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Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas
By Ace Collins
Running Press Book PublishersCopyright © 2004 Ace Collins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmazing Grace
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.
Chapter TwoAmerica, the Beautiful
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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