“Amazing Grace” is a Christian hymn published in 1779, with words written by the English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725–1807).
Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction, but his life's path was formed by a variety of twists and coincidences that were often put into motion by others' reactions to what they took as his recalcitrant insubordination. He was pressed (conscripted) into service in the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service, he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland, so severely that he called out to God for mercy, a moment that marked his spiritual conversion. He continued his slave trading career until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his seafaring altogether and began studying Christian theology.
Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began to write hymns with poet William Cowper. “Amazing Grace” was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year's Day of 1773. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses; it may have simply been chanted by the congregation. It debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper's Olney Hymns but settled into relative obscurity in England. In the United States, however, “Amazing Grace” was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies, but in 1835 it was joined to a tune named “New Britain” to which it is most frequently sung today.
With the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of sins committed and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God, “Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognisable songs in the English-speaking world. Author Gilbert Chase writes that it is “without a doubt the most famous of all the folk hymns”, and Jonathan Aitken, a Newton biographer, estimates that it is performed about 10 million times annually. It has had particular influence in folk music, and has become an emblematic African American spiritual. Its universal message has been a significant factor in its crossover into secular music. “Amazing Grace” saw a resurgence in popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and has been recorded thousands of times during and since the 20th century, occasionally appearing on popular music charts.
According to the Dictionary of American Hymnology “Amazing Grace” is John Newton's spiritual autobiography in verse.
Although it had its roots in England, “Amazing Grace” became an integral part of the Christian tapestry in the United States. More than 60 of Newton and Cowper's hymns were republished in other British hymnals and magazines, but “Amazing Grace” was not, appearing only once in a 1780 hymnal sponsored by the Countess of Huntingdon. Scholar John Julian commented in his 1892 A Dictionary of Hymnology that outside of the United States, the song was unknown and it was “far from being a good example of Newton's finest work”. Between 1789 and 1799, four variations of Newton's hymn were published in the U.S. in Baptist, Dutch Reformed, and Congregationalist hymnodies; by 1830 Presbyterians and Methodists also included Newton's verses in their hymnals.
The greatest influences in the 19th century that propelled “Amazing Grace” to spread across the U.S. and become a staple of religious services in many denominations and regions were the Second Great Awakening and the development of shape note singing communities. A tremendous religious movement swept the U.S. in the early 19th century, marked by the growth and popularity of churches and religious revivals that got their start in Kentucky and Tennessee. Unprecedented gatherings of thousands of people attended camp meetings where they came to experience salvation; preaching was fiery and focused on saving the sinner from temptation and backsliding. Religion was stripped of ornament and ceremony, and made as plain and simple as possible; sermons and songs often used repetition to get across to a rural population of poor and mostly uneducated people the necessity of turning away from sin. Witnessing and testifying became an integral component to these meetings, where a congregation member or even a stranger would rise and recount his turn from a sinful life to one of piety and peace.“Amazing Grace” was one of many hymns that punctuated fervent sermons, although the contemporary style used a refrain, borrowed from other hymns, that employed simplicity and repetition such as:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see.
Shout, shout for glory, Shout, shout aloud for glory; Brother, sister, mourner, All shout glory hallelujah.
Simultaneously, an unrelated movement of communal singing was established throughout the South and Western states. A format of teaching music to illiterate people appeared in 1800. It used four sounds to symbolize the basic scale: fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa. Each sound was accompanied by a specifically shaped note and thus became known as shape note singing. The method was simple to learn and teach, so schools were established throughout the South and West. Communities would come together for an entire day of singing in a large building where they sat in four distinct areas surrounding an open space, one member directing the group as a whole. Most of the music was Christian, but the purpose of communal singing was not primarily spiritual. Communities either could not afford music accompaniment or rejected it out of a Calvinistic sense of simplicity, so the songs were sung a cappella.