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Is there a glory on earth to equal the Methodist hymn, “Amazing Grace”? This is not only the favorite hymn of Americans, as we might think, but it is the most favorite hymn in the entire world. We like to hold “Amazing Grace” close, to consider it part of our national heritage, a sort of national hymn that grew out of the history of slavery in this country. The truth is it was a British hymn written under circumstances almost as interesting as the lyrics to the hymn itself.

John Newton of London was eleven years old when he went to sea with his father, a captain of a merchant ship. At the age of 19, he was impressed into service on a man-of-war with wretched conditions for the seamen aboard. Newton deserted, was recaptured, flogged and demoted in rank to common seaman. He was next in service on a slave ship and brutally treated by a slave trader. In 1748, a sea captain, an acquaintance of his father’s, rescued Newton, and he later became a slave ship captain himself. In a raging storm out of which he despaired of steering his ship, Newton underwent an epiphany of faith, which eventually found its home in the Calvinistic Methodist Church under the influence of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

Newton became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire and was so popular a preacher, the church had to be enlarged to accommodate the crowds who came to hear him. In 1767 he became friends with the poet William Cowper who had come to Olney to live. Cowper and Newton together conducted weekly prayer meetings for which they wrote a new hymn a week. The Olney Hymns were instantly popular and published in a first edition in 1779. “Amazing Grace” is believed to have been one of the hymns composed for the prayer meeting in Olney. It appeared in the 1779 edition of Olney Hymns and again in the 1808 edition.

Here are the original lyrics, which have been added to over the years by other writers, until it reached the form we know today:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d 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 reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

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

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, 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 call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine

The tune of “Amazing Grace” as we know it today is not original to Newton’s hymn. In 1829 the tune was published as “New Britain.” It was set to Newton’s hymn first in 1835, although over time some 24 different tunes have been applied to “Amazing Grace.” The music we know as “Amazing Grace” in our time is the 1829 “New Britain.” Similarly, the final stanza so familiar to us is not original to Newton’s composition. It first appeared in 1909 anonymously in a collection called World Renowned Hymns.

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 first begun.

It has been said the Methodist Church was “born in song.” It must be true.