“Amazing Grace” is a Christian hymn published in 1779, the words of which were written in 1772 by the English poet and Anglican priest John Newton. It is an extremely popular anthem, especially in the United States, where it is used for both religious and secular purposes. Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without much religious conviction, but his life path was shaped by many twists and turns and coincidences, often set in motion by the reactions of others to what they took to be his defiant defiance. He was drafted to serve in the Royal Navy. After leaving the service, he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm wrecked his ship off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland, so badly that he cried out to God for mercy. This moment marked his spiritual conversion, and he continued the slave trade until 1754 or 1755, when he completely stopped his seafaring. Newton began to study Christian theology, and later became an abolitionist.
Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became a minister in Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began writing hymns with the poet William Cowper. “Amazing Grace” was written to illustrate the 1773 New Year’s Day sermon. It is not known whether the poems were accompanied by music; perhaps the parishioners sang it. It debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns, but remained in relative obscurity in England. In the United States, “Amazing Grace” became a popular song used by Baptist and Methodist preachers in their evangelism, especially in the South during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. More than 20 melodies are associated with it. In 1835, the American composer William Walker set it to the tune known as “New Britain” in shape note format; this is the version most often sung today.