Let’s begin with a question this month.
When you read the words above, or think of the song Amazing Grace what springs to mind?
Memorial services or funerals? Gospel choirs? Joan Baez?
Barack Obama reciting then singing these words?
American civil rights meetings? Aretha Franklin?
Rewind nearly two hundred and fifty years to the early 1770s and a man called John Newton. He grew up with no particular religious convictions but his life was to take a series of twists and turns that impacted on his beliefs and attitudes to life. He was conscripted into service for several years into the Royal Navy and after leaving this he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade.
A violent storm in 1748, during which he came close to death, caused him to
undergo a spiritual conversion. His slave trading employment continued until 1754 when he left seafaring to study Christian theology, was ordained into the Church of England and became curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire. In co-operation with the poet William Cowper he began to write hymns. Amazing Grace was written to illustrate a sermon on New Years Day 1773, and was then published in 1779. For many years it was sung either unaccompanied or to a wide variety of melodies.
Amazing Grace isn’t a song of theology – it was John Newton’s own heartfelt expression of gratitude to God, who he believed had helped him turn from his former wicked life to fight against the ills he had practiced. Later in life, Newton became a supporter and inspiration to William Wilberforce who lead the fight to pass the British Slave Trade Act in 1807.
For many years the song settled into relative obscurity in England, but in the early 19th century a large religious movement swept the US (known as the Second Great Awakening) marked by the growing popularity of churches and large gatherings of people. In 1835 it was finally linked to the tune “New Britain” to which it is usually sung today.
In the 20th century the song became a regular for gospel and folk artists, but with the popularity of recorded music and radio, “Amazing Grace” crossed over from being essentially a gospel song to secular audiences, thus allowing artists to perform it in thousands of different forms.
Folk singer Judy Collins recorded it in the late 1960s, and the song took on a
political tone, often included in marches and protests against the Vietnam War. Joan Baez claimed that it was the most requested of all her songs, acknowledging that she hadn’t realised that it had started as a hymn, for Amazing Grace had “developed a life of its own”.
Amazing Grace has understandably been sung at some very noteworthy and prestigious venues over the years, as well as numerous protest marches and political gatherings. It has become a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy, a “spiritual national anthem”.
It was performed at the famous Woodstock Festival in 1969. In 2015 President Barack Obama famously recited, then sang the hymn at the memorial service for Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the Charleston shooting. Opera singer Jessye Norman, performed it at the end of a huge outdoor concert to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. She stated, “I don’t know whether it’s the text – I don’t know whether we’re talking about the lyrics when we say that it touches so many people – or whether it’s that tune that everybody knows.”
The choir of Heyford Singers will, in their small way add to the history of this unique song, by including it in their forthcoming spring concert, Friday 10th and Saturday 11th May.
We do hope that you can join us then.