Amazing Grace, The Start of a Journey

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication.  They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.  On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo.  The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, and all the rest of the clans and their wives.

  • Zechariah 12:10-14

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

  • Ephesians 2:6-10

“Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
   That sav’d 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 reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believ’d!”

  • John Newton, Amazing Grace, first two stanzas

When I do one of these word searches in the Bible (using Biblegateway.com), I realize that the word “G-r-a-c-e” is not in the original text at all.  The Bible’s original words are written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, but of the words translated into “Grace” in the NIV, it occurs 124 times, ten times in the Old Testament.  Yet, the first eight times that the word is found have nothing to do with “Grace” with a capital “G.”  They tend to have the meaning of graciousness or gracefulness.  More along the lines of good manners and the lack of clumsiness rather than forgiveness of sin.  The Isaiah mention of “grace,” the ninth mention of “grace” in the NIV, is a statement regarding how “grace” is wasted on the evil people of this world, as they cast it aside and continue in their evil ways, a sure statement toward repentance being necessary.  In the Zechariah quote above, it is easy to tell that when God pours out His spirit of Grace upon the land, the people are mourning the death of Jesus.  Never fear, Jesus rose from the dead.

No, I have been wanting to write about the hymn, Amazing Grace, for some time, and my brain has jumped into rabbit holes instead.  On 2 July 2018, I wrote a post called, The Third Verse.  I built upon a quote from A. W. Tozer about how the most often skipped verse during worship services was the third verse of the final hymn.  The pastor was long-winded.  He sees the church leaders looking at their watches angrily, and he shortens the final hymn as a palm branch to avoid their ire.  Rev. Tozer’s point was that many hymns had great theology in the third verse.

But with Amazing Grace it seems that John Newton put great theology in every verse.  I recently wrote another post, One Too Many Changes, where I lamented about a single word being missed in the first verse.  Instead of “a wretch”, the bulletin stated “someone.”  I wrote about how that one change destroyed the theology of the hymn, that the hymn was meant to be extremely personal.  We need to be wretched in order to know that we cannot do it on our own and we need God.  And the original words of the hymn are downright visceral.

In further research, we all seem to be singing a modified version of the hymn anyway.  First, the hymn has been set to as many as twenty different tunes.  In the pictured hymnal above, it is listed with two different tunes on the same page, the hymnal having two hymns with the hymn number 275, quite confusing, but most in the congregation cannot read music anyway.  The hymn was written in 1772 by John Newton with six stanzas.  The hymn that appears in the pictured hymnal has the first four with no words changed, save a few apostrophes.  Newton had written the hymn for the purpose of working the hymn with his up-coming sermon that next Sunday.  It was not placed in a hymnal until 1779.  It was not that popular in England but was very popular in the US, mostly among Methodists and Baptists in the southern states.

It was not until the American William Walker applied it to the “New Britain” tune in 1835 that we get what we know today as Amazing Grace.  Wintley Phipps says that at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the hymn is listed as words by John Newton and music by “unknown.”  He then says that when he gets to Heaven, he wants to meet the slave called “unknown.”  It is a great story, one that he says convincingly, but John Newton was dead before the song was connected with that tune, so John Newton listening to the slaves in his slave ship, singing the tune?  That probably did not happen.  I still love the Wintley Phipps version, his “Negro Spiritual History lesson”, his story of John Newton on the slave ship, and then his beautiful voice as he sings it.  It captures the meaning of the lyrics and grabs you emotionally.

But even then, the last two or three verses of John Newton’s original hymn are dropped from the hymn and another verse is added.  The verse that starts “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” was not written by John Newton.  Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the famous, and infamous, novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In the novel, at a point where Uncle Tom was at a point of great crisis, he sings the sixth stanza of Amazing Grace, then the fifth (those verses that we never sing anymore), and then the well-known “last verse” of the hymn today.  Stowe had borrowed the verse from “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” a hymn in an African-American “hymnal”, largely passed down orally for over 50 years when she added the verse in her book in 1854.  Indeed, the last verse was written by “unknown.”  Even then, a different hymnal, that I have used in church, lists John P. Rees as writing the last stanza, probably editing what Ms. Stowe had written.

So, the hymn has gone through a lot of changes over the years, yet the message is the same.  God grants us Grace out of His kindness toward us.  Our salvation, for those who believe, is not based on works, but on faith, which is a gift, in itself, from God.  Not even our faith is something that we did.  The hymn “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” is not someone “deciding to become saved,” but it is in response to a headhunter tribal leader threatening to kill one of his own people’s sons if he did not denounce the religion he had just joined.  With this threat, the man said, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”  And his own kinsmen proceeded to kill his children.  And the hymn was born from the new believer’s fateful words.  The faith was given from God, and once it was in the man’s heart, there was no turning back.  God never deserts us, but we cannot simply ‘decide’ to follow Jesus.  We can only ‘decide’ to openly follow Him in the face of great peril.

John Newton is well-known as the captain of a slave ship.  He met a young lady who he fell in love with, his sweet Mary “Polly” Catlett, but she was a Christian, opposed to the slave trade.  Newton was profane, rough, and crude.  To woo her, he began to clean up his act, a requirement that her parents placed on him before he could begin courting.  He started with reading the Bible and Thomas à Kempis The Imitation of Christ.  Over time, he became a Christian.  He begged to be given a different ship to captain, and about the same time he was granted his request, to transport anything other than slaves, he collapsed at the age of thirty and never sailed again.  He became a minister and collaborated with the poet, William Cowper, on the Olney Hymns.  Among Cowper’s hymns is the hymn “There is a Fountain filled with Blood,” and fifteen of Cowper’s hymns are in The Church Hymn Book for the Worship of God, by Presbyterian Edwin Hatfield, published in 1872.  He also teamed with William Wilberforce in leading the case for the abolition of slavery.

But in getting to the hymn’s verses, the first verse mentions that I was a wretch.  I spoke of this in the previous post, linked above.  Then he talks of being lost, now found.  That correlates with the three parables in Luke 15, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (the prodigal).  Then he repeats the words of the formerly blind beggar, “I was blind but now I see” in John 9:25.  Odd, when about 25 years or so later, Newton’s physical eyesight would begin to fail, but his spiritual eyesight remained strong.

The second verse is equally powerful.  It is Grace that teaches our heart to fear.  Many people today, who lack true understanding, have no concept of “fearing God,” but once we truly believe, God is so awesome, so amazing, that our puny human bodies will tremble before His Majesty.  We will be unable to help it.  Those who say that they do not fear God have created a very small and impotent god indeed.  But just as Grace teaches us to fear God, Grace relieves us of that fear.  God wants a relationship, a friendship with the understanding that He is still God.  And when did John Newton, and all true believers, first see that Grace?  When we first believed.

I have five verses left, some verses you may have never heard.  The next verse is Tozer’s “third verse.”  That must wait for tomorrow.

Let us bow our heads and ponder those first two verses for now.  Let us be prostrate in spirit before our awesome God in gratitude for His Amazing Grace.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

2 Comments

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  1. This is so good Mark. I love what you’ve said here. Hymns are a love of mine. I have a collection of old hymnals that I’ve picked up over the years. Some are real treasures.

    I have a few that go back to the early days and they have split pages, with tunes the bottom and words on the top, and you can mix and match. All the words are marked with the meter, and the tunes likewise, so you pick a hymn and match it with a tune that’s familiar to all, and get to singing.

    Liked by 1 person

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