It was 250 years ago today, on the first of January, that a congregation in the market town of Olney in England first sang the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
It didn’t become popular right away. But gradually it spread among churches of all denominations in America. It became a revival song on the western frontier and an African American spiritual in black churches and a standard in 20th-century hymnbooks. Then it crossed over into the commercial marketplace in the age of radio with recording artists like Mahalia Jackson in 1947 and Judy Collins in 1970.
Since then, it has become the most popular and well-known hymn in the world. And it has gone not just wide but deep. It’s to this song that people turn when tragedy strikes. When all hope is lost, we sing “Amazing Grace.”
For all its familiarity, though, there are still many things you probably didn’t know about “Amazing Grace.”
1. The Library of Congress has an amazing ‘Amazing Grace’ collection.
The Library of Congress has a collection of more than 3,000 recorded performances of “Amazing Grace” by different musicians. The recordings were made on vinyl, cassette tape, CDs, and other media between the 1930s and 2000. The collection includes every imaginable genre from classical to country, and from gospel to rap to “world music.”
2. One of the verses of ‘Amazing Grace’ was stolen.
The original version of “Amazing Grace” had six verses, but in 1910 an enterprising hymnbook publisher named Edwin Othello Excell replaced the last three verses with the one that begins “When we’ve been there ten thousand years.” He took it from a hymn called “Jerusalem, Our Happy Home,” which had over 70 verses. Perhaps he thought no one would notice if he borrowed it. (There’s also a grammatical mistake in this verse, noticed by sticklers. It should be “We’ve no fewer days to sing God’s praise” rather than “less days.”)
3. Playing ‘Amazing Grace’ on bagpipes is a recent innovation.
Hearing a piper play “Amazing Grace” on solemn state occasions or at funerals might make you think this must be a time-honored tradition. But it was only in 1972 that the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recorded the song on bagpipes and made this popular. Their version of “Amazing Grace” charted on the Billboard Top 40 for eight weeks.
4. The original title wasn’t ‘Amazing Grace.’
The first title was “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” since it was written for New Year’s Day as an exercise in looking back (review) and looking forward (expectation). The hymn looks back in faith at the many dangers, toils, and snares through which God’s grace has sustained us. It also looks forward with confidence, knowing God’s grace will be there as long as life endures.
5. We don’t know the original tune of ‘Amazing Grace.’
The tune to which the song is now universally sung is a shape-note tune called “New Britain” from the American South, first published in 1829. However, when the words were originally published 250 years ago, there were separate tune books and you could mix and match any tune that fit a “common meter” hymn like “Amazing Grace.” Some of the early tunes that were used for “Amazing Grace” have been discovered, and they have a very different feel from the tune we know today. “New Britain” is based on the popular pentatonic scale (the black notes on the piano) and this has contributed to its wide appeal.
6. ‘Amazing Grace’ became an African American spiritual though it was written by a former slave trader.
It’s to this song that people turn when tragedy strikes. When all hope is lost, we sing ‘Amazing Grace.’
“Amazing Grace” has long been cherished by African American churches as a black gospel song, and there have been powerful, popular performances by Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Jessye Norman, Wintley Phipps, and many others. Yet the words were written by a former slave-ship captain named John Newton, two decades after he left the slave trade, when he was an Anglican minister in the English Midlands. He would later move to London and make a key contribution to the abolition of the slave trade. As Wintley Phipps said, “I believe God wanted that song written just the way it was written just so that we would be reminded that as Christians whether black or white . . . we are connected by God’s amazing grace.”
7. ‘Amazing Grace’ is a paraphrase of the words of King David.
When John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” for a service on New Year’s Day 1773, it was to accompany a sermon on 1 Chronicles 17:16–17. It was published six years later under this same Scripture reference as a heading. In this passage, King David responds in amazement to the prophet Nathan’s announcement of God’s promise to maintain David’s line and his kingdom forever. David went before the Lord and said, “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?” (KJV). In other words, David responded, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me.” He was a murderous, adulterous king who had found mercy and forgiveness, and now God promised he would extend his grace through David’s descendants. This grace would ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus Christ as the greater son of David.
8. ‘Amazing Grace’ is a spiritual practice.
When John Newton wrote the hymn, it was part of his regular practice of self-examination—he paused at key moments to consider his sins and God’s mercies in the past, to make his confession and receive forgiveness in the present, and to dedicate himself to God’s will for the future. He wrote in his diary on the first of January 1773, “I am now in the 49th year of my age, & may expect in the course of a few years at most to go whence I shall no more return. . . . May thy grace keep me always waiting till my appointed change shall come,” and he continued in prayer. This was “Amazing Grace” as a spiritual practice, considering in prayer how God’s grace has brought us safe thus far and how his grace will lead us home.
It’s a practice we may all continue today as we sing the hymn or reflect again on its words 250 years after it was first sung by Newton’s congregation.
To learn more about ‘Amazing Grace,’ pre-order Bruce Hindmarsh’s Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton and the Surprising Story Behind His Song, co-authored with Craig Borlase.