Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hymn Stories: Amazing Grace

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.

These first lines of this familiar hymn tell the salvation story of its author, John Newton. Born in London in 1725, John Newton was the son of a shipmaster. At age six, his mother died and he was subsequently raised between time at a boarding school and the instruction of his father, with whom he began sailing at an early age.

Eventually, he joined the Royal Navy and was able to work his way up in rank. But his time in the navy was not, as they say, all "a bed of roses". When serving as a midshipman aboard the HMS Harwich, he was severely flogged and humiliated in front of the entire crew after trying to desert ship. It seems the upcoming voyage had appeared to be too long in his eyes and the captain of the ship determined he'd use John as an example. He was given 96 lashes and reduced in rank. These events left him extremely depressed to the point of suicide.

He did recover, and enlisted to work aboard a slave ship bound for the African coast. However, this trip didn't go well either. After a disagreement, he found himself discharged and left aground in Sierre-Leone. Here he ended up in the care of a local merchant's wife who was very abusive both to him and to slaves she owned.

"Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa" - John Newton, upon remembering his time in West Africa

Well, back in England, John's father realized his son was not coming home and hired a merchant ship's captain to search for him. In 1748, he was finally located, but had to be fooled into agreeing to return. It seems his father knew his son would not cooperate and so he had spread the word that there was a large inheritance for him to claim. It was for this reason that he finally boarded ship for England.

But the story doesn't end there. Think about this. Here we have a young man who has spend considerable time doing things his own way, whose life has been full of ups and downs (with more downs than ups) who is only going home because he thinks money is involved.

May 10, 1748, finds John Newton aboard a ship bound for home when suddenly a great storm blows up around them and the ship begins to sink. John woke up to find his cabin full of water, the ship rocking violently to and fro, and I'm sure heard terrible sounds of distress all around him. It was this moment that he first cried out to God. For the rest of his life, John Newton would mark this date as the moment he finally found peace with God.

He would go on to become the rector of a church in England. This was despite his having no university training, a requirement in that day, or any formal experience. He was given the job when the landlord of the parish became really impressed while reading letters in which John talked about his conversion. He was an extremely popular speaker, so much so that the church eventually had to expand and add more pews to accommodate the crowds.

The hymn was written in 1772 and is based on a sermon he was going to preach and the story of his conversion. The final verse of the song, which begins "when we've been there ten thousand years", was added later when Harriet Beecher Stowe included them in her novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin", dated 1852.

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.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

* Links:,,


Suzanne Williams Photography
Florida, USA

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.

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