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The Hopeful Yet Painful Story Behind ‘Amazing Grace’


No matter the rendition or artist, the tune and lyrics are easily recognizable. ‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.’

Churches across the country will sing that familiar hymn this Sunday and while you may know the song, do you know the man behind the music? 

Ilena Madraso of DC's Museum of the Bible says behind the hopeful tune lies a dark story.

"John Newton has a pretty amazing story. He lived a pretty crazy life. He was rebellious,” said Madraso.

That was until the longtime sailor experienced a rough night at sea.

“It was in those moments he began to understand how precious life is and the decisions he had made were not a good way to live his life," she explained. 

Although he gave his life to Christ, Newton became a slave ship captain, a practice generally accepted by Christians and much of society at the time.

"It was during that time he began to think differently about humanity,” she said.

After a health crisis, Newton left the ships, but not his involvement with slavery.

It’s something he would wrestle with for many years.

He eventually joined the Church of England and began writing songs.

"He wrote quite a few with another hymn writer, William Cowper, and they collected them together in the Olney hymn book. And that's where we actually see the hymn Amazing Grace recorded for the first time in print,” she said.

Newton once said his heart shuddered over his time with slavery.

"I think of the first part, ‘Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me’ it’s reflective of the book of Romans that says ‘wretched man that I am’ in Romans 7. He knew that about himself,” she explained. 

While the words only resonated with a few at the time, they spoke loudly to his friend, abolitionist William Wilberforce. 

Newton’s confession to Wilberforce, as portrayed in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, changed the course of history.

After Newton's encouragement, Wilberforce would successfully push for the end of England’s slave trade in 1807.

And then, the song took off.

From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, to secretaries of state, and a former President of the United States, its message of hope in the face of sorrow remains steadfast.

So much so, artists like Judy Collins, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin have all put their spin on it.  Each version is on display here at the museum.

"It's pretty neat to look at the different album covers, coloring, and designs, graphic designs that speak to each of the genres and each of the artists,” said Madraso.

The museum also features listening devices where visitors can check out the various renditions. 

Madraso says the idea of grace, redemption, and hope is something that resonates across genres, culture, and time.

**Originally published May 25, 2018. 

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