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If America were to have a national Christian hymn, many would argue that it would have to be "Amazing Grace." Because of its roots and the miraculous turnaround found in its message, "Amazing Grace" is a song that reflects both the good and the bad found in America's past, present, and future, as well as on the road to individual salvation.
This inspirational standard, written, ironically, by an Englishman, was born not from an experience of love but from a sordid tale of human exploitation. So while much of what is both human and divine can be seen in John Newton's short verses, to fully appreciate the hymn one must know the story behind it and discover the verse that has now been deleted from the song.
John Newton was born in London, England, on August 4, 1725. Though he was not poor, Newton did not have a wonderful or secure home life. His father was a hardened sailor, the owner of a trade ship that sailed the Mediterranean. The elder Newton was often gone for months at a time, leaving the boy alone with his mother. Mrs. Newton was a loving Christian woman, a devoted parent who took a vital interest in her son, but she was also chronically ill and physically weak. Because of his mother's frailty, John literally had the run of the house from the time he could walk. The energetic child was in constant trouble, often missed school, and was usually at the center of neighborhood pranks. After his mother died when he was only seven, his one hope for a normal life ended. He dropped out of school, all but living on the streets. Four years later, at the age of eleven, John followed in his father's footsteps and became a cabin boy on a ship. It was probably the only thing that kept him out of juvenile prison, but it didn't keep him out of trouble.
Even as a teenager, Newton was hard drinking and ill-tempered. Law officers in the port towns called the youth vicious, brutal, and fearless. His public brawls were legendary. When he wasn't in jail, he could often be found in a ship's brig. Newton even scared veteran sailors with his unpredictable and violent behavior. By the time he was twenty, he had lived enough adventures to fill the lives of four men, spilled more blood than most career soldiers, and consumed enough alcohol to stock London's largest pub. He later described himself as a godless monster, and few who knew him during his youth would have disagreed.
His attitude and illegal exploits finally drove him out of Europe to Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa. There Newton discovered a band of men who were as wild and depraved as he. For the next few years this group was responsible for untold suffering and death. Newton and his shipmates sought out tribal chiefs and traded guns, spices, liquor, and clothes for strong young native men and women. This innocent human cargo was then loaded aboard tiny ships and transported across the Atlantic to the New World. Of the more than six hundred people who were literally chained shoulder to shoulder in each ship's hold, between 20 to 40 percent died on the journey. Those who somehow survived were then sold at auctions, and Newton and his shipmates shared the bounty. In most ports, pirates were considered more respectable and honorable than slavers; thus, Newton was considered one of the lowest of the men who sailed the seas.
John Newton's decadent life was fueled by America's demand for slaves. Strangely, many of the men who bought Newton's cargo were Christians who found no moral dilemma in their actions. Some slave owners were even ministers. The moral indifference of many in the church just made it easier for Newton to help engineer a system that reflected the very worst of humanity. Like millions of others, he felt no regret and no shame. In the slave trade, black human beings were just soulless products to use and dispose of. As Newton tossed dead men and women overboard or watched others being sold on auction blocks, he could only say, "So be it."
The time spent crossing the Atlantic offered sailors an opportunity to play cards, swap stories, or read. In 1758 twenty-three-year-old Newton was studying a book called The Imitation of Christ. By now this veteran of several slave runs could easily tune out the moans and screams of the chained cargo. He had also grown used to the smell of the human waste, disease, and death that came from the cargo hold. Nothing really bothered him, not even a fellow crewman dragging a dead body up on the deck and heaving it overboard.
On this calm day as Newton read, he forgot about the world around him. He grew so lost in the pages of his book that he even failed to note the storm that had quickly gathered in the west. Only when wild winds began to jostle the ship's masts and pelting rain hit the deck did the sailor turn his attention from Thomas A. Kempis's The Imitation of Christ to his duties. By then it appeared to be too late.
The storm that suddenly struck the slave ship that day was the worst Newton had ever experienced. As the ship was tossed about like a leaf in the wind, rolling from side to side, the veteran of scores of storms sensed that this time he was not going to survive. He felt sure the ship was going to be crushed and he would be tossed into an unforgiving sea with no hope of rescue. While others cried, cursed, and begged, Newton thought back on his own miserable life. As the Atlantic churned back and forth across the decks, the sailor concluded that the only person he had ever known who really loved him was his mother. He also realized she would be heartbroken if she knew what he had become. Feeling a need to try to seek some kind of redemption before it was too late, Newton fell to his knees, clinging to a rope, and began to pray. He pleaded with the Lord to save him. The sailor promised that if God would give him a second chance at life, then Newton would become a moral man.
In a matter of minutes the storm abated and roared off to the east. Miraculously, not one person lost his life that day, and the mildly damaged ship was able to complete its journey and deliver its cargo. Yet for the first time, when Newton was given his cut of the profits, he did not seek out a bar to celebrate. Instead, the man who had felt the touch of God's saving hand returned to his ship and read the Bible.
Within two years of the storm, John Newton became the captain of a slave ship. He oversaw his cargo from the capturing and chaining of young African natives to the delivering to auction blocks of those who lived through the ocean crossing. Yet as he watched his men carry out these operations, he could no longer say, "So be it." With Christ in his heart, the immorality of his acts began to nag at Newton's soul. Unable to mesh his Christian convictions with his duties as a slave trade captain, Newton resigned, returned to England, and sought a way to serve Christ. Under the guidance of Charles Wesley, the famous father of the Methodist movement, the former hardened sailor and slave trader became a preacher.
In 1779, two decades after he was literally and spiritually saved, Newton was pastoring a church in Olney, England. One Sunday morning he delivered a message on the grace of Jesus. From the pulpit the now respected moral voice and beloved community leader spoke of his life at sea. He freely admitted his past sins and told his congregation how the Lord had come to him during a violent storm. He finished his message by singing an autobiographical song that began with this touching but now forgotten verse.
In evil long I took delight, Unawed by shame or fear, Till a new object struck my sight, And stopped my wild career.
Newton's "Amazing Grace" may have been composed for a single sermon, but it quickly made its way into songbooks. The hymn was published the same year it was written, and it was quickly brought to the United States. In America, Newton's verses were matched to a number of different tunes, but it was a folk song called both "Kentucky Harmony" and "Virginia Harmony" that became the vehicle that took the message across the new frontier and then back to England. Ironically, "Amazing Grace" first gained wide acceptance in the American South. Little did those in slave states realize that the song had been inspired by a man's realization of the immorality of the very thing that was sustaining many of their livelihoods. By the start of the Civil War, after the familiar final verse was added by an unknown American, "Amazing Grace" was one of the best-known Christian songs in the world. It was also so associated with the United States and the early missionary movement from this country that most believed it to be the product of an American author.
Popular black gospel singers such as W. M. Nic and Roberta Martin made the English song a spiritual anchor in African-American music circles in the early 1900s. The song was popular with troops in both World War I and World War II and was often used at navy funerals at sea and at army and marine battlefront memorials. Later, popular musicians such as Hank Williams and Elvis Presley sang "Amazing Grace" at many of their concerts. It was also a standard in almost every Christian songbook. Yet it wasn't until 1971 that the song climbed out of the nation's hymnbooks and into the mainstream.
Folk-rock songstress Judy Collins probably recorded "Amazing Grace" as much as an act of protest as she did as a symbol of faith. With the divisions caused by the Vietnam War, American cultural clashes, government scandals, and fights for racial equality, Collins's version of "Amazing Grace" became a mirror that reflected the wrongs that seemed to be taking over the nation. Yet as the public voted the old hymn to the top position on the rock charts, the message was transformed and "Amazing Grace" came to mean something else altogether. Americans might have deserted God, but he had not deserted any of those who had seemingly fallen so far from him. In the midst of all the chaos, "Amazing Grace" became a part of a revival movement in which millions again found faith in God and rediscovered faith in their own country at the same time. In the early seventies, whenever the old hymn was played on the radio or sung in public it seemed to reflect the fact that no matter how bad things were, no matter how far individuals and the nation had sunk, even in these stormy historic times there was still the opportunity to ask God for a second chance.
In the past three decades "Amazing Grace" has become almost as much an American icon as the flag, and in some ways these two national symbols represent many of the same concepts and ideals. America is a place where faith seems to surface even in the worst of times, where past mistakes are admitted and wrongs are slowly righted, and where the lost are usually found. John Newton did not have America or Americans in mind when he wrote his testimony into a song, yet at the age of eighty-two he said something that all Christians in this country and around the world can cling to in times of both triumph and trial: "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior."
John Newton's "Amazing Grace" is a road map showing how to seek forgiveness and then explaining what that forgiveness can mean to the past, present, and future of all who accept Jesus as Lord. Perhaps that is why this hymn has come to mean so much to Americans and why, as long as it does mean so much, the United States still has a chance to find its moral voice and lead the world with grace, compassion, and charity.
When Samuel Ward was a boy in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1850s, there was no indication the gifted child would have much impact on the world. Though Ward's ancestors were founders of Newark and heroes of the Revolutionary War, the city and the nation had grown a great deal since then. Ward could not perceive how he would escape a humdrum life and rise to prominence even in his own neighborhood, much less in the nation. So rather than fortune or fame, his one real wish in life was to somehow make a living through what he loved the most-music. Ward did not know that this choice would not only bring him great joy but ultimately would make a greater impact on the United States than anything ever accomplished by those from his illustrious family tree.
At the age of six, when Ward began to play the accordion, it was just a small indication of what was to come. By the time he was a teenager he was teaching piano lessons to help support his family. He moved to New York and became a professional church organist at sixteen. Ward was at the right place at the right time doing the right thing when, in the days after the Civil War, band music exploded onto the national scene. Sensing the nation's growing interest in all things musical, the young man opened a store in which he taught piano and sold everything from instruments to sheet music. By the age of thirty, he was married, had a family of four daughters, and was considered a successful businessman. Ward was now so financially secure he even took vacations in Europe.
By 1890 Ward had formed his own male vocal group. Under his leadership the Orpheus Society became one of New York's best-known choirs. Ward didn't just direct the group, he also wrote and arranged much of their music. Though many around him were now calling the clean-cut, distinguished-looking man a genius, the businessman turned choirmaster still seemed content to be known as just a friend, husband, and father. By all accounts, even when things were at their best, Ward simply took one day at a time, finding a way to enjoy each of them as they came. This desire to relish the moment and squeeze the most out of life led him to create the musical foundation for one of America's most loved patriotic hymns.
Coney Island was hardly an awe-inspiring place. The amusement park was like a carnival gone wild. Huge in scope, the playground of New York was a place to have fun and spend money. Part circus and part medieval fair, with its rides, sideshows, food plazas, and beach, Coney Island was American capitalism and consumption in all its glory. Most patrons left the Island tired and broke. Yet the deeply religious Ward seemed to find God's hand everywhere he went. He could see the Lord in a child's smile, a mother's hug, or the crashing of an ocean wave. With this kind of attitude it is hardly surprising that the music store owner left the park with more energy and in better spirits than most around him. It was as if the day had just begun and he had a great deal more to look forward to.
Excerpted from Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins Copyright © 2004 by Ace Collins. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 4, 2002
My husband and I are separated and this will be my first Christmas alone in thirty years. Understandably I have not been looking forward to the Holidays. But I ran across this little book while shopping. It is a delightful quick read. Apparently some of our most beloved Christmas Songs were inspired during times of trial and suffering. Discovering that pain and suffering produces creative inspiration and rebirth actually helped me to begin planning for Christmas. It is a small step but a beginning... A new beginning.
11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 27, 2010
"Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" by Ace Collins (Website) is a short book, divided into sections, each corresponding to a beloved Christmas song. The book is arranged alphabetically and includes lyrics to most of the songs.
The book tells about 31 Christmas songs and carols including "Do You Hear what I Hear", "G-d Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "Jingle Bells', "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" and more. The titles are arrange alphabetically and most of the songs also include the lyrics.
I was looking forward to read "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas", not only to get into the holiday spirit but also because I love this type of books since my childhood. These short stories filled with charming facts and little unknown tidbits were always fascinating to me.
Not to mention a great resource in case I'll be on "Jeopardy" one day.
The premise of this book is quite interesting, that is telling the history of each carol or Christmas song. Mr. Collins is a good writer and makes the stories he writes about engaging and easy to read, but he lacks some serious research. The core fact of what the author is describing are woven with information which cannot be verified (such as putting thoughts in people's heads) or is simply misleading (I did some fact checking and found conflicting information). If the information is not wrong well, the reader is out of luck because there are absolutely no sources at the end.
I will grant the author that most of the stories he tells are legitimate and verifiable when one checks up on them but to mix fact and fiction only undermines the authors credibility.
For example, the author's take on "Good King Wenceslas", he mixes facts and legends into a simple narrative which could easily be taken as all pure fact and worst - be quoted from in the future. The piece about "Twelve Days of Christmas" (which accidentally I happen to look up) was taken out of an Internet page without any reasonable research. The author claims that the "Twelve Days of Christmas" was some sort of coded reference but a 2 second search on Google using the term "Twelve Days of Christmas Origin" brought me to a Snopes page claiming it is false.
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6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 9, 2009
As a musician, I have always enjoyed learning the story behind the song. But this book turns each story into it an inspiation. I started out picking and choosing which songs I to read about. When I realized how much I was motivated by every story, I went back and read about the all the other songs and was moved by them too. Each song story is completely self-contained and are great for reading aloud to friends, family, and children. I bought all the remaining copies at my local B&N to give to friends last Christmas. This is the best "story behind the song" book I have ever read.
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Posted December 28, 2010
Unfortunately, Ace Collins took a great idea and completely ruined it. Collins used many myths and folklore -- unverifiable -- and stated them as fact. The author needs to go back and take a course on sources, identifying CREDIBLE sources, and citing sources. Many of the stories the author paints as fact, are in fact, myths -- fiction in other words. A good example is "The Twelve Days of Christmas." If a person does a little research on the Internet, that individual can learn that the author used a story that has been proven false on the history of this Christmas Carol. I was very disappointed because I was looking forward to reading the history of many of my favorite Christmas hymns. I'm glad I downloaded the book for free.
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Posted December 3, 2010
I love music. I am a vocalist in the Symphony Choir which sings regularly with the Symphony Orchestra in the city I live. I am very fond of many pieces, no matter whether it be religious or secular. I found this book to be very educational. Some of the stories I knew such as "Silent Night" while other stories I had never heard about. The author is very clear and even points out certain fallacies and rumors regarding some of the stories. My big complaint is that the author uses this context to show how great God is. True, that God is an inspiration for MANY classical pieces, and certainly especially in Christmas songs, however I feel the author was a bit heavy handed. Here is an example. In the story regarding Silent Night, he describes how the priest in charge of the Christmas mass was flummoxed about what to do when he found the church organ unworkable. The author goes out of his way to basically say that the priest prayed for an answer from God and that God literally reached down and inspired the priest to dig out a 2 year old poem he had written and to go find his friend to quickly write a song to it. I'm not questioning the religious influence. I am questioning why the author would go out of his way to presume that God was the deliverer and the answer to the problem, thus my comment about the author's heavy handedness. It is unquestionable that most of these songs are religiously inspired. I simply wish that the author would have stuck to historical facts since this book is framed as a historical reference and had not added "religious fluff" to the stories. Thus I give it 3 stars.
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Posted February 9, 2009
Book was very informative and interesting. Would recommend it highly. Gave out to several people for Christmas gifts.
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Posted April 19, 2014
I often wondered about where some of the Christmas songs came from. This book answered that question besides giving very interesting details about the backgrounds of the song's authors.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 31, 2013
Absolutely wonderful.... As I read the stories I kept hearing the tune in my head and singing it in my heart. When I went to church each song sung took on more significance and produced more gratitude. This book portrays the deeper mystery of this wonderful season. There is a quiet working of the gospel message that is bigger than an individual and reaches out to all in ways man could not begin to orchestrate himself. God is behind and within every song and it's history.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 19, 2013
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Posted December 12, 2012
If my children could read this book today, the youngest is 28 oldest 39, they wouldn't I fear, get the same emotional thrill I got when I read this book cover to cover. Being a pre-WWII baby I remember the fears and joys of the time as if they were yesterday. My generation truly never had to bear the full brunt of what it was like for so many of the depression era families. And now WWII is taking many of their family members away to fight a war that was not of their making. My own family members who were in the war used this special music as a method of coping with their situations while also thinking about their families "back home." I cry as I remember the day a cousin's death was made known to the family just before Christmas. To this day I cry when I hear, "I'll be home for Christmas" just thinking about that terrible time in our lives. It is still a beautiful song and I love to hear it at this time of the year even though it brings back painful memories. It means the world to me knowing that as I prepare to some day leave this earthly home my children will know that "I'll always be home for Christmas'" if only in their dreams each time they hear this song played.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 21, 2012
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Posted May 16, 2011
The explanations of the Christmas songs are very interesting and unexpected. Would recommend this book for anyone who enjoys singing or listening Christmas carols.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 19, 2011
Posted February 1, 2011
Posted January 19, 2011
This book brought richness to so many songs I love. Many reflect and discuss how God's hand has touched many of these songs. I think I will probably read it every Christmas.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 1, 2011
Kim Gannon, who wrote "I'll be Home for Christmas", was a HE not a SHE! As soon as I read that obvious error I stopped reading and questioned the veracity of the entire book.
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Posted January 1, 2011