Summer in Song: Amazing Grace

Carrying on with our ‘Summer in Song’! Our song this week is, quite possibly, the most well-known hymn of all.   A biographer of the author called Jonathan Aitken has estimated that it is sung 10 million times each year! 

It is, of course, Amazing Grace.  Here are all the verses, including some we may not have seen before.  John Newton would appear to have written the first 6 but not the final one.  No-one seems to know who wrote it, but it appears to have been written around 1829.

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

We have already come

‘Tis grace that brought us safe thus far

And grace will lead us home

The Lord hath promised good to me

His word my hope secures

He will my shield and portion be

As long as life endures

Yea, 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

When we’ve been there 10,000 years

Bright shining as the sun

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we first begun

I thought that I knew the story behind this song.  In short, John Newton was an unpleasant man who worked in the slave trade.  He was on a ship that got into trouble, called out to God who saved him and so he wrote this song and started campaigning against slavery.  A nice, neat little package of sin, salvation and a changed life.  

In researching for this week, I’ve discovered that’s not quite how the story goes.  John Newton was born in 1725 in London.  His mother died two weeks before his seventh birthday.  His Dad was a strict sea-captain and he took him to sea when he was 11.  He went on lots of voyages and became a heavy drinker and was eventually sent to the Navy.  He attempted to desert and received 8 dozen lashes and was demoted to a common seaman.  

He was serving on a slave trade ship called the Pegasus but didn’t get on with the crew so was left in West Africa with a slave trader called Amos Clowe who gave him to his wife, an African royal who treated him badly along with her other slaves.  His Dad asked another sea captain to look for him and he was rescued but that ship was caught in an awful storm off the coast of Ireland and almost sank.  Newton cried out to God who saved the ship from sinking and he took this as a sign from God and became a Christian.  However, his life didn’t change radically at this point and he later said, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word until a considerable time afterward.”

He did start reading his bible and began to see his captives in a more sympathetic was at this point but he continued in the slave trade for another 3 voyages until suffering a stroke and having to retire.  Even then, he continued to invest in the business.  

Ten years after retiring, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and wrote 280 hymns for his services, including Amazing Grace in 1772 which was written for a New Year’s service in 1773.  

It wasn’t until 1788, 34 years after leaving the Slave Trade that he stood up against it, publishing a pamphlet called ‘Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade’ which described the conditions on the ships.  He apologised that it had taken him so long to realise and to act, saying, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  The pamphlet was so popular that it was reprinted a number of times and sent to every member of Parliament.  Newton just lived to see the abolition of slavery in 1807 under the leadership of MP William Wilberforce, dying in the December of that year.  

A few things came to mind as I was writing this.  

The first is that, whilst slavery was technically abolished in 1807, there are more slaves now in the world than ever before.  I know that we’ve talked about it before but here is a link for you to look at if you can which gives you more information:  It makes shocking reading and is something we need to be praying into!  

The second thing that I want to mention briefly is around a verse in the bible; Galatians 3:28.  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Even in biblical times when slavery was considered just a part of life and Christian households would have had slaves as well as Christians being slaves, the Followers of the Way were urged to see each other in a different light.  Yes, there were slaves and free in the world but within the relationships in the early church, each person was considered equal and was expected to love and serve and share with everyone else regardless of their status in the world.  I’ve often heard it said that Jesus came to turn the world on its head and we see it here.  The Christians were expected to live differently to the world around them.  I wonder how different we are to those around us in the way that we love, respect and treat those who we consider to be in a different social group to us?  A different gender? A different race?  A different sexuality?  Are there groups of people who we consider to be ‘less’ than we are?  Do we find ourselves being condescending even in our care of these people?  These are really important questions for us to consider as we look forward (eventually!) to coming back to worship in person.  We are asking God constantly to grow our church.  What if he chooses to grow it with people we find ourselves uncomfortable with?  Are we truly ready to welcome all as equals, all equally in need of God’s amazing grace? 

The final thing I want to say is about the amazing grace of God.  Let’s have a quick look at Ephesians 2:1-10.  You will remember the final verse from last week’s letter!

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The story of John Newton isn’t, as I said earlier, a nice, neat package of sin, salvation and a changed life.  It’s about someone who recognised the saving power of God and, over time, allowed God to change his mind and his way of living through his grace.  Isn’t that true for all of us?  As we grow in our relationship with him, he begins to ‘nudge’ us about things we think or say or do that aren’t compatible with the new creation we have become and we ask him to forgive us (again and again) and to change us into his likeness.  We just about feel like we’ve managed to change on one thing and another comes along (or we fail again on that one thing!).  Often we feel like we’re failing more than we are successfully living for him but every time we do, we can come to him again, confess our sin and know that he is faithful and just and will forgive us and purify us from unrighteousness.  

Do you ever feel as though you’re just not good enough? Not holy enough?  The fact is that without Jesus, you’re not and I’m not and neither could we ever be!  We are sinners saved by the amazing grace of God.  In the version of the song that we sing, Chris Tomlin has added the following words.  I say Amen.  Do you?

My chains are gone.  I’ve been set free! My God, my Saviour has ransomed me

And like a flood his mercy reigns…. Unending love.  AMAZING GRACE!