Amazing Grace

Words by John Newton, 1779; tune "New Britain," 1835

Even after his conversion, John Newton continued a few years in the slave trade. Though it began to occur to him that slaves should be treated humanely, "during the time I was engaged in the slave trade, I never had the least scruple to its lawfulness." How did otherwise conscientious religious people of the mid-1700s rationalize slavery? What lines refer to his later change of heart? Blind-see; lost-found.

What does "wretch" mean? Vile, miserable person. What did it mean to John Newton? Do you have be a slave trader to have these feelings of guilt? When have you felt like a wretch?

What does "grace" mean? Unmerited favor. What makes grace "amazing"? When have you experienced good that you didn't think you deserved? How did that make you feel?

How does the message of the song build from verse to verse? Wretched-ness–redemption–rejoicing.

Why does this song remain one of the most popular hymns ever? Where have you heard it? What allows this song to cross religious boundaries? What are your favorite lines? Why?

"Amazing Grace" performed by St. John's Episcopal Cathedral Choir on America the Golden Dream: Favorite Songs About America, Delos, © 1996. Available on iTunes and on Spotify.

This is a simple performance with choir singing a capella in unison and harmony.

View the music and lyrics for "Amazing Grace."

View the first published score.

Contemporary portrait of John Newton, artist unknown.
Contemporary portrait of Reverend John Newton, artist unknown.

In March of 1748, John Newton, captain of a slave ship, chanced upon a fifteenth-century book Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. During this voyage a storm arose, shattering the ship. Newton survived, after drifting for four weeks, and remembered what he had read. He marked that voyage as his conversion to Christianity. Although he continued for six years in the slave trade ("during the time I was engaged in the slave trade, I never had the least scruple to its lawfulness"), it gradually occurred to him that slaves were also made in God's image, and he began regular prayer and preaching to them. After leaving the slave trade, Newton began many years of self-education, resulting in his Anglican Church ordination. Eventually, he testified to the atrocities of the slave trade, which helped lead to the 1807-08 acts of Parliament making it illegal to transport slaves in or out of British territories.

In the 1760s, during the early years of his ministry at Olney, Buckinghamshire, he wrote the text of this hymn. It was first published in Olney Hymns in 1779 by Newton and his friend, the poet William Cowper. This collection included 348 hymns intended for the congregation's mid-week prayer services. The now familiar tune is the folk melody "New Britain," which was first linked with this text in William Walker's 1835 song collection, Southern Harmony.

Newton's epitaph reads:

Once an infidel and libertine.
A servant of slaves in Africa:
Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour,
Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned.
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long laboured to destroy.
Near sixteen years at Olney.

"New Britain," the tune we associate with "Amazing Grace," wasn't used until it was first published in America in 1835. The text is still sung to other tunes including "Auld Lang Syne." Together, sing "Amazing Grace" to "Auld Lang Syne." How well do the lyrics suit this tune? Now sing it to the usual tune of "New Britain." What do these two tunes have in common? Number of beats per line. Which do you prefer?

Interview someone regarding their memories and feelings about this hymn.



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