Understanding “Amazing Grace”
Updated: Jan 22
Kwong Wai Cheng
About the Songs We Sing
Throughout the bible, we read about people enjoying God through songs of praise. Indeed, music coupled with meaningful words, goes a long way to soothe our weary hearts, refresh our souls and help us connect with God again. Through this series, I hope to share my findings and reflections about some of the hymns we sing in church. Perhaps it will also help you to enjoy God better, just as it has helped me.
Written by John Newton (1779)
This song was one of the first songs I learnt as a young Christian. It has been sung by many in different arrangements, and here is one of them. But after a while, this graceful song became rather slow and boring to me. That is, until I found out about the writer, John Newton.
Newton was born in 1725 in London. His mother died when he was six, and his father was a shipping merchant. At age 11, Newton joined his stern father on a ship as an apprentice. Since then, Newton’s life was a downward spiral of rebellion, drunkenness and immorality. He was notoriously foul-mouthed, creating obscene poems and songs to mock people. Newton later became involved in the Atlantic slave trade.
In 1748, Newton’s slave ship was nearly wrecked by an intense storm. In a moment of desperation, he called out to God for mercy. Miraculously, the ship survived, but Newton continued slave trading until 1754 / 1755. “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards,” he later wrote. He did begin reading the Bible at this point and began to show more sympathy towards his slaves.
In 1764, John Newton was ordained in the Church of England. He wrote “Amazing Grace” to illustrate a sermon on New Year's Day of 1773. But it was only in 1788, 34 years after leaving the slave trade, that Newton was finally about to face up to the horrors he participated in on slave ships, and made a public apology. Newton wrote, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and Grace my fears relieved…
How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed… ”
Indeed, God’s arm is not too short to save, even when we ourselves felt that we are furthest away from God. His amazing grace is what will bring me “safe thus far” and ultimately “lead me home”.
And the most comforting thing about Newton’s story was God’s incredible patience. From the miraculous rescue at sea to his public apology, Newton took 40 years. God allowed Newton to make his own personal journey of repentance and redemption. Newton needed the time to make his faith real, and it shows me that God’s amazing grace has no expiry date. Amen!
Kwong Wai Cheng
Wai Cheng is fascinated with words, especially the Word. Her life has always been revolving around words/Word, in one way or another. And she hopes to always hold fast to the Word, to draw strength and gain wisdom, to do the right things in God's sight.