Musician and professor Melissa Davis reflects on what one song can do, using the example of "Amazing Grace."
Music can lift the spirit, move emotions and speak to the soul. In the world’s most devastating moments, people turn to folk anthems and songs that ring out with cries for peace, unity and hope.
North American society has historically turned to the songs of the Church for such moments. One sacred song in particular that has continuously gained prominence – bringing the gospel message into presidential inauguration ceremonies, memorial services and tribute concerts – is the wildly popular 18th-century hymn "Amazing Grace."
With its memorable folklike tune and powerful text of redemption and hope, "Amazing Grace" has become an iconic global anthem for both sacred and secular culture. It is estimated to be performed 10 million times annually.
It was an anthem of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War demonstrations, and a source of solace at memorial services for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in NYC and the 2018 van attack in Toronto.
Why has this song so often been chosen to accompany such historic events?
Perhaps we all see in this folk hymn our own human depravity and need for redemption in the same way its writer did. The hymn’s author, English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725–1807), grew up working with his father as a seaman along the West African coast, capturing and selling African people to visiting slave traders, and later becoming captain of his own slave ship.
I am not conscious of having written a single line with an intention either to flatter or to offend any party or person on earth. –John Newton, preface to Olney Hymns, 1779
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Newton was once abandoned by his crew and captured by a slave trader, but when he was graciously rescued he quickly returned to his abhorrent lifestyle. During one of his voyages, a raging storm began to ravage his ship. Crying out for mercy Newton surrendered himself to Christ, but still did not cease his enslavement of African people.
After becoming very ill on a voyage in 1754, Newton left seafaring and the slave trade, and turned to a life as parish priest in the small town of Olney, Buckinghamshire. The writing of "Amazing Grace" would come much later in December 1772.
It wasn’t until the mid-1780s that Newton began to publicly renounce the horrific institution of slavery. Having come through many "dangers, toils and snares" himself, Newton began to see God’s grace in his life, and that he had been saved for a greater purpose.
Who would imagine that an 18th-century personal poem written in an attic of an English vicarage in 1772 by a depraved slave trader rescued by the Saviour would give hope to so many in the 21st century?
While Newton’s gripping text alone conveys God’s outpouring of grace on an undeserving soul, the hymn’s most powerful expression came when set to the well-known folk melody "New Britain." American Baptist song leader and composer William Walker (1809–75) gave wings to the hymn when he paired the text with this elegant, simple tune in 1835. This perfect marriage of text and tune made the hymn a singable anthem of hope and deliverance.
While Newton’s intent was neither to "flatter" nor "offend any … person on earth" with his hymns, centuries later his song continues to challenge the world. "Amazing Grace" both challenges our complacency and brings comfort to the disturbed soul. Knowing that the vilest among us is loved by a God willing and able to save us by the free gift of grace, we are strengthened and brought together in our humanity.
While a song in itself has no agency to eliminate the ills of society, "Amazing Grace" shows how the sweet sound of God’s grace can bring us all to our knees.
Melissa Davis, DMA, is an active concert soloist, music professor, choral conductor, worship leader, clinician and director of the music and worship arts department at Tyndale University, Toronto. Find more of these columns at FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson.