March must be the month of historical Christian songs for me. The last blog was about the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and today about “Amazing Grace.”
The spiritual song “Amazing Grace” has been performed for over 250 years. Yet, few know the story behind it and the many lessons it can teach us all. At the end of this blog are four renditions of “Amazing Grace” representing 4 different continents.
The historical information for this blog is from many sources, but primarily from three-
Amazing Grace was written by a former slave trader name John Newton. Thus, the lyrics “That saved a wretch like me” was truly about himself and not only the work of a gifted writer. It was a poem that was later put to music by someone else.
John Newton was born in 1725 in London. His father was a shipmaster and he first went to sea with his father at age 11. Thus, sailing was something he knew well. During his early adulthood, he was a self- proclaimed atheist, even mocking those of Christian faith. Later in life he described himself as a heartless businessman. Even among his fellow crew on his ship, he was known as the most profane, even to the point of being disciplined because of it. It takes a lot to make a group of seamen think you are over the top vulgar!
In March of 1748, at the age of 23, his ship was caught in a violent storm that took the life of many of his fellow sailors and nearly took his. After being part of the crew that saved the ship, it was another two weeks before that they made it back to shore in Ireland. It was during this ordeal that he prayed and asked for mercy to save him. However, even after his stated Christian conversion, he continued to be a slave trader, even captain of ships making voyages. At age 30, severe illness made him have to give up sailing. He stated that this second near death experience strengthened his Christian resolve. Yet, even after leaving commanding slave ships, he still supported and believed in slavery. Or perhaps at minimum did not actively oppose slavery.
In 1758, age 33, he applied to study for the priesthood in the Church of England. He became an Anglican priest in 1764. It was not until 1788, age 64, that he first publicly advocated against slavery. He wrote a pamphlet entitled “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” which he sent to all members of the British Parliament. In it, he wrote “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” He was the pastor for William Wilberforce when he was a child. Newton influenced William Wilberforce who later became an English politician. In 1807 Wilberforce was successful in spearheading the passing of legislation to end the practice of slavery in the British West Indies. It was also the year that Newton died at age 82, supposedly pleased that his influence had put the capturing and purchasing of slaves to an end. Because this law only ended obtaining new slaves, it did not affect current slaves. It was not until 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed which gave legal freedom to over 800,000 people in the British West Indies, South Africa, and British Canada.
There are several lessons to learn from the life of John Newton. Perhaps the most obvious is his conversion from being an avid atheist to Christianity and then renouncing slavery. But this is not the only important lesson about faith. Equally important is that despite the fact that he found God, he still did not immediately change his views. It is often popularly explained that he had a conversion which caused him to give up his belief is slavery. He wrote Amazing Grace in 1772 when he was 47 years old. Yes, he was an Anglican priest at the time and long past being a slave trader but he had still not come out publicly against slavery.
Thus, perhaps the bigger lesson is that there is a road to becoming a Christian, a true believing and fully practicing Christian. That it is a journey, not a destination. Yes, he found Christ at 23, but that does not mean it was easy for him to fully come to reckoning with his own sin. That in a flash he became a fully developed Christian. This is too big a task for any of us, thus we need to patient with ourselves and diligent in developing our faith. Only Jesus reached perfection, and even He did not start His ministry until He was 30 years old. After His baptism by John the Baptist, he HAD to endure temptation for 40 days and nights by Satan.
So, John Newton was like all of us when we accept Jesus. We are “Yes, but …Christians.
Yes, I am now a Christian, but I must keep making a living doing what I know how to do.
Yes, I am now a Christian, but this is a historical and structural issue that I am not equipped to change.
Yes, I am now a Christian, but many people who I respect and are also Christians do not think a particular behavior is wrong.
Yes, I am now a Christian, but the law is the law so must respect it.
Yes, I am now a Christian, but if I come out against something people will not like me or think I am just “moralizing them”
Yes, I am now a Christian, but who am I to tell other people what they are doing is wrong, that is on them.
Yes, I am now a Christian, but perhaps God loves all people but He knows that some are still better than others and should be at a different level and rights in society. He did talk about people having different spiritual gifts.
Yes, I am now a Christian, but if I say criticize a popular belief or behavior I might lose my job (even being a minister) or social standing.
John Newton’s story also can be described as many have as being a “baby Christian.” There are many verses in the Bible who talk about having to grow in one’s faith, mature in one’s faith, that cannot just stay at the first elementary level, which would describe John Newton when he first made his conversion at age 23.
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5: 12-14 NIV)
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NIV)
The 12 Apostles directly witnessed Jesus’s miracles, yet they doubted before every instance. They had to, even in His presence, take time to fully develop their faith in Him. Here is one passage when Jesus seems impatient at His apostle’s lack of belief that He should perform another miracle healing. And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” (Matthew 17:17 NIV)
Below are the lyrics to Amazing Grace, in order that you might fully appreciate the words. After that, I have purposely chosen four versions of this song representing four continents. The first is in the Celtic tradition from Europe. The next is from Black American gospel tradition, sung by Mahalia Jackson. The third one is from the African, the Soweto Gospel Choir from South African. The fourth is from the continent of Asia and is sung in Chinese. God does not care our language, our skin color, what we wear to church, style or specific practices of worship, singing genres, country we live in, specific Christian denomination, differences in political beliefs, or the foods we eat during religious holidays. These differences mean a great deal to people and serves as a reason to not truly come together in Christ.
Again, first the lyrics and then four different versions of the spiritual song “Amazing Grace” from four different continents.
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.
Europe, Celtic tradition-
North America, Black American gospel - Mahalia Jackson-
Africa, Soweto Gospel Choir -
Asia, Sung in Chinese -