This is, without question, the most well-known Christian hymn of all time. It has been played or sung at gospel meetings, revivals, inaugurations, memorial services, military campaigns, political rallies, rock concerts, prison outreaches, sporting events, war protests, funerals, weddings, by bagpipes at memorial services for law enforcement officers, and in times of national tragedy. It has been referred to as “a spiritual national anthem.” In 1969, it was even sung from the stage of the Woodstock music festival. It is included in over 1000 hymnbooks. There have been at least 3000 versions of songs inspired from this one hymn. One biographer of John Newton has estimated that this hymn is performed over 10 million times each year.
As well known as this hymn is, many who sing these familiar words, have never personally experienced the amazing grace which John Newton did, when the Lord saved him. Recently, a young assembly sister sat beside her unsaved father in a Catholic church, at an aunt’s funeral. Having often witnessed of salvation to him, she was surprised to see this hymn on the program. The priest started the singing, and she gently pointed out, to her father, the words “the hour I first believed,” as the congregation joined the singing.
John Newton shunned the godly lives of his parents, and at an early age, descended into the depths of sin. He had a godly mother, who faithfully taught him the truths of God when he was very young, and had him memorize many Scripture verses. But she died when he was only seven, and at age 11, he left home for boarding school. This lasted a brief time, until he became a seaman on the high seas, and soon after, a slave trader. He went as low as sin would allow. He stated “I renounced the hopes and comforts of the gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” He was an obscene man, given to fighting, insubordination, drinking, and the vilest kinds of immorality. He “let his lust run unchecked,” and later said, “I not only sinned with a high hand myself, but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.” His behavior on one slave ship was so bad, that his crewmen chained him with the slaves, and sold him as one, to work on a plantation in Sierra Leone. His father intervened, but he was soon back at his evil and wayward life. The captain of his new ship wrote that his language was the worst he had ever heard.
He continued to ship slaves from West Africa to the West Indies, and to America. His wicked behavior towards his crew and his slaves was despicable. Once, in a storm, he was swept off the ship, and nearly drowned. The crew wouldn’t even launch a boat for him.Instead, they fired a harpoon at him, and brought him back that way.
One night, on a stormy North Atlantic sea, a wave swept one of his mates overboard to his death from a spot where Newton had just been standing. The ship was laden with lumber, livestock, and beeswax, and was foundering badly. He and another crewman lashed themselves to a mast, and for 11 hours, pumped water from the ship. Newton had commented to the captain, as he tied on the ropes, “If this will not do, then the Lord have mercy on us all!”
Two weeks later, the battered ship made port. Newton had been reading the 15th-century work The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A. Kempis. He thought of his plea for the Lord’s mercy, and how it had been granted to him. This was when he was awakened, but it was not until later that he was saved.
His salvation happened when he was 23. He found himself on a small island off the coast of N. Africa. He was sick with a fever, and sick of his sins. He wrote, “Weak and almost delirious, I arose from my bed and crept to a secluded part of the island: there I found a renewed liberty to pray … and cast myself before the Lord, to do with me as He should please. I was enabled to hope, and believe in a crucified Savior. The burden was removed from my conscience.”
That day was March 10, 1878. From that point on, he sought to live for the Lord. He gave up slave trading, returned to England, and began, in earnest, to preach the gospel. Along with his best friend William Cowper, he wrote many wonderful hymns, 10 of which are in the Believer’s Hymn Book. But none of his hymns have ever reached the popularity of this one…
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!
The Lord has promised good to me, His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.
When it was suggested to him to retire from preaching at the age of 82, with poor health and failing memory, Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and thvat Christ is a great Savior!”
He had written down, before his death, what he wanted inscribed on his tombstone. Part of the inscription, about this wretch saved by amazing grace, is this:
“John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”