(U2 performing “Amazing Grace”)
Amazing Grace – The Story Behind the World’s Most Famous Hymn
by Greg Hanson
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” So begins the most famous hymn in the world. You would be hard pressed to find a hymnal printed in the past 200 years that does not contain the music and lyrics to “Amazing Grace.”
Recorded by such music superstars as Elvis Presley, LeAnn Rimes, and Whitney Houston, “Amazing Grace” has become the hymn most identified with the Christian Church. It has been featured in movies ranging from Coal Miner’s Daughter to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and has even appeared on The Simpsons. With over 7000 known recordings, “Amazing Grace” holds the world record as the most recorded song in history. The simplicity of its music and the honesty of its lyrics has made the hymn a favorite of millions worldwide, both within and outside the Church.
“Amazing Grace” was originally written in 1772 and published in 1779 by John Newton, a former sailor and slave trader. According to Newton, one day during a storm while aboard his slave-trading ship, he encountered the grace of God and his life was drastically changed as a result. This conversion eventually led to Newton, who no longer wished to participate in such a vile occupation as slave-trading, leaving the business to study theology and later become the curate at a local church in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England.
While serving in that church, Newton considered the transformation he had undergone and realized how utterly bankrupt his life had previously been. Considering the despicable nature of his former profession, he was in awe that God would still extend grace and forgiveness to one such as him. Out of that sense of wonder and brokenness flowed the words to “Amazing Grace.” (Newton’s concept of God’s grace would also come to influence William Wilberforce, the English parliamentarian who successfully led a decades-long fight to put an end to the slave trade throughout the British Empire.)
Over the years, “Amazing Grace” has connected with singers and listeners alike. Though not everyone shares Newton’s history of selling people as property, most people recognize significant deficiencies in their lives. Whether they identify it as sin, moral failure, skeletons in the closet, or some other synonym for personal inadequacy, each person has an area of regret and shame, either regarding a past activity or a current condition. The concept of a God who can extend grace even to the worst of offenders offers freedom and hope to those who otherwise would feel trapped and hopeless.
The hymn by itself is powerful, but an understanding of the back-story adds to its impact. In an era when popular music styles change regularly, “Amazing Grace” continues to touch hearts and inspire hope. As it has done for well over two centuries, it will continue to convey the message of God’s amazing grace to all who feel unworthy of receiving that grace.
– by Greg Hanson
(U2 Video courtesy of Vimeo: Eugene Cho – please also check out Ugene’s non-profit organization at http://onedayswages.org/)
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