You know how a song can get stuck in your head, playing over and over and over?
The folk hymn, “Amazing Grace”, widely considered the most popular hymn of all time, must be stuck in thousands of heads! In fact, one expert estimates that “Amazing Grace” is performed about a million times annually. Published in 1779, it could possibly have been performed as many as 2,350,000,000!
The author of the lyrics, John Newton, knew something about amazing grace. Although he was an English poet and preacher by the time he wrote the hymn, John Newton had been a pretty bad man.
When John was only six years old, his mother died. After that, he spent many years in a boarding school and with an uncaring stepmother while his father was away at sea. When he grew up, Newton became a ship merchant just like his father.
Sailors had a reputation of being wild and sinful, but John Newton was one of the very worst. Not only did he not believe in God, he made fun of those who did and insisted that God did not even exist.
Then one night, when John was 23, he was working aboard a ship when a violent storm rose up. Wind lashed at the ship and powerful waves threatened to tear it apart. Newton and one other man tied themselves to the ship’s pump so they would not be washed overboard and worked for hours trying to keep the ship afloat. Terrified, John Newton turned to his captain and said, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!”
Two weeks later, the ship finally landed in Ireland; the crew was half-starved and the ship nearly destroyed, but John Newton knew that God had saved his life. He began to wonder if God had saved him for a purpose.
John Newton didn’t change his ways immediately. He fell in love with a Christian woman named Polly. In order to win her love and to please her parents, he tried to live a little better. Then, Newton’s health began to fail. Finally, at the age of 30 years old, he collapsed and never sailed again.
John began to study God’s Word. He even told others about how Jesus had saved him. At that time, he also met a new friend, a writer named, William Cowper. Together, they began to write songs for worship at their prayer meetings. They composed the song “Amazing Grace” and it was sung for the first time on January 1, 1773.
Originally, “Amazing Grace” had 13 stanzas with four lines each. Today we don’t sing all of them, but they are beautiful. They express the heart of a man who fully understood how amazing God’s grace is—it can save the worst of sinners.