The Former “Wretch” Who Wrote the Classic Hymnal “Amazing Grace”

In the winter of 1772 in Olney England, clergyman and poet John Newton started writing one of the most famous songs of all time. Eventually published in 1779, Newton initially wrote “Amazing Grace” as a Christian hymnal.

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A “Wretch”: Newton’s Story

Born on August 4, 1725, Newton grew up without any specific religious convictions. Forced into the naval service at age 18, he attempted to desert his ship. After being severely beaten on board, at one point Newton contemplated murdering the captain and then jumping overboard to his death. Later transferred to a slave trading ship called Pegasus, Newton was known as obscene and foul-mouthed, which led his captain to hand him over to the slave dealer Amos Clowe, whose wife Princess Peye abused and kept him in captivity along with their other slaves before his rescue in 1748.

Returning back home to England on the merchant ship Greyhound, Newton, first discovered the amazing grace of God.

Finding God

On his return voyage home, Newton’s ship hit a severe storm off the coast of Donegal, Ireland, and was violently swept at sea. Fearing its impending sink, Newton called out to God for mercy. Shortly after, the storm died down, and he made it safely back to land nearly two weeks later.

Newton’s near-death experience marked a spiritual transformation for the former seafarer. Though he was still involved in the slave trade until 1750, upon his return home he began reading the bible, along with other religious literature, and slowly converted to Christianity.

Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became a clergyman and premiered “Amazing Grace” during a sermon on New Year’s Day in 1773. The hymn was left unnoticed in England until Methodist and Baptist preachers in the U.S. began incorporating it into sermons in the 1950s.

In “Amazing Grace,” Newton’s first verse is about the grace of God, and one that saved him from his own wretchednessAmazing grace how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me.

“Amazing Grace” was a partial reflection of his own self-perception at the time and his ultimate transformation into a man of faith.

An Abolitionist of Slavery

Near the end of his life, Newton became friends with William Wilberforce and worked with him to help abolish the slave trade in England.

Shortly after leaving the slave trade, Newton moved to London as a church rector and worked with the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was officially formed in 1787. A year later, Newton published his book Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. In it, he wrote:

So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.  

Newton lived to see the British Empire’s abolition of the African slave trade in 1807. He died on December 21, 1807, at the age of 82.

“Amazing Grace” in America

In 1835, American composer William Walker put “Amazing Grace” to a traditional song called “New Britain,” the arrangement most commonly known today, and in shape note form, which could easily be sung.

Newton’s song of redemption and a new beginning, “Amazing Grace” played throughout the centuries and has evolved into one of the most popular, more secular hymnals in American history.

Now more than 250 years after Newton introduced “Amazing Grace,” the song remains one of the most powerful hymns and anthems and has been covered by everyone from Willie Nelson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Burt Ives, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard & The Strangers, Rod Stewart, Glen Campbell, Wynton Marsalis, Carrie Underwood, and Sarah MacLachlan, among more than 600 other renditions.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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