John Newton, the author of the lyrics to Amazing Grace, was born in 1725 in Wapping,
England. Despite the powerful message of “Amazing Grace,” Newton’s religious beliefs
initially lacked conviction; his youth was marked by religious confusion and a lack of
moral self-control and discipline.
After a brief time in the Royal Navy, Newton began his career in slave trading. The
turning point in Newton’s spiritual life was a violent storm that occurred one night while
at sea. Moments after he left the deck, the crewman who had taken his place was swept
overboard. Although he manned the vessel for the remainder of the tempest, he later
commented that, throughout the tumult, he realized his helplessness and concluded that
only the grace of God could save him. These incidents and his 1750 marriage to Mary
Cartlett changed Newton significantly. On his slave voyages, he encouraged the sailors
under his charge to pray. He also began to ensure that every member of his crew treated
their human cargo with gentleness and concern. Nevertheless, it would be another 40
years until Newton openly challenged the trafficking of slaves.
In Olney, England the new curate met the poet William Cowper, also a newly-born
Christian. Their friendship led to a spiritual collaboration that completed the inspiration
for “Amazing Grace,” the poem Newton most likely wrote around Christmas time in
1772. The lyrics are based on his reflections on an Old Testament text he was preparing
to preach on, adding his perspective about his own conversion while on his slave ship, the
Greyhound, in 1748.
The song has also become known as a favorite with supporters of freedom and human
right’s, both Christian and non-Christian, in part because many assume it to be Newton’s
testimony about his slave trading past. The hymn was quite popular on both sides in the
American civil war.
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.
T’was 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.