Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound). John Newton* (1725-1807).

First published in Olney Hymns (1779) Book I, ‘On select Passages of Scripture’. It had six Common Metre verses with the title ‘Faith’s Review and Expectation’ and a reference to 1 Chronicles 17: 16-17. Here David exclaims in humble wonder at what the prophet, Nathan, has just said about God’s care for him from his early days to his present position as king, a care that would extend to his successors. Newton applies this to his own experience of divine grace. He preached on past mercies and future hopes, using this text, on 1 January 1773 (information from Marylynn Rouse).

The hymn was forgotten in England, but in the USA it was treasured in the Appalachian valleys and partnered with the American folk melody (possibly based on an earlier Scottish one) now known as NEW BRITAIN or AMAZING GRACE. This was published in Columbian Harmony, or Pilgrim’s Musical Companion (Cincinnati, 1829) and in Virginia Harmony (Winchester, Virginia, 1831). It was paired with Newton’s words for the first time by William Walker* in Southern Harmony* (1835) and included in shape-note hymnbooks thereafter. Walker called the tune NEW BRITAIN. It was modified to its 'upright' form and called AMAZING GRACE by Edwin O. Excell* in Make His Praise Glorious (Chicago, 1900) and re-arranged in his Coronation Hymns (1910).

The combination of words and tune must have contributed to the hymn’s remarkable revival in the 1960s, when it was taken up by a pipe band and by various popular singers, sometimes in secular contexts. ‘Amazing grace’ now appears in many major British, American, Canadian and Australian hymnals.

Until recently verbal alterations have been relatively minor but there have been many different selections of verses. Newton’s stanza 5 is frequently omitted:

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
    And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the vail,
     A life of joy and peace.

Verse 6 is almost always omitted:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
    The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
    Will be for ever mine.

Less frequently stanzas 2 and/or 3 are omitted or stanzas 3 and 4 appear in reverse order.

The following, from A Collection of Sacred Ballads (1790) and of unknown authorship, is often introduced as the closing verse, especially in the USA (in the 1790 collection it was appended to ‘Jerusalem, my happy home’*; the stanza was first associated with ‘Amazing grace!’ in Excell's 1910 collection).

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.

Newton’s hymn has an imaginative structure, centred on conversion experience, surveying the speaker’s life with its difficulties, and contemplating both death and the end of the world. All the selections do some damage to this structure. Recently there has been increasing verbal variation. Sing Glory (1999) and Praise! (2000) use the first five stanzas with considerable modernization. Songs of Fellowship (2003) has a worship-song version beginning ‘Amazing love has come to me’ and adding a chorus by Nathan Fellingham. A version by Chris Tomlin* with the refrain ‘My chains are gone’ is popular in the United States. A&MCP and A&MRW however, print all six of Newton’s stanzas as written, thus restoring the hymn’s balance and the eschatology of the original conclusion.

[Note: for detailed information on the tune, see the entry by William J. Reynolds in Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal [1991] (Nashville, Tennessee, 1992), p. 92; and that by Robin A. Leaver and Marion Hatchett in The Hymnal 1982 Companion Volume 3B (New York, 1994), pp. 1236-43. In this volume a facsimile of the shape-note tune is at p. 1239, and a facsimile of William Walker's tune, from the 1854 edition of Southern Harmony is at p. 1241.] 

Elizabeth Cosnett

Further Reading

Steve Turner, Amazing Grace: The story of America's most beloved song (New York, 2002), includes comprehensive bibliography and sources.

Cite this article