The History of “Amazing Grace”

You know the lyrics but do you know the story behind the iconic hymn?

The English poet John Newton published “Amazing Grace” in 1779. The song about forgiveness and God’s mercy was written out of personal experience. John grew up without any specific religious conviction, but his life’s path eventually led him into the service of the Lord.

As a young man, he was forced into the Royal Navy before becoming involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his ship and John begged for God’s mercy, a moment that marked his spiritual conversion and led him to begin studying Christian theology.

John was ordained by the Church of England in 1764 and soon began writing hymns with William Cowper. The lyrics of “Amazing Grace” were written for the 1773 New Year’s sermon; likely there was no accompanying music, the congregation simply chanted the lyrics together.

The song was later published in Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns and remained rather unknown in England. However, in America, “Amazing Grace” was used significantly during the Second Great Awakening. The song has been associated with over 20 melodies, but joined with the tune of “New Britain” in 1835 to which it is most frequently sung today.

Performed over ten million times annually, “Amazing Grace” has withstood the test of time. Its message of redemption and God’s compassion connects to all people and will continue to impact generations to come. So many families have drawn strength from the words and the melodies when they have lost the love of their life.