Sunday, September 23, 2007

The stories behind the hymns

Faith’s Review and Expectation is what its author, John Newton (1725-1807 photo), entitled this hymn when it was first published in 1779. Newton’s quest for that faith was tortuous.

The son of a sailor, he was sent to sea at the age of 11. Some years later, he deserted his ship, only to be press-ganged back into service. He deserted again, ending up on the coast of what is now Sierra Leone, where he worked for a planter who treated him little better than a slave. A letter from his father made him decide to return to England in 1748, but a violent storm nearly wrecked his ship and reminded him of the value of the religion he had learnt in childhood.

He cleaned himself up, embarked on a programme of classical self-education and joined the slave trade, eventually rising to captain. In 1754, when he became friendly with John Wesley and discovered the Evangelical movement, he finally surrendered “every energy of his mind and body” to God. Eventually he was ordained, and in 1764 he became the hugely popular and tireless curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire.

He remained in the living for 17 years and became friendly with his neighbour, the depressive poet William Cowper. Together they edited a three-volume collection, Olney Hymns, much of which they also wrote themselves. It was here that Amazing Grace first appeared.

For nearly two centuries, the hymn was not widely sung, although it was always better known in the United States than in Britain – in 1831, an American hymn book called Virginia Harmony attached it to a pentatonic Scots-American bagpipe tune, New Britain, and the two have remained indelibly linked ever since. In the past 50 years or so, it has become a black gospel song, and an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

Today, its status is even higher: as the seeming embodiment of the spiritual heart of America, it has become a call to national seriousness, often sung at solemn occasions, such as the commemorations of September 11. The hymn has shown up in several films – Star Trek 2, Silkwood, Betrayed and The Last Days of Disco among them – and has been covered by a remarkable variety of singers, including Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Christina Aguilera.

Amazing Grace

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.

Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come ’Tis Grace hath brought me safe thus far, And Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be As long as life endures.

When we’ve been there a thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we first began.

The stories behind the hymns - Telegraph