It is almost certainly the best-known Christian hymn in the English-speaking world. You can hear it at funerals. You can hear it played by bagpipes. You can hear it in gospel churches. Its text– “Amazing grace, how sweet a sound that saved a wretch like me… I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see”– is as direct and clear a statement about salvation as any you will find.
The story behind the hymn is equally compelling. John Newton, an English clergyman, spent his early years as a sailor working on board slave trading ships. In the midst of a storm, he turned to God; being saved from disaster, he mended his ways and became a minister.
Except that it didn’t happen quite like that. As is true in so many mythologized stories, his journey from profane soldier to abolitionist preacher was a longer one than the idealized version of his life. You might check out the real version of Newton’s life here: https://www.biography.com/news/amazing-grace-story-john-newton
Whatever the story behind the hymn, there is no doubt that it is a foundational piece to Christian hymnody. That’s why the children of St John’s will join our choir this Sunday in a great gospel arrangement version by Jack Schrader. I love Schrader’s piano accompaniments– they really do capture the soul of gospel music. This is a link to a much grander version of that arrangement; ours, with just piano and organ, is more modest! But it’ll be great to have the kids sing with us, and I’m really looking forward to it.
And my favorite rendition ever given of this piece? Well, there are three moments in history that always make me tear up– and all three make reference to songs. The first (of course), is Martin Luther King’s great “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he uses “let freedom ring” from “America” as a refrain, as well as the spiritual “Free at Last”. The second is the moment during Lyndon Johnson’s address to Congress when he finishes by saying “we shall overcome”. The third moment is far more recent. I happened to be working from home the afternoon that President Obama traveled to Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to deliver the eulogy for the nine church members tragically gunned down while praying. I watched the entire eulogy, completely enrapt. When the President paused for a moment near the end, I thought that perhaps he was overcome by emotions and afraid to continue, lest his voice break. Instead, after a moment of silence, he began singing “Amazing Grace”. I couldn’t believe my ears. What an extraordinary moment of healing, benediction, and unity: truly, a moment where we saw and felt the audacity of hope.