811 Amazing Grace

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Story Behind the Hymn

The world’s most loved and best-known hymn became the most performed and most recorded song in history in the 1960s. It topped the official singles charts in the early 1970s during the Jesus movement when millions turned to faith in God. As an 11-year-old boy, John Newton, author of this hymn, joined his father on the seas after his godly mother died. His father and the hardened deckhands influenced young Newton to become a profane infidel, unpredictable, violent, a drunkard, and murderer. He scared even veteran sailors when he was not in jail. Law officers called him “vicious, brutal, void of empathy and fearless.” He escaped to Africa while running from the law. There he joined a mob that was equally violent. They traded guns, spices, liquor, and human cargo on slave ships. The one in 3 slaves that survived the 6-week journey were sold at auction.

One night, a violent storm broke out shortly after 23-year-old Captain Newton left the deck. He was unaware of the rapidly approaching storm, immersed in a book, unmoved by the moans, screams, and stench of those in chains below. When he realized the storm, he prepared to die. As Newton reviewed his wretched life, he realized that the only person who had ever loved him was his godly mother. He knew it would disappoint her to see what he had become. He fell to his knees in prayer, seeking God’s grace. This was the hour he first believed. The storm immediately averted, and the ship completed its journey. A few years later, plagued with the “struggles between sin and conscience,” he could no longer justify the slave trade business. He writes, “I was increasingly perturbed by a course of life involved with shackles, chains, and leg irons.”

Twenty years later, Pastor Newton delivered a message to his congregation on the grace of God. Admitting his past sins and God’s grace, he spoke of his life at sea during a violent storm. He composed a little hymn so the people could more easily remember the day’s sermon. He finished the hymn singing the now-forgotten verse:

In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.

When he was an old man and nearly blind, Newton remarked, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a Great Savior.” This hymn, written by a truly repentant criminal-turned-pastor, charts the path for the blind, wretched sinner on the road to spiritual sight through God’s grace of salvation.