Way back in 1970, Judy Collins released an album (remember albums?) titled “Whales and Nightingales.” One of the last tracks on that album was a little known piece of plainsong written by an English clergyman named John Newton. Before he took to the cloth, Newton had been pressed into service in the Royal Navy and subsequently became an officer on a civilian vessel (The Greyhound) engaged in the slave trade. He was a notoriously profane man, popular with his shipmates because he loved writing ditties that mocked the captains under whom he served. But in 1748, the Greyhound was caught in a fierce storm and foundered off the coast of Ireland; fearing for his life, Newton called out to God to save him, the inception of a profound spiritual conversion. A few years later, he gave up slaving to study Christian theology. He was ordained in 1764.
Newton, aided by poet William Cowper, transformed his penchant for writing ditties into one for writing hymns. To illustrate his New Year’s Day sermon in 1773, Newton (likely with Cowper’s help) published several verses of a poem without any accompanying music, perhaps intended to be simply chanted by the congregation. Never particularly popular in England the poem was associated with a variety of different melodies until 1835 when it finally settled on a tune known as “New Britain.” It was called “Amazing Grace.”
“Amazing Grace” is a hymn about redemption, forgiveness, salvation, and hope. It is now sung or performed more than ten million times a year. While Judy Collins’ version on “Whales and Nightingales” popularized “Amazing Grace” as a folk song, its roots quickly spread to every imaginable genre of vocal and instrumental music: country and western, rhythm and blues, gospel, classical, even pop. When a bagpiper in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards first heard Collins’ rendition, he knew the tune would fit his melodramatic instrument like a glove.
In good times and bad, “Amazing Grace” has found a deep and abiding place in the soundtrack of our lives. In “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Tom sings three verses (two by Newton and one added by author Harriet Beecher Stowe that was passed down through the African American spiritual chain). Civil War soldiers knew all-to-well about the many “dangers, foils, and snares” of the third verse. It became an anthem of both the Civil Rights movement and the Anti-War movement in the Vietnam era. Played on the pipes, “Amazing Grace” became the common mournful dirge for the police, firefighters, and first responders who gave their lives in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It still pays tribute to many soldiers killed in battle. In 2015, President Obama soulfully and spontaneously performed the song at his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Secular and sacred, “Amazing Grace” touches our hearts in mysterious ways. It’s a song that transcends any one religion and appeals to all faiths, Christians and non-Christians alike. It heals us, restores us, inspires us, and lifts us up when we need it most. It’s impossible to say whether it’s the melody or the lyrics that resonate so deeply within; maybe it’s the song’s acknowledgment of our common longing for grace or its promise of the joy and peace to come.
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!”
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”