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Hymn History: “Amazing Grace”

2 min

The fierce, stormy sea violently rocked the ship. White-knuckled sailors clung to wooden spars and ropes. The young captain, John Newton, despaired. Surely they were all about to die! Recently he had been reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. In response to the book’s influence and the realization that his life might end during the tempest, John Newton fervently prayed: “O God, if Thou wilt get me safely ashore, I will serve Thee forever.”

John Newton was a hardened man. He had worked on ships as a young boy. He had been kidnapped by a British press gang and forced into naval service when he was eighteen years old. After leaving the navy, he worked for a slave trader who treated him brutally. Now, five years later and helpless in a terrifying storm at sea, the young man totally surrendered his life to God. John Newton later recorded in his journal: 

That tenth of March is a day much remembered by me; and I have never suffered it to pass unnoticed since the year 1748—the Lord came from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.

John Newton’s conversion was genuine. His new life reflected humility. Brashness and rebellion cast aside, he became a man who understood the tremendous grace of God that had been manifested in his life. He never wearied of praising God for His goodness and love. John Newton wrote many hymns, among which “Amazing Grace” is best known.

The profound sense of his own unworthiness and of God’s greatness were the predominant themes of John Newton’s life in his preaching and writing. Reflecting on his darkest days, he marveled at “the providential care and exuberant goodness of God” toward him in his sinfulness. He expressed that sentiment in “Amazing Grace”:

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.

John Newton humbly wrote the inscription for his tombstone to denote God’s grace to him. The
epitaph reads: 

John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and Libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.

We do not need to have experienced the depths of sin or have a dramatic conversion experience in order to appreciate God’s grace as this hymn writer did. However, we do need to realize our true wretched condition before God and His amazing grace toward us. As we recognize that we are indebted to God, we will be motivated to joyfully proclaim His goodness.

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