Amazing Grace is probably the most beloved hymn of all time. Appropriately, there is an amazing story behind John Newton, the person who penned the words to this favorite hymn of hope and promise.
There are several “amazing” things about John Newton…1) he was a slave trader who experienced more than one conversion along his journey of faith, 2) he continued as a slave trader after his conversions, 3) he eventually came to the point of realizing a disconnect as to what conversion means in comparison to the way he was living his life, 4) after his second conversion, he eventually left the slave trading profession, knowing it was incompatible with the principles of Christianity, 5) he became an inspirational element in the activism of young William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament who is credited with leading the charge to abolish the slave trade in England, and 6) he eventually became an Anglican priest, and served churches for approximately 25 years.
In 2005, I was delighted to visit Newton’s vicarage in Olney, where he penned the words…Amazing Grace. I saw the original words there….numerous verses….most of which I had never heard. I saw the very modest cottage where all of this had occurred, and realized yet once again that words and music can change the world in many ways, no matter the “home.”
I also visited the grave of John and Mary Newton in the Olney churchyard cemetery. It was summer, and the tall grass was almost waist-high. Though no one had a map, or knew exactly where Newton’s church might have been, we just started walking, looking for a church that looked like “it,” and then….we found a single mowed path…we started walking on that path (no signs), and eventually came to the Newton’s graves. Such history, such a life, such a story, and such….grace.
John Newton’s life was representative of his own words “was blind, but now I see.” Tears can be seen in the eyes of many, as individuals relate to the “blindness” in their own lives. It was wonderful and amazing that there was a desire to see clearly…to change his life to be consistent with his declared convictions. William Wilberforce was ready to leave politics, but Newton reminded him that he could make a difference where he was…in Parliament. Though frustrated, Wilberforce was alive with conscience and a desire to “do the right thing.” Through the encouragement of Newton and the work of Wilberforce, the slave trade was eventually abolished in England. Praise God!!
Why do I write this blog about Amazing Grace? For longer than three months, I have been writing an SSAATTBB a cappella arrangement of Amazing Grace to celebrate Dr. Everett McCorvey’s appointment as Artistic Director of The National Chorale in New York City. It has not been easy (three weeks on the introduction!), but I tried to artistically express many of these ideas regarding Newton and the history of the hymn. The “dangers, toils, and snares” were so “there” in Newton’s life. However, he was absolutely certain that grace would “lead me home.”
I tried to capture the journey “home”…to an actual place…to a moral center…to that place where we find that “right” can prevail…to whatever “home” might be to the listener when the text is experienced. We are all on the journey “home” in whatever way we have chosen to travel. We’ll get there…through grace.
My mother had a good point, as she asked, “What could you possibly do to that beautiful hymn to make it any better? It is absolutely beautiful…just the way it is now.” That is the challenge of arranging such a beloved hymn. “Don’t mess with it!” is the general consensus. Do they know the story? Do they know that John Newton continued to trade human beings after his conversion? It is through the knowledge of facts that we sometimes gain new understanding of lyrics we have heard all of our lives…and it is through renewed understanding that we become freshly acquainted with Newton’s long journey “home,” and really “get” the words….”was blind, but now I see.”