Monday, March 9, 2009

Amazing Grace!

Praise for the Lord #36

Words: John Newton, 1779 (stanza 6 from Collection of Sacred Ballads, 1790)
Music: Columbian Harmony, 1829; arr. Edwin O. Excell, 1910

I have been dreading this one; what can I say about the most famous hymn in the English language? The facts (and legends) of Newton's reprobate youth as a deserter from the Royal Navy and captain of a slave ship, and his unlikely turn to religion, are well known; but it is interesting as well to look at his later career, during which this hymn was written. In 1779 Newton was aged 53 hard-lived years, and had become curate of the Olney church in Buckinghamshire, England. Newton's own past no doubt made him sympathetic to the Methodists' evangelistic efforts among the irreligious masses, and he tended to move in Methodist and Nonconformist circles.

Among the fellow-laborers he befriended was the quiet and moody William Cowper (1731-1800), probably best known as the author of "God moves in a mysterious way"(PFTL#192). The two became fast friends, and began one of the original "odd couple" stories. Newton, man of the world, was an unlikely companion to the bookish Cowper, but it was a profitable relationship. One suspects that Cowper's refinement compensated somewhat for Newton's imperfect education, and that Newton's optimism (that of a man given a new lease on life!) was a blessing to Cowper, who suffered from periods of severe depression and had once tried to end his own life.(Bailey,131)

Together they wrote the Olney Hymns (1779), which contained not only "Amazing grace!" and "God moves in a mysterious way", but also "Glorious things of thee are spoken"(PFTL#165), "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds"(PFTL#256), "O for a closer walk with God"(PFTL#461), "There is a fountain filled with blood"(PFTL#662), and many others not as well known today. It was a landmark work, worthy of comparison to the hymns of Watts and Wesley and a notable event in that founding century of English hymnody.

An interesting historical connection: Newton, the former slave-ship captain, had left the business as incompatible with the spiritual life he wished to pursue. His friend Cowper was an outright abolitionist, and no doubt further influenced Newton's thinking on this matter.(Cyberhymnal) Newton was later a spiritual mentor to a young William Wilberforce, whom he counseled to serve Christ "where he was called" instead of leaving politics in favor the ministry. In 1807, the year Newton died, Wilberforce finally succeeded in passing a bill through Parliament abolishing slavery throughout the British realms.(Bailey,126-127)

Village of Olney and the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul

Stanza 1:
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.

Newton was not the greatest poet of his age, yet these words have an impact that few of the poets laureate will ever know. I believe it begins with the word "wretch". We don't use that word any more (except sometimes in jest), but I have seldom seen anyone flinch at its appearance in this hymn. Newton was a wretch, and he knew it. Not only had he lived the notoriously reprobate life of an old-time sailor, he had done so from his youth up, and on top of that had participated in arguably the most degrading and dehumanizing "business" a wicked world has ever conceived.

Am I such a wretch? That question is worth examining. We know that Romans 3:23 says that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." But do we harbor the thought that perhaps we are not quite as bad sinners as others? We humans have a funny way of ranking the seriousness of sins, usually showing a certain marked favoritism toward our own. Isaiah 64:6 gives the lie to this attitude: "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." This bleak assessment is even more pronounced in Psalm 14, verses 2-3:

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

If we never realize our sinful condition, we are in danger of never being saved. But if we forget our former sinful condition after being saved, we run the risk of becoming complacent, lukewarm, and easy pickings for the devil's temptations. We can become like the ancient church at Laodicea, which Jesus described in Revelation 3:17 in terms that are the antithesis of Newton's sentiment: "For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." The greatness of this hymn stems from the author's honesty with himself, and his awestruck gratitude at the grace that Christ extends.

Stanza 2:
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Newton recognized that it is the grace of God that sent the gospel message into the world, preserves it, and continues to cause it to resound. His personal experience of such providence was a chance encounter during his younger, wilder days with The imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, which happened to be the only reading material at hand during a long voyage. Though the effects were not immediate, this fortuitous diversion was the beginning of his second, better thoughts about how he was spending his life.(Bailey,126) How did you happen to hear the gospel? Did God not have a hand in providing the person, the place, and the circumstances?

Fear is not the end of our relationship with God, but it is often the beginning. "Perfect love casts out fear",(1 John 4:18) but fear of punishment is often the place we start. The jailer in Philippi was "trembling with fear" before he asked Paul and Silas, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"(Acts 16:29-30) In Acts 24:25, when Paul warned of "the judgment to come", the governor Felix was afraid--perhaps more literally, "terrified". In one case the fear led to repentance, in the other it did not. But will we criticize Paul for his approach to Felix? Fear that is healthy and founded in reality can be a good thing. I am afraid of poisonous snakes. I am afraid of trying to race a train to a railroad crossing. This kind of fear probably keeps us out of dangerous, even life-threatening situations on a daily basis. I don't advocate trying to scare people into repentance, without any further basis for conversion than a desire to avoid hell--but it is one good reason to obey!

And if it was grace that brought the word of God to us, convicted us of sin, and showed us what we had to fear, it was also certanly grace that provided the means to take that fear away. Romans 8:1 tells us the wonderful news, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

As David said, "Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!"(Psalm 32:1) Do you remember the hour and the moment, when you rose from the waters of baptism and "walked in newness of life"?(Romans 6:4) Do you remember the feeling of knowing you were clean? There are few moments in my life that even come close--my wedding day, the days my children were born--and the common theme in all is that sense that an old way of being has forever ended, and a new way--fresh, exciting, and unknown--has begun. May our salvation never become "old hat" to us.

Stanza 3:
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 sense of a shared history with God was and is a central theme of Jewish belief. Throughout the Old Testament there are appeals to remember what God has done, perhaps never more dramatically than in the actions of Samuel in 1 Samuel 7:12, when Israel had turned the tide against the Philistines in a seemingly impossible reversal. "Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer ["stone of help"], saying, "Thus far the Lord has helped us."

If we can learn to read own history as well as we read theirs, we will see the same result. Has God not blessed us in the past? Has He not provided what we needed? Has He not carried us through our trials? Will He not continue to do so in the future? But we are often slow learners. The same was true of Moses on one occasion:

Moses said, "The people whom I am among are six hundred thousand men on foot; yet You have said, 'I will give them meat, that they may eat for a whole month.' Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to provide enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to provide enough
for them?" And the Lord said to Moses, "Has the Lord's arm been shortened? Now
you shall see whether what I say will happen to you or not."(Numbers 11:21-23)

Moses should have known better. So should we. There will be times when it is hard, but we can remember God's answer to Paul, when the apostle was suffering from his "thorn in the flesh": "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness."(2 Corinthians 12:9). Not only will God's grace be enough to carry us through, but these may be the very times when God is perfecting His will in our lives.

Stanza 4:
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Newton's inspiration for stanzas 4 and 5 might have been found in Psalm 73, given here in the King James Version, from which he would have borrowed:

Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.(Psalm 73:23-26)

In the current economic troubles many are questioning the institutions in which they put their faith (and their money). One need not be a speculator or big risk-taker to be concerned; the names of institutions facing solvency issues recently have included some of the most respected old firms in our nation. Suddenly we realize how much it matters who is securing the promises made to us.

Coming to the end of his life, Joshua reminded the Israelites of the complete and utter faithfulness of God. The people had left God many times, but He had never left them. They had been through the exodus from Egypt, through the pursuit by the Egyptian army, through hunger and thirst in the wilderness, and through battles with numerous enemies; but God had never failed to deliver on His promises. This faithful man of God said, in his parting words,

And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.(Joshua 23:14)

Regardless of what comes in this life, we know Who has promised to guard us and carry us through, and we know that when it comes to His promises, "not one word has failed." Banks can fail; governments can fail; even families, and congregations, can fail; but not one word of God's promises will fail. We can say along with Paul, "I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me."(2 Timothy 1:12)

Stanza 5:
And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.

Probably no one likes to think about this, but that will no more prevent it coming than we can prevent the sun from going down in the evening: someday this heart will beat its last, and this life will end. Through proper care of our bodies and appropriate caution in our actions we may be able to delay it a while, but a delay is all it will be. All humankind, regardless of their religion (or even lack of it), is agreed on this point, and there is no use in debating it. What matters is what we do before that time comes, and what will come afterward.

Continuing the theme of God's promises from stanza 4, Newton is probably referencing Hebrews 6, verses 18-19:

That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil, whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus...

In context, the "veil" here is that which divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the temple, hiding the presence of God from the sight of sinful man, and entered only once a year by the high priest to make atonement for the people. Jesus carried a once-for-all sacrifice of His own blood, forever removing that veil of separation,(Hebrews 7:27) which was symbolized by the mysterious tearing of the physical veil in the temple at the time of His death.(Matthew 27:51)

Christ's "going behind the veil" is also seen in His return from death, which seems to be what Newton is referencing here. Just as in death He was the "forerunner" behind the veil to God's presence, so in resurrection He became "the beginning, the firstborn from the dead."(Colossians 1:18) We are amazed, and wonder, at what lies beyond that time when this life ends, because it is the mystery that no science has been able to explore, and a journey from which no one returns to tell the tale. But Christ has been there before, and we can trust not only in His promises, but in His personal example and His concern for His children who follow Him down that road. "If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."(1 Corinthians 15:19-20)

The following was Newton's original closing stanza:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

It is a fine thought, but it is hard to imagine ending this hymn in any other way than that provided by some unknown author in the 1790 Collection of Sacred Ballads:

Stanza 6:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

Probably no other image in English hymnody has more vividly illustrated eternity. Still, we know that "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him."(1 Corinthians 2:9) We do not know exactly what heaven will be like--most likely we could not comprehend it in our current mortal state--but we know Who is preparing a place" for us,(John 14:2) and we know it will be wonderful. Until the Day comes, we will no doubt continue to try to describe this joy, and to borrow the words of others to sing it.

About the music: The tune "NEW BRITAIN", to which this is sung in the United States and many other places, is one of the most well-known hymn tunes of the last two centuries. It is apparently a frontier original, appearing in the Columbian Harmony book of 1829 but first paired up with the text "Amazing grace" in William Walker's widely influential Southern Harmony of 1835.(Reynolds,108) Click here to view a facsimile and hear a recording of "Amazing grace" in that source.

The tune is probably descended from the Scottish-English-Irish folk music of the old Appalachian settlers, but the simple pentatonic (five-note) scale used in the melody is common to the folk musics of many parts of the world. It has certainly proven a versatile tune, with a seemingly endless variety of incarnations, from bagpipes to soul singers.

The harmonizations for congregational singing are also varied. The Excell arrangement we have in Praise for the Lord is one of the common ones, but is somewhat hampered by the unexpected cadence at the end of the second phrase; in a spot where the melody is fairly obviously leading to a half cadence, making the four phrases a neat double period, Excell inexplicably chose an imperfect authentic cadence. (Translation: this is why the basses often sound like they are fishing for the right note at the end of the second line.) But like any great tune, it can withstand a little mishap of that sort.


Cyberhymnal. William Cowper.

Bailey, Albert E. The gospel in hymns: backgrounds and interpretations. New York: Scribner, 1950.

Reynolds, William J., et al. A survey of Christian hymnody, 4th ed. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing, 1999.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson. Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

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