John Newton, 1725 -1807
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.
Aging baby boomers have claimed "Amazing Grace" as their unofficial anthem. This favor is a recent phenomenon. A 1950 hymnology textbook, for instance, gave six pages to the life and work of hymn writer John Newton but never mentioned, bis autobiographical "Amazing Grace." In 1975 Joan Baez urged her audience to join her as she sang the "traditional" song; to make things easy, she lined out the verses, giving the words phrase by phrase, even for the first verse. These days that's no longer necessary; on tour, Judy Collins ends her concerts with this very song—knowing full well that her audience will join in without needing cues from the stage. The hymn was even featured at President Clinton's second inaugural ceremony.
Why has a song about the conversion of a "wretch like me"—about being lost then found, blind then sighted—-captured the heart of a generation that deems itself too enlightened to use the word sin? (One congregation asks God to forgive them their "negativity")
Part of the song's enchantment is its oft-told history. Folksingers, Christian musicians, evangelists, even Bill Moyers on public television—all have sketched Newton's dramatic spiritual transformation: God plucked a young degenerate slave-ship captain from a profane profession and set him on an exemplary path.
In midlife Newton was ordained an Anglican priest; he was an acclaimed hymn writer, and in his older years he influenced the political movement that would abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. It's the story cryptically told in "Amazing Grace," published when Newton was fifty-four:
'Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.
Newton's testimony kindles promise in aging idealists. If Newton could be transformed, there's hope for us. Not that we see ourselves, as wretched as he (few of us admit the depths of our own depravity), but then we haven't ever been able to locate and "get ourselves back to the garden." On the whole, the negativity remains. At middle age we can see that even our best intentions have caused harm, been skewed, gone awry. We're in trouble-—still-—-and we need help.
As a generational group we sense our need for grace-— sustaining if not saving-—-and yet we are very grateful for the lot of it we've preveniently received. "We never really believed that crawling under a school desk would protect us from any manner of missile. We hardly dared hope we'd ever be grandparents. But here we are, survivors—thanks to the amazing grace that has seen us through these many dangers, toils, and snares.
Previous generations have claimed other hymns as period anthems, notably songs challenging people to fight for a cause: "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" for Union sympathizers in the Civil War; "Onward Christian Soldiers" for Theodore Roosevelt campaign supporters and Allied soldiers in World War I.
And today, with a tentative truce in a long Cold War, a generation looks for a spiritual truce, a grace and peace that will carry them across a millennial divide. As they sing for grace, may they find John Newton's life-changing God.
At age eighty-two, facing life's greatest transition, Newton was still singing his graceful theme; just months before he died, he said, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savlor.
And maybe in time—who knows?—baby boomers will grasp these same two things.
He will my shield and portion be As long as life endures.
Lord, make me aware of my sin. Make me equally aware of your amazing grace—the everyday graces of life and the grace of salvation.
From the book "Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns" by Evelyn Bence.
If you have never seen the movie "Amazing Grace" about THE man and the men [including John Newton] behind the abolition of the British slave trade.....you need to see it, buy it, have it as part of your home library. It was made in 2006 - A Bristol Bay Production - 2007 Twentieth Century Fox - www.foxhome.com Should be able to find it on the Internet. Amazon.com probably have it. Your local Bible Book store will have it or can order it for you.