“Amazing Grace” at 250 Years Old: Part 1

January 1, 2023 is the anniversary of a significant moment in church history.  On January 1, 1773, the hymn that we know as “Amazing Grace” was sung for the first time in Olney, England.

For the last 250 years, it has been sung in churches, played at funerals, served as a unifying thread through the Civil Rights Movement in 1960’s America, and recorded thousands of times by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Elvis Presley to the Lemonheads. Johnny Cash, who often sang the song in his prison concerts, described it, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free.  It just frees the spirit and frees the person.” 

The hymn writer, John Newton, could never have known just how many people would be encouraged, strengthened, and pointed to Jesus through his lyrics.  This is the first part of that story.

John Newton’s Early Life

Newton was born in 1725 to Captain John Newton and his pious wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth recognized her son’s intelligence and set him to intense studies even as a toddler.  As a young boy, he was influenced by a friendship with Isaac Watts, the lyricist who wrote When I survey the Wondrous Cross and Joy to the World.

Newton’s studious childhood was cut short. In 1732, when Newton was just seven years old, his mother died of tuberculosis. By the age of 11, he went to sea, and demonstrated daily the sinfulness of his heart.  For the next 15 years, he lived the life of a profligate sailor:

I was exceedingly vile indeed, little, if anything, short of the animated description of an already irrecoverable state, which we have in 2 Peter 2:14, ‘With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—and accursed brood!’  I not only sinned with a high hand myself—but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.”

On March 21, 1748, Newton’s ship was caught in a catastrophic storm. As the ship seemed to be sinking, Newton cried out:  “Lord, have mercy on us.” The Lord did have mercy, and Newton later remembered, “I began to know that this is a God who answers prayer.” 

Between 1748-1754, Newton made four voyages to Africa, three of them as a slave-ship captain.  While his heart was opening to the mercy of God, his conscience regarding slavery was untouched. Newton pursued commercialism and materialism, seeking to advance his social standing for the sake of marrying Polly, a lovely upper middle-class lady. During these days, Newton later observed that his verbal sin abated, but morally, he was still perverse.

John Newton as Pastor

The more he studied the Scriptures, however, the closer Newton followed Christ. As his desire to serve as a minister grew, he found himself rejected by the Church of England for his “enthusiasm” and focus on evangelism. To make matters worse, he was friends with Methodists, including Whitfield and Wesley, with independents, and Baptists.

Newton’s Parsonage in Olney, England

Six years passed in his pursuit of a pastorate, but finally in1764, Newton was ordained as a favor to Earl of Dartmouth who granted Newton a curacy in Olney. The population of the quaint town was 2000. Newton wrote that “The people are mostly poor, the country low and dirty.” Olney was described by a contemporary of Newton as “the half-starved and ragged of the earth.” More than 1200 mostly non-literate poor women populated the towns chief industry, lacemaking.

Olney lace-making bobbins

Newton’s immediate neighbor in Onley was the famous poet, William Cowper. Their proximity formed one of the most significant friendships of either man’s life. The little lane between the vicarage and Cowper’s house allowed the households to share a garden as they shared life together.

Newton preached and loved his rag-tag people. The church grew to 600, and people even came from London some 60 miles and a 9-hour carriage ride away to hear him preach.

William Wilberforce, a wealthy London politician was one of those who would come to hear and meet with Newton. Significantly influenced by Newton’s discipleship, Wilberforce threw his personal and professional political life into the effort to outlaw the slave trade in England.

Newtons as Hymn Writer, Correspondent and Friend.

Newton loved people well, as demonstrated in his correspondence and in his hymn writing. Newtons wrote hundreds of letters to friends, family, politicians and parishioners. Of the letters that remain for us to enjoy, we read accounts of Newton’s testimony, apologetic arguments for the doubters, and practical admonitions to follow Christ closely.

Newton’s warmth and affection for people was evident in his letters. After one visit with a friend, he wrote: 

I brought home with me a thankful sense of the kindness and friendship I am favored with from you and all yours. I account this connection one of the great comforts of my life. [216]

And in another letter reflecting on friendship, we find this:

If two hearts are truly united to the Heavenly Magnet, their mutual attraction will be permanent in time and to eternity. Blessed be the Lord for a good hope, that it is thus between you and me. I could not love you better if I saw you or heard from you every day. [312]

Newton’s affection for Christ and people was demonstrated further his hymn writing.  The majority of this poor congregation in Olney was non-literate. As these women would tie the lace knots, Newton would hear them recite silly poems, called “tells” together to keep pace:  Something like this:  “Cinderella, Cinderella, Went up stairs to kiss a fella, made a mistake, kissed a snake, How many doctors did it take. . .”  You get the idea.  Newton thought that if these women could memorize the tells, they could learn to meditate on poetry that spoke the truths of the Gospel. 

And so, Newton began to write hymns to accompany his weekly sermons.

Part 2 of this post will pick up the story to recount the sermon that led to John Newton’s lyrics of the world’s best loved hymn, “Amazing Grace.” All quotes in this post come from The Letters of John Newton from the Banner of Truth Trust. More resources on the life of John Newton are outlined here.

John Newton from Olney Church

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