January 27, 2023
How many songs in the world last 250 years? “Amazing Grace,” a song sung millions of times each year, turned 250 years old on January 1, 2023. Not born of American Black spirituals as many believe, the song started in Olney, England.
John Newton, a slave trader who nearly died in a shipwreck and who eventually became a minister, wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” for his New Year’s service in 1773. Originally titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” Newton’s words spoke of his conversion, of his self-proclaimed wretchedness, and of the saving power of God’s grace.
Over the years, various music was written for Newton’s words, but tune we know now wasn’t published for another 50 years. In 1835, American Baptist William Walker published “The Southern Harmony” hymn book with a song titled “New Britain” – the words and music we know as “Amazing Grace” today.
The hymnal used “shape notes” – triangles, ovals, rectangles, and diamonds – to make it easier for people to follow. The book spread to the Deep South, to slaveowners and to slaves made to attend the churches of the landowners.
When asked why the song has proved so enduring, music journalist Steve Turner said, “I was lost and now I’m found, I was blind and now I see – I mean, it’s an experience most people can relate to.”
By the 20th century, the song was closely tied to Black spirituals and the civil rights movement. Then, in 1970, as antipathy toward the Vietnam War grew, folk singer Judy Collins recorded a rendition which brought the song to new acclaim.
Turner said, of all recordings made of “Amazing Grace,” “90-95% were post-Judy Collins.” After a priest picked Collins’ rendition to play for London doctors during the COVID lockdown Collins was inspired to make a new version featuring a virtual choir of 1,000 international singers (watch here).
Collins recently told “CBS Sunday Morning” that she believes the song is one of “hope and healing. It has a feeling about surviving terrible things. But it gives you a moment of hope. Sometimes that’s all you need, isn’t it?”
That may be the answer to the endurance of the song – its message of struggle and redemption resonates with hope. Wishing everyone a weekend free of struggle and full of hope!
Written by Michelle O’Brien, Manager of Marketing & Communications
Source: Inocencio, Ramy. The story of “Amazing Grace” cbsnews.com