How Sweet the Sound

In turning to yet another ethereal performance by the then-sixteen year old Hollie Smith (from her 1999 album, “Light From a Distant Shore”) it is fascinating to note that this, the most famous of all folk hymns, is performed around 10 million times a year.

With a tune that most likely finds its roots in the American south and is often recognized as an African American spiritual, the words to “Amazing Grace” are derived from a far, far different source.

Written by English poet and clergyman, John Newton, in 1773, the words of forgiveness and redemption were based on personal experience.  As a young Londoner with few religious convictions, Newton was known for his recalcitrance.  Pressed into the Royal Navy at the age of 18 he later drifted into the slave trade and would continue to be involved with it until later in life when he suddenly renounced slavery and became an abolitionist.

However, it was while in his mid-20s that Newton had a spiritual conversion, after calling out to God for mercy when the ship he was on encountered a storm so severe that it nearly sank.  By the time he made it back to England he had tuned to evangelical Christianity and eventually became ordained as a priest in the Church of England.

While serving as curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, he began to write hymns and “Amazing Grace” was written to elucidate a New Year’s Day sermon in 1773. It is not known if music accompanied the verses as it was then the custom of a congregation to chant without it, but it was published a few years later in Newton and William Cowper’s “Olney Hymns” after which, in England at least, it settled into obscurity.

But then came the Protestant Revival (aka the Great Awakening) of these United States where “Olney Hymns” had found their way.  First sung to various melodies it was assigned to the one we now recognize by William Walker in 1835.  Originally named “New Britain” the tune was well known throughout Kentucky and Tennessee, where many settlers were from Scotland, and is surmised to have been derived from a Scottish folk ballad.

Regardless (or perhaps because) of its meandering heritage, on this doubly commemorative day, in which we observe the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrate the second inauguration of the President of the United States, it’s a song that is sure to be heard throughout the land.

 LISTEN TO THIS SELECTION – Monday 21 January

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

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear

And Grace, my fears relieved

How precious did that Grace appear

The hour I first believe

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

Was blind, but now I see

Additional Lyrics

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come

‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

and Grace will lead me home

The Lord has 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

When we’ve been here ten thousand years

Bright shining as the sun

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

Than when we’ve first begun

 

 

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