I worked with a Rector once who said on a few occasions that he knew nothing about music, but a lot about people, and those insights helped him appreciate the value of music in the context of worship. I know something about music and also about people, and I too appreciate the effect music can have. Someone will gently tease me on occasion with their expectation that I will turn my nose up at anything perceived as less than highbrow music. For example, the children’s hymn I sing a song of the saints of God didn’t make my (extensive) funeral list, but I certainly enjoy the energy that a congregation puts into singing it.
And so it is with Amazing grace. Not a personal favorite, but when I play those first five notes, I can feel the room relax into a comforting place, and that gives me pleasure. There is a wonderful 2007 film that I recommend you rent this summer called Amazing Grace, which details the work that led to the abolition of slavery in 18th century England. In it we see John Newton, an Anglican clergyman and former slave ship captain, whose remorse at his involvement with the slave trade led him to write the words for Amazing grace.
This is a hymn, then, that has its beginnings in slavery. As E.J. Dionne wrote in his column in The Washington Post this past Monday, it is a hymn that reaches “not only across denominational lines, but also to nonbelievers who can identify with its celebration of personal conversion and transformation – of being lost and then found.” When President Obama sang Amazing grace in Charleston a few weeks ago at the funeral for the Pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church, he reached deeply into our human core – the core that has no skin color or ethnicity or economic level. That is the power of song.
Take a few minutes and read Dionne’s entire column. He reminds us of the subversive power of love, forgiveness and the Bible. E.J. Dionne, July 13, 2015
(An aside: the tune we all know for Newton’s text is called NEW BRITAIN, but that tune and text were not paired until it appeared in the American hymnal Southern Harmony many years later, and at the time there was not the strong association between tunes and texts that we have today. Often a text was sung to many different tunes – try singing the words of Amazing grace to the tune for O God, our help in ages past for example.)