Today I saw something rugged, beautiful and enduring. It was rugged because it survived in a place where it should not. Beauty had allowed it to thrive there, and it was enduring because things that are both rugged and beautiful really should last.
Riding my bike past a noisy construction site, I overheard the strains of the old hymn, Amazing Grace, rising up freely over the drone of traffic. Pressing my face against the chain link fence, I saw young men clad in hard hats and orange vests digging in the hot dust, and a jobsite boombox off to the side. Amazing Grace played over the speaker, made more impelling by the fact that this was a bagpipes version of the song. It seemed like it should be out of place, and yet it was not. It was a religious moment, found wild and in the prosaic. Whoever put that on the play mix understood something of the everyday and eternal Gospel. It’s just fine all on its own. It will survive construction sites, and more.
Maybe it’s the universal appeal. Who doesn’t like Amazing Grace? At any given moment in the world, it is being played in over two hundred different places. It has been re-released in eleven thousand albums by various artists over time. Judy Collins’ 1970 recording of the song spent sixty-seven weeks on the chart and peaked at number five. Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Elvis are among the many artists to record the song. It’s catchy, even on a bagpipe. Its strains drive deep into your very bones and sinew. Pretty good for a little ditty that was penned the night before in a country church in Olney, England, the only place the preacher could get a posting. The ecclesial authorities broke down after six years of pressure and allowed him a parish among poor labourers where he could do no harm. Olney was a market town engaged in the lace-making trade. Its inhabitants were badly paid, and described by a contemporary as “the half-starved and ragged of the earth”.
But there was something about the folksy pastor who fought so hard to be ordained. The church authorities didn’t think he had the stuff. He had a hard past and a bad reputation. And yet, in spite of this, he was unadorned and authentic. He quickly became popular because of his sincerity. Within his first year at Olney a gallery had to be added to the church to increase its capacity, and the weekly prayer-meetings were moved to a nearby mansion to allow for ever greater numbers.
“Amazing Grace” was written to illustrate a sermon for New Year’s Day in 1773. His text was taken from 1 Chronicles 17:16–17 – a passage in which King David thanks God, saying “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” It was a contemplation of grace. Amazing grace, the kind given freely to the unschooled and ordinary.
About the author of the hymn; John Newton was a British slave trader turned pastor. He had lived a sailor’s life with all that entails. Despite being schooled in the Bible at his mother’s knee, Newton managed to live badly enough that even sailors could not stomach his company. At one point, he was cast off in North Africa and made to be the slave of slaves. He was later redeemed by a friend of his father’s which is in itself remarkable, given the lack of communication systems in the world at that time.
John Newton had a change of heart when he thought back on his life, and realized all those times he had been plucked from disaster. He understood that such grace really was amazing. Newton took for himself, the verse from Deuteronomy 5:15, which says, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and that I, the LORD your God, rescued you”. There are not many people in the world who could personalize a verse like that, but Newton did. He was snatched from a wretched place. Much has been said about the lyrics which offend modern ears. We don’t like being called up as wretched. We like to esteem ourselves a bit better than that. And yet, we can’t but like the song. It sticks with us because the theme is universal.
Some interesting facts about the song: it is considered to be the anthem of the Cherokee nation because this was the song they sang on the Trail of Tears in 1838–39. The hymn’s final verse was not in Newton’s original version. It has been attributed to Harriet Beecher Stowe as transcribed in her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “When we’ve been there 10,000 years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days To sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.”
John Newton never ceased to be amazed at God’s amazing grace. He was heard to say near the end of his life, “Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Jesus Christ is a great Savior.” The inscription on his grave reads, “JOHN NEWTON, Clerk. Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.”
Now that’s amazing. And beautiful.