forced to resign from Parlliament. His involvement led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Tragically, he died only three days before he was assured of its passage. He was buried in Westminster Abby.

Lyrics of the first verse of "Amazing Grace"


Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)

That sav'd a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

--John Newton, Olney Hymns, 1779


Newton used The New Testament as the basis for the lyrics of "Amazing Grace." This first verse comes from the story of the Prodigal Son. In the Gospel of Luke, the father says, "For this son of mine was dead and is alive again' he was lost, and is found."

The story of Jesus healing a blind man who tells the Pharisees that he can now see, is told in the Gospel of John. Newton used the words, "I was blind, but now I see," from this gospel.

It took a former slave trader turned church minister to pen the words of this "amazing" song and prayer. At his religious conversion after the stormy night on ship, he realized he had been "lost and now was found." Found to God's mercy and forgiveness. He realized he had been "blind" to the horrid act of slave trading, but now, with God's grace, he could "see" his wicked and wrong ways.

It took an impassioned representative from Parliament who had his own religious conversion and "born again Christian" to tirelessly work for the abolishment of slavery and the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce, Newton, and "Amazing Grace" all converged at the right time and at the right place to bring about the end of slavery in the British Empire and to understand and celebrate the human rights of the African-American.

Note: This hub was inspired by none other than our own HubPages, Hyphenbird. When I read her outstanding piece on "The Dream of Martha Ann Ricks", it reminded me of the story of Britain's abolitionist movement. Hence, this hub. Thank you, Hyphen.


Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved


The New Britain melody (1835)  that we know as "Amazing Grace" of today.
The New Britain melody (1835) that we know as "Amazing Grace" of today. | Source

Comments

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  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Jamie: I am so glad you enjoyed this hub. I love this hymn too and writing this was so interesting for me. I am glad you appreciate this one. Thanks so much for your comments. Most appreciated.

  • jhamann profile image

    Jamie Lee Hamann 

    4 years ago from Reno NV

    I find myself singing this song when life is hard to bear, it cheers me up. Thank you for a great hub. Jamie

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    5 years ago from Taos, NM

    LadyFiddler: Thank you so much for reading this and for your comments. I am so glad you enjoyed this hub. I love this song also and the story behind it is so interesting. Thanks for your visit - most appreciated.

  • LadyFiddler profile image

    Joanna Chandler 

    5 years ago from On planet Earth

    Very lovely oh how I LOVE the song Amazing Grace , it really touches my heart when I see how precious is the grace of God to me. Twas grace that bought me safe thus far and grace will lead me on.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Cyndi10 - Thanks so much for stopping by to read this. Yes, it has such an interesting backstory. I love the hymn and it is so beautiful, I wanted to tell the story behind it all. I appreciate your comments and your input!

  • Cyndi10 profile image

    Cynthia B Turner 

    6 years ago from Georgia

    Hello Suzette, I just recently learned the history of Amazing Grace and was surprised at the origin. Such a beautiful moving song that had even more meaning for me once I learned the history. This was a great article about the tireless work on the part of a few who wanted to see an evil institution eliminated. Well researched and well written.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    I finally found it, Kathleen! And you are right - it is amazing! I have now included it in my hub - thank you so much!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Kathleen, you are not a pest. I appreciate your input and enthusiasm. Thank you for the email!

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 

    6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    I just emailed it to you. I don't mean to be a pest, but you've done such a good job here. Wait till you see it!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Ok Kathleen. I didn't see that one, so I'll have to look again. Thanks!

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 

    6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Wonderful, but the one I wanted you to see was The History of Amazing Grace. He talks about Newton being involved in the slave trade and the melody being a slave melody. It's powerful.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thanks Kathleen - I listened to Phipps sing "Amazing Grace". It is beautiful and inspiring. I've added it to the hub. Thanks so much!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Kathleen: thanks so much for reading this and I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the Google info and I will check it out. I appreciate your input.

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 

    6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    You might enjoy this link. It gets me every time. Thanks for the blessing of this hub. Good work.

    OK. HP won't let me share the link. Google Whitley Phipps and Amazing Grace should come up. It IS Amazing.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Hi James: Thank you so much for stopping by and reading!And, thanks for your comments - I don't know about magnificent, but I am so pleased that you like this. I will definitely be checking out your Wilberforce hub - yours are always so good! I really have Hyphenbird to thank for this hub - she got the old noodle thinking LOL!

  • James A Watkins profile image

    James A Watkins 

    6 years ago from Chicago

    Thank you for publishing this magnificent Hub. I have a Hub called "William Wilberforce" that is based on the book you advertise above by my friend Eric Metaxas. :D

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    writingguru456: I, too, didn't know the history behind this hymn until the movie "Amazing Grace" came out a few years ago. I, too, was amazed when I found it it was written by a former slave trader and was advocating the end of slavery. The movie is good, although, it takes license with some of the historical facts. John Newman's life as a whole is not completely historically true and the time frame is stretched. But, the basic truth about the reason the song was written is true and it was quite enlightening to me. Suddenly, the words of the song really held meaning for me. I just thought, with Hyphen's article about Martha Ann Ricks, it was time to pass on this information.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • profile image

    writingguru456 

    6 years ago

    I always thought this was a church hymn but when I realized it was for slave freedom I smiled brilliant stuff

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    BJC: Thank you for your comment.

  • BJC profile image

    BJC 

    6 years ago from Florida

    The Getty's are an amazing young couple who are in the process of reviving hymms. http://www.gettymusic.com/hymns.aspx

    BJC

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Hubert Williams: Thank you so much for reading and your kind comments. Really it is the Martha Ann Ricks of the world that we should all thank. Throught belief in themselves and perseverence and determination, they made their dreams come true, despite all the adversity they went through. Hyphen just brought her great story to life in her article and I just gave some historical background. It is the little people in this world that really make the great changes that come about - that and God!

  • profile image

    Hubert Williams 

    6 years ago

    suzettenaples and Hyphenbird Thank you both for your individual roles in bringing this inspirational story to us. Your are both to be commended.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Hyphen: Your Martha Ricks hub really did get me thinking about Britain and their much more civilized way of ridding the British Empire of slavery. All through history, the U.S. has always been so contentious and I am realizing just now how uncivilized our political differences and discourse have been all through our country's history. I know that Britain has been involved in wars and did have an empire - but when it came to the slave trade, Britain went about it in a more civilized manner.

    To all those of Indian descent - I do know the British were not as civilized when it came to incorporating and keeping India as part of the British Empire and that there were years of discrimination and prejudice there. So, Britain isn't off the hook, completely, but they ended their slave trade and slavery thirty years before the U.S. got around to it - for that, I do admire them.

    Hyphen: It is always a pleasure to read your articles and poetry - yours are so unique and creative!

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 

    6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Thank you! Martha Ann Ricks life continues to affect others, including you and I. You are so right about this hymn going so well with her story. So many people suffered so much and still do today. Only the power of God's love could ever change the heart of a slave trader and cause him to write such a glorious song. It is always great to know our writing touches others. I do SO appreciate you letting me know my sharing Martha's story inspired you.

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