Performing Arts

Amazing Grace: Famous hymn turns 250


This New Year choirs, community groups and individuals came together to sing Amazing Grace. PHOTO | POOL

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

John Newton, 1773

This New Year’s Day marked the 250th anniversary of one of the most enduring hymns of all time.

Around the world, choirs, community groups and individuals came together to sing Amazing Grace to commemorate the landmark occasion of a song that holds memories and provides hope and healing to people at different periods of their lives.

The Christian anthem Amazing Grace has gained universal appeal, and provided comfort during times of loss, but has also been adopted as a soundtrack to social and political protest, an anthem against all forms of injustice.

Amazing Grace is synonymous with the struggles of the African American community and some of the finest singers through the generations have lent their voices to the song, from Mahalia Jackson to Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.

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Barack Obama famously sang lines from the hymn at a funeral service for a victim of a mass shooting that took place in a church in 2015.

However, there is a fascinating history to the origin of the words that became a famous hymn. The verses were first heard in public during a New Year’s sermon in 1773 in the town of Olney, near Milton Keynes in the UK.

Today, a sign that welcomes people to Olney proclaims it as the “Home of Amazing Grace”.

The lyric was originally part of a sermon by the Reverend John Newton, a former slave trader who wrote the words to reflect his conversion back to Christianity after a turbulent life.

He wrote the words therefore that resonated with the state of his own life at that moment, as well as looking forward to a new chapter that would embrace the values of Christianity.

According to British writer Steve Turner’s publication Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song, Newton who worked on slave ships was himself held captive in 1745 off the coast of what is today, Sierra Leone.

He was only rescued by a merchant ship in 1748 and on that voyage back to England, he survived a severe storm on the Atlantic.

This near-death experience made Newton rediscover his Christian faith, he was ordained into the Church of England in 1764 and years later as a curate wrote Amazing Grace for his congregation who recited the words as part of the church service.

According to a letter he wrote, he found it convenient to pen his thoughts prior to giving his sermon and this is how the words of the hymn came to be.

It was published in 1779 as hymn number XLI (41) in The Olney Hymns which contained 348 pieces written by John Newton or his associate, the English poet William Cowper.

During this period, hymnbooks did not contain music and were simply small books of religious poetry.

The words, originally titled Faith’s Review and Expectation, were put to music, with a variety of melodies, until the one known today, New Britain, a traditional tune which was assigned to the hymn by the American Baptist Church composer William Walker in 1835.

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Amazing Grace was first professionally recorded in 1922 and performed by the Sacred Harp Choir and has since then been recorded thousands of times (the US Library of Congress holds more than 3,000 recordings of the song)

Ironically Amazing Grace became an anthem of the American Civil rights movement, despite Newton’s links to slavery.

Through the years it has crossed over from the confines of the Christian church into the secular realm, improvised by soul, folk, rock and pop artists, used as a soundtrack to films and TV shows, marketing campaigns and even sung at sports events.

In contemporary times the hymn has continued to provide hope and inspiration.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, a rendition of the song was performed by a virtual choir of 1,000 singers led by folk singer Judy Collins who had enjoyed a chart hit with her version in the 1970s.

A new orchestral and choral piece called Forever composed by operatic tenor Roderick Williams and written by award-winning poet, playwright and librettist Rommi Smith will be performed to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Amazing Grace.

Forever will be performed in July this year by the Chineke! Orchestra, the highly regarded British ensemble made up of a majority of Black and ethnically diverse musicians.

How amazing that 250 years later, the words written by a former slave trader, turned cleric, have uplifted generations of people around the world, regardless of their faith or creed, during some of the most turbulent times in their lives.

The universal resonance of Amazing Grace will no doubt continue through hundreds more years to come.

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