I’ll admit it — most old hymns put me to sleep. But there’s one that almost always brings tears to my eyes.
Amazing Grace was written more than 200 years ago but somehow the lyrics remain as fresh today as when they were written. It’s been sung by everyone from gospel choirs to bluegrass quartets to punk rockers to polka bands. If you’ve ever doubted the power of God’s grace to transform lives, then you haven’t heard the story behind the song …
The hymn’s writer was a man named John Newton. Not many who knew him as a young man would have guessed that he would one day write arguably the world’s most beloved song.
Starting when he was only eleven years old, Newton worked on merchant ships as a sailor. He moved up the ranks until one day he became captain of his own vessel — a slave ship.
Newton completely turned his back on the faith of his youth and sank deeper and deeper into sin. He sailed his human cargo from port to port, profiting from their misery with no remorse. Newton was despised by virtually everyone around him, including his own crew. One day, Newton broke into the ship’s rum supply and got so drunk that he fell overboard. His crew was perfectly content to let him drown until finally some kind-hearted soul harpooned him and dragged him back onto the ship.
On May 10, 1748, Newton’s ship was caught in a violent storm. Just when it looked like the boat was about to sink and all hope was lost, Newton cried out in desperation, “Lord have mercy on us!” The ship ultimately made it through the storm and all aboard survived. Believing that he and his ship had been saved by God’s grace, Newton began to read the Bible passionately and marked the anniversary of that date as his “great deliverance” for the rest of his life.
When he later became too ill to sail, Newton started attending church and studying Greek and Hebrew. He studied under evangelical giants George Whitfield and John Wesley and grew in his faith. He applied to be a minister but was rejected at first. Newton persisted and was later ordained by the Church of England. Newton’s following quickly grew so large that his church had to be expanded.
Later in life, Newton renounced the slave trade and worked with William Wilberforce to champion abolition. But his most well known achievement will always be Amazing Grace. Set to the tune of an old slave song, here are the lyrics penned by the crusty old former slave trader:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Maybe you’re a wretch like Newton or me or all the other billions of sinners out there. Follow Newton’s example: Cry out to God, turn your life over to Him and then never stop proclaiming His truly amazing grace.