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Although there are a host of different opinions about the roots of modern gospel music, there is no debate about the fact that true gospel music must possess a message that universally appeals to the masses and that each composition must present a uniquely individual testimony. Gospel is therefore a deeply personal music that seems always to originate in a single soul offering a message of hope that begs to transport a person to the highest reaches of heaven. And as long as there has been gospel music, there have been those souls who shared their most meaningful experiences through simple but sincere verse and song.
Long before the emergence of radio and recordings, even before America had emerged as a nation, John Newton's life was set on a course to spawn a musical style that would pave the way for religious music to be brought out of the hallowed halls of great cathedrals and sung in even the most modest of rural venues. For, like the gospel that Paul and the other apostles spread in the very first days of the Christian church, if the message was to reach the masses, it had to be heard in the real world by real sinners seeking a better life. And if there ever was a sinner who was living far from the church and its narrow way, it was the young sailor who would later pen the words to America's most beloved gospel song.
John Newton was a troubled, motherless boy who ran away from home before his teens and followed his father to the sea. Once on the waves the impressionable British-born lad quickly developed all the wild and vile ways of the sailors who became his friends and mentors. As a teen he was a fighter and a drinker and a respecter of little but the law of might. After a stint in the Royal Navy as a cabin boy, Newton spent much of the middle part of the eighteenth century as a seaman on a slave trader. Here he and his shipmates regularly acquired African men and women and transported them to a life of slavery in the New World. As could be quickly seen by the most casual observer, for John Newton, human life, even his own, meant little and was worth even less. By the time he was twenty most of those who knew John well wondered if there was even a tiny piece of a soul left to save in the young man's rugged body.
Like Paul, Newton was wholly transformed suddenly and violently. In 1748 he found himself on a ship being tossed and torn in a hurricane. As the twenty-three-year-old Newton helplessly watched the waves crash over the deck, he sensed that his life might quickly be coming to an end. Although he had watched scores of slaves die on long ocean voyages, and though he had even seen countless shipmates lost at sea, Newton had never faced his own mortality. Frightened beyond words, unable to control anything that was transpiring around him, and listening to the wailing and cursing of the doomed men around him, John remembered his late mother. As he thought of her, a memory of her faith took hold of him. Falling to his knees on the deck of the rolling ship, he turned to something he had seen his mother do on many occasions in her brief life. He prayed. Miraculously, even as he struggled to come up with words to purge the pain from his soul, the storm passed and the ship steadied itself. Yet even more startling to the crew than the sudden end to the violent storm was John Newton's urging them all to give thanks to God for this miracle.
Within a decade of his conversion Newton had fallen under the influence of the famed preacher Charles Wesley and had given his life to Christ in Christian service. While serving as a pastor in Olney, England, John set the story of his own deliverance from the storms of life in verse and shared the song of salvation with his congregation.
The first four stanzas of "Amazing Grace" have changed little since they were first published in 1779. Yet while the message was straight from the home of King James, the music we sing has a flavor that owes as much to the hills of Kentucky as it does to the meadows of Britain. When William Walker was preparing to publish his "Southern Harmony" songbook in 1835, he replaced the original musical score of Newton's verse with an American folk melody known as "Harmony Grove." It is this version, complete with an additional fifth stanza written by an unknown writer, that has become the most beloved of all "American" hymns (we do tend to claim it as our own) and the foundation for the growth and widespread acceptance of gospel music both here and around the world.
By the turn of the century "Amazing Grace" was sung in churches, camp meetings, revivals, and homes around the country. Because of its personal nature and universal but starkly individual message, this song even found acceptance outside the normal channels of religious music. The early black gospel singers W.M. Nix and Roberta Martin put real spiritual blues and soul into their performances of Newton's song as they took it to both religious and secular venues. Early southern gospel performers added a bit of twang and rousing four-part quartet harmonies and sang it in brush arbor meetings and at rural schoolhouses. The song survived the big band and rock-and-roll musical evolution, but, more than that, entertainers like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, men who challenged the very fabric of accepted musical standards of their times, sang it in their live performances. And somehow, even in the midst of an explosion of new gospel music composers, songs, and publishers in the early sixties, this almost two-hundred-year-old standard remained one of the music's most personal and moving testimonies to the grace and power of God. Yet, even though the old hymn was deeply loved and its message revered by believers everywhere, few thought "Amazing Grace" would ever find its way onto a popular music chart. This seemed to be one stormy sea even John Newton's old standard couldn't ride.