Amazing Graceby Steve Turner
Behind our most beloved hymn is a fascinating story spanning continents, cultures, and centuries. Inspired by the way "Amazing Grace" continues to change and grow in popularity, acclaimed music writer Steve Turner embarks on a journey to trace the life of the hymn, from Olney, England, where it was written by former slave trader John Newton, to tiny Plantain Island
Behind our most beloved hymn is a fascinating story spanning continents, cultures, and centuries. Inspired by the way "Amazing Grace" continues to change and grow in popularity, acclaimed music writer Steve Turner embarks on a journey to trace the life of the hymn, from Olney, England, where it was written by former slave trader John Newton, to tiny Plantain Island off the coast of Africa, where Newton was held captive for almost a year, to the Kentucky-Tennessee border and other parts of the South, where the hymn first began to spread.
Newton had been rescued from Africa by a merchant ship when, during an eleven-hour storm on the Atlantic, he converted to Christianity. Years later, as a minister, he wrote the hymn for use among his congregation. Through the nineteenth century, "Amazing Grace" appeared in more and more hymn books, and in the twentieth century it rose to a gospel and folk standard before exploding into pop music. It has been recorded by artists as varied as Elvis Presley, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Tiny Tim, Al Green, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Chet Baker, and Destiny's Child. Amazing Grace closely examines this modern history of the hymn through personal interviews with recording artists.
From John Newton's incredible life story to the hymn's role in American spirituality and culture, Amazing Grace is an illuminating, thorough, and unprecedented musical history.
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Read an Excerpt
In a man of war, you have the collected filth of jails.
Condemned criminals have the alternative of hanging
or entering on board. There's not a vice committed
on shore, but is practised here.
-- Edward Thompson, A Sailor's Letters, 1767
Sent Lieutenant Ruffin with 31 men on board the Betsy Tender to impress seamen.
-- Captain Philip Carteret, logbook entry, February 6, 1744
I am going from England with a good prospect of improving my fortune, and please myself with hopes of being one day able to make you proposals of certainty if I find you undisposed when I come back.
-- John Newton, letter to mary catlett, 1744
John Newton, a seventeen-year-old sailor, was standing on the deck of a ship anchored off Venice in the Spring of 1743. The sun was just slipping beneath the horizon. Out of the shadows came a figure that stopped in front of him and held out a ring, urging him to take it. If he was to accept it, and treasure it, his life would be crowned with happiness and success. If he was to refuse or lose it, he would be dogged by trouble and misery. Newton accepted the challenge. He had always been attracted to the idea of having total mastery of his destiny.
As the bearer of the ring slipped back into the shadows, a second anonymous figure came to him, this one pouring scorn on the promises that had just been made and accusing him of being ignorant and naive. How could blessings emanate from something so small and insignificant? How could he have placed such trust in someone who didn't back up his claim with evidence? He advised Newton to shun such superstition and getrid of the ring. Newton jumped to its defense but his arguments weren't sufficient and so he slipped the gold band from his finger and threw it in the Gulf of Venice.
The moment it disappeared beneath the water, a wall of fire shot into the air around the city, lighting up the night sky. It was as if a mechanism had been triggered to unleash a terrifying power. Seeing the look of panic spreading across Newton's sweating face, his accuser, with a smug grin, revealed that what he had thrown away was not a mere gold ring, which could easily be replaced, but all the mercy that God had stored up for him. His sins could now never be forgiven. John Newton had just thrown away his only chance of salvation.
As the implications dawned on him, a third visitor approached. The face was obscured by shadow, making it difficult for him to tell if it was someone new or whether, as he suspected, it was the original ring bearer. Newton admitted what he had done and accepted that he had done it voluntarily and knew what the terrible consequences would be. The visitor, surprisingly, was sympathetic and asked him if he would handle things differently if given a second chance.
Before Newton could reply the man dove into the water and surfaced with the ring. The flames around the city were immediately extinguished, and the accuser, who it now became clear had been lurking in the background throughout, slunk away defeated. Relieved beyond words, Newton stepped forward to reclaim the ring. But the visitor sharply withdrew it, saying, "If you should be entrusted with this ring again, you would very soon bring yourself into the same distress. You are not able to keep it, but I will preserve it for you. Whenever it is needful, I will produce it on your behalf."
Thinking about this dramatic dream many years later Newton could see the spiritual allegory. It was the story of his life; the golden gift of gospel truth handed to him as a child, that gift given up in the face of taunts and tempting arguments, the destructive effects of this abandonment and the opportunity, eventually, to begin again. In retrospect he saw that it had been "a last warning" but at the time he had seen it only as a disturbing and graphic vision, one that was powerful enough to rob him of sleep and appetite for a few days but not powerful enough to arrest his moral and spiritual decline.
The dream came to him when he was actually on a ship in the Mediterranean, Venice having been a recent port of call. The image of the ring thrown in the water was almost certainly suggested by the annual Venetian ceremony sposalizio del mare, in which decorated barges full of nobles sailed out to drop a consecrated ring into the sea. It was a symbolic marriage of city and ocean, acknowledging Venice's dependence on the surrounding sea and its need to be on good terms with an element that could bring it wealth or wash it away.
Whether Newton had seen the ceremony, which took place on Ascension Day, he never said. He may simply have heard about it in Venice or he may have been aware of Canaletto's painting The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day, which had been completed just thirteen years before. He was aware of the ritual because he later mentioned it in a letter, referring to it as "a foolish ceremony or marriage between the republic and the Adriatic."
Newton had been born on July 24, 1725, in Wapping, London, close to the Tower of London and on the north bank of the River Thames. It was an area dominated by Britain's then-flourishing shipping industry. Five years before, Stow's updated Survey of London said that Wapping was "chiefly inhabited by seafaring men, and tradesmen dealing in commodities for the supply of shipping and shipmen. It stands exceeding thick with buildings, and is very populous having been very much improved by human industry."
Newton's father, also John Newton, was one such seafaring man. He worked as the commander of various merchant ships trading in the Mediterranean, and each voyage would take him away from home for up to three years. Despite having been educated by Jesuits in Spain he was not, according to his son, "affected by religion" and was rather pompous and aloof. Newton's mother, Elizabeth, seems to have been his opposite ...Amazing Grace. Copyright © by Steve Turner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Steve Turner is the author of Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye, A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles' Song, Hungry for Heaven: Rock and Roll and the Search for Redemption, Jack Kerouac: Angelheaded Hipster, and Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now. His articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Q, and the London Times. He lives in London with his wife and two children.
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