New Year’s Day, 1 January 2023 marks the 250th anniversary since Reverend John Newton, a former slave trader, delivered his ‘Amazing Grace’ sermon.
Today, Amazing Grace is one of the most recognisable songs in the English-speaking world.
Amazing Grace was composed in the weeks leading up to John Newton’s New Year’s Day 1773 service at St Peter and St Paul Church, Olney in Buckinghamshire to accompany his New Testament teaching on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 where King David said:
“Who am I, O Lord, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”
The lyrics for Amazing Grace are an ideal subject for New Year’s Day reflection. The first verse, for example, can be traced to the New Testament story of the Prodigal Son. In the Gospel of Luke the father says:
“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”.
The story of Jesus healing a blind man who tells the Pharisees that he can now see is told in the Gospel of John. It is here that John Newton used the words: “I was blind but now I see”.
It is also in the 2014 film Freedom where the story is told of John Newton’s composition of the Amazing Grace hymn.
In the United States, Amazing Grace became a popular song used by Baptist and Methodist preachers, especially in the American South, during the early 19th century. However, in the rest of the world, including the United Kingdom, it was largely forgotten until the mid-twentieth century.
With the folk music revival of the 1960s the trans-Atlantic traffic of musicians saw the rise of performances of Amazing Grace in Church congregations and folk festivals in Britain. The influence of Amazing Grace can be seen in it making an appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival.
From the 1960s Amazing Grace also became a favourite with supporters of freedom and human rights. During the US civil rights movement of the 1960s and opposition to the Vietnam War, Amazing Grace took on a distinctly political tone.
Amazing Grace encourages looking back at life and considering who you are now, as well as looking forward to what the future might hold.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come
It is also about journeying back to home.
In 1970, Amazing Grace went mainstream when Judy Collins released her iconic rendition.
In 1985, Joan Baez opened the US portion of Live Aid with Amazing Grace.
On 26 June 2015, President Obama delivered the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of nine black parishioners murdered by a white supremacist in a shooting at Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel Ame Church, where he called on the “reservoir of goodness”, and reflected that if we can find that that grace, anything is possible.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Judy Collins re-released Amazing Grace with the assistance of the Global Virtual Choir comprising 1000 singers from around the world.
Amazing Grace is frequently performed on bagpipes and has become associated with this instrument ever since it became popular in a 1972 recording by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards that became a Number 1 radio hit. At the recent Berlin Tattoo over 200 bagpipes played Amazing Grace.
There has been long-standing association of Amazing Grace with the House of the Rising Sun popularised initially by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
We could all do with a little more grace in our lives.