Amazing Grace

Text: John Newton
Music: Commonly sung to the tune “New Britain,” (composer anonymous)
Copyright: Public Domain
Themes: God’s Grace, Salvation, Perseverance, Hope

Background and Message

Arguably one of the most famous hymns of the past few centuries and perhaps of all time. All of the verses except the last one were written by English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton in 1772. Newton had grown up without strong religious convictions and later became involved in slave trading. In 1748 a violent storm at sea marked the beginning of his coming to Christ. Years after his conversion Newton was convicted of the evils of slavery and abandoned his involvement in it, ultimately campaigning for its abolishment.

Newton originally composed the verses as a poem, but by the late 1780s it was being published in different hymnals and paired with various common meter tunes. In 1835 American composer William Walker paired it with the tune “New Britain,” a popular folk song at the time. Since then the song has been most commonly associated with this melody.

The verses of the song are an insight into Newton’s own testimony, one with which many Christians can relate. It is this personal sense of connection that has likely contributed to the hymn’s popularity and longevity. The opening line is one that should resonate deeply with believers. We were “wretches,” lost, dead in sin, at enmity with God. Yet in his love, he showed us mercy and saved us by his “amazing grace!” Before we came to know Christ we were “blind” (2 Cor 4:4), but God opened our eyes and gave us spiritual sight to see.

The hymn looks not only to our past conversion, but to our present life as believers. The grace that saved us is the same grace that calms our fears (1 Jn. 4:18), and sustains us daily “through many dangers, toils, and snares” (2 Cor 12:9).

The latter verses focus on the ultimate hope that we have in Christ. His grace not only saved us and sustains us now, but will cause us to persevere to the end until we reach our heavenly home. In light of our sinfulness and God’s holiness, that he does this for us demonstrates that his grace is truly amazing!

The final verse, “When we’ve been there…” was not written by Newton, but comes from another hymn. It’s inclusion is largely attributed to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where Tom sings the hymn in his hour of deepest crisis. For the last verse of the song he borrows from the hymn Jerusalem, My Happy Home. Though not originally part of Newton’s lyrics, the verse’s message of eternal joy with God fits well.

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Congregational & Musical Helps

One of the potential pitfalls when doing such a timeless, well-known and beloved hymn like Amazing Grace is letting it become routine and stale. Avoiding this doesn’t mean doing a completely new arrangement each time, but rather creatively finding ways to help encourage a congregation to sing it with passion and joy.

Whether you’re serving in a traditional or contemporary setting, consider including the lesser known verses (4-6) if they are unfamiliar to your congregation. These three verses are sometimes published in hymnals, but in many versions are omitted.

Verse three (“Through many dangers…”) presents a good opportunity to add some musical variation to reflect the tension of living in this world while still trusting in God to sustain us. This can be done by incorporating minor chords and alternate harmonizations.

Try doing one verse completely acapella. If you have a congregation that is more reluctant to sing out, especially when unaccompanied, this is a good song to use to help them grow in this area since it is so familiar and loved.

Another way to be creative with this hymn is to incorporate a line from another hymn that also uses common meter (8.6.8.6). Other songs that share this meter can be found here.

Finally, a simple modulation up a step on the last verse is always effective. After singing of the glorious goodness of God’s grace to us, we climactically sing the final verse with the hope of heaven before us. Don’t be afraid to let the key be a little higher than what your congregation might be used to. I normally avoid anything that stays around a D5 too long, but in this case we want to build intensity musically.

Arrangements

Contemporary Arrangement
Traditional Arrangement
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