The Power of Amazing Grace

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.)

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3 Responses to The Power of Amazing Grace

  1. Wonderful post. We sang the original New Britain tune in a concert with Betty Buchanan (can’t remember which group). It is somewhat different from the traditional hymnal and bagpipe version, but has a more haunting, Southern Harmony, shaped note feel. I also have heard Amazing Grace sung to “Ghost riders in the sky” and the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. The first is a somewhat better fit for the sense of the hymn, but you have to put two verses into one and the “yipee-i-yay” refrain is a bit awkward unless you replace it with “amazing grace, amazing grace, how sweet, how sweet, the sound” or some other trope. The second can become an earworm quickly. I thin there are several Christmas carols it fits as well. The beauty of hymnody and metrical indexes, eh? But hymn tunes are tricky – remember at Wells Cathedral when we were told that we would surely know all the tunes — and then we didn’t? Singing the Lord a new song makes demands on us all!

  2. jwmclean20016 says:

    Beautiful post, which evokes the power of those simple rhythms and harmonies which arise from the common folk. I actually have a copy of Southern Harmonies, which I rescued from an old deserted country church while bird hunting in rural West Tennessee in the early 1970’s.

    As an interesting, related aside, the companion hymnal we now use, “Lift Every Voice and Sing, an African American Hymnal” is filled with the “songs hymns and spiritual songs” like “Amazing Grace,” that I grew up singing in an all-white fundamentalist church in the American South. Even today, anywhere you go in rural areas across the country, old favorites like “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Power in the Blood,” “Just as I Am,” or “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” are cultural touchstones.

    This simple, powerful music remains an integral part of worship for a broad cross-section of Americans, both black and white. I wonder that the Episcopal Church ignores this example of shared worship, and the power that a common musical liturgy can have in uniting people from different races, regions or denominations.

    If you’re not already bored to tears and would like more about the history of our shared English/American tradition of hymnody, you might want to read “Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns,” by Ian C. Bradley. It’s a wonderful exposition of the theological and cultural development of our congregational singing. Turns out many of the staid, boring hymns we use were once controversial, political, liberating tales of conflict, humility, celebration and seeking. Imagine that.

    • 7396dennis says:

      I grew up singing all those Victorian hymns at the 1st Baptist Church. And I agree that the 1982 Hymnal doesn’t contain enough of that American tradition. I sometimes don’t know one hymn sung at my local church, unless it’s a Lutheran one. I believe in high quality music, but I think my church has gone way too far in abolishing 19th Century music.

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