Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, London, England. Despite the powerful message of "Amazing Grace", Newton's religious beliefs initially lacked conviction; his youth was marked by religious confusion and a lack of moral self-control and discipline.
After a brief time in the Royal Navy, Newton began his career in slave trading. The turning point in Newton's spiritual life was a violent storm that occurred one night while at sea. Moments after he left the deck, the crewman who had taken his place was swept overboard. Although he manned the vessel for the remainder of the tempest, he later commented that, throughout the tumult, he realized his helplessness and concluded that only the grace of God could save him. Prodded by what he had read in Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ, Newton took the first step toward accepting faith.
These incidents and his 1750 marriage to Mary Catlett changed Newton significantly. On his slave voyages, he encouraged the sailors under his charge to pray. He also began to ensure that every member of his crew treated their human cargo with gentleness and concern. Nevertheless, it would be another 40 years until Newton openly challenged the trafficking of slaves.
Some three years after his marriage, Newton suffered a stroke that prevented him from returning to sea; in time, he interpreted this as another step in his spiritual voyage. He assumed a post in the Customs Office in the port of Liverpool and began to explore Christianity more fully. As Newton attempted to experience all the various expressions of Christianity, it became clear that he was being called to the ministry. Since Newton lacked a university degree, he could not be ordained through normal channels. However, the landlord of the parish at Olney was so impressed with the letters Newton had written about his conversion that he offered the church to Newton; he was ordained in June 1764.
In Olney, the new curate met the poet William Cowper, also a newly-born Christian. Their friendship led to a spiritual collaboration that completed the inspiration for "Amazing Grace," the poem Newton most likely wrote in Kineton, Warwickshire around Christmas 1772.The lyrics are based on his reflections on an Old Testament text he was preparing to preach on, adding his perspective about his own conversion while on his slave ship, the Greyhound, in 1748.
Newton's lyrics have become a favourite for Christians, largely because the hymn vividly and briefly sums up the doctrine of divine grace. The lyrics are based on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, a prayer of King David in which he marvels at God's choosing him and his house. Newton apparently wrote this for use in a sermon he preached on this passage on New Year's Day 1773, and for which he left his sermon notes, which correspond to the flow of the lyrics.
Read all about John Newton’s own sermon notes for his hymn HERE
"Faith's review and expectation" debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper's "Olney Hymns", but settled into relative obscurity in England.
The bottom of page 53 and page 54 of Olney Hymns shows the text of Hymn 41 (XLI) "Faith’s Review and Expectation", which evolved into "Amazing Grace".
Full lyrics of the original version of Amazing Grace as published in 1779 in Olney Hymns, pp. 53-54.
"Faith’s Review and Expectation"
Chapter 8, 16-17.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
We have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Source: John Newton. Olney Hymns, in three books. Book I. On select Texts of Scripture. Book II. On occasional Subjects. Book III. On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life. London: printed and sold by W. Oliver, No 12, Bartholomew-Close; sold also by J. Buckland, No 57, Pater-Noster-Row; and J. Johnson, No 72, St Paul's Church-Yard, MDCCLXXIX .
The complete book Olney Hymns is online : Click HERE
As I said above, in the UK, the song, initially, wasn't very popular.
In the United States however, "Amazing Grace" was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies, but in 1835 it was joined to a tune named "New Britain" to which it is most frequently sung today.
The melody of "Amazing Grace", that we are familiar with today, is based on the pentatonic or five-note scale (heard by striking the five black notes on a piano); in fact, in its earliest form, the melody employed only these five pitches. Refinements to the tune are attributed to William Walker, who in 1835 entitled it "New Britain" and published it in a book of hymns entitled The Southern Harmony. This collection was reprinted four times during Walker's lifetime; it sold an estimated 600,000 copies. By the Civil War, as Turner notes, "Amazing Grace" was a vital part of American life."
The Southern Harmony, first published in 1835, is the earliest pairing of the words for "Amazing Grace" with the "New Britain" tune, which is the tune we have come to associate with the hymn.
William Walker took the tune from a song "Harmony Grove", contained in the songbook "Virginia Harmony" (1831), made some changes, arranged it, and named it "New Britain".
The Southern Harmony was an enormously successful tune book for singing schools and played a large role in popularizing "Amazing Grace" in America.
The Southern Harmony, 1835, title page
"New Britain", from The Southern Harmony
This is the first time the tune and words to "Amazing Grace" were paired.
But the melody of "New Britain" / "Amazing Grace" is older than 1835.
It was already printed in the next Book:
The Virginia Harmony, 1831, title page
This is the second shape note tune book to feature the melody that we have now come to associate with "Amazing Grace" (Columbian Harmony was likely the first to feature the tune in 1829). Compiled by Methodist lay preacher James P. Carrell and Presbyerian elder David L. Clayton, Virginia Harmony lists the tune as "Harmony Grove".
The melody wasn't matched with the words to "Amazing Grace", but with an Isaac Watts hymn, "There is a Land of Pure Delight".
"Harmony Grove", from The Virginia Harmony, tune in the tenor
The melody of "New Britain" / "Amazing Grace" / "Harmony Grove" is in fact an amalgamation of two melodies ("Gallaher" and "St. Mary") first published in the "Columbian Harmony" by Charles H. Spilman and Benjamin Shaw (Cincinnati, 1829). Spilman and Shaw, both students at Kentucky's Centre College, compiled their tunebook to satisfy "the wants of the Church in her triumphal march". Most of the tunes had been previously published, but "Gallaher" and "St. Mary" had not.
The Columbian Harmony, 1829, title page
First book in which the tune now associated with "Amazing Grace" appears
"Gallaher", from The Columbian Harmony tune in the tenor voice
"St Mary's", from The Columbian Harmony tune in the tenor voice
First time the familiar title of "Amazing Grace" was used for the Newton lyrics coupled with the New Britain tune is in 1900 in Edwin Othello Excell's hymnal, Make His Praise Glorious.
Excell altered some of Walker's music, making it more contemporary and European, giving "New Britain" some distance from its rural folk-music origins. Excell's version was more palatable for a growing urban middle class and arranged for larger church choirs.
The final stanza—‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years’—was added by Edwin Othello Excell in 1909 and was taken from a version included in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
Excell's 1909 stanza selection and arrangement of Amazing Grace became the most widely used and familiar setting of that hymn by the second half of the twentieth century
Here's another detailed history of "Amazing Grace"on the LOC site:
The first company to record "Amazing Grace" was Brunswick Records which in 1922 released a small series of recordings of Sacred Harp songs. Brunswick created a special label for this series that incorporated shape-note notation in its design.
(o) The Original Sacred Harp Choir (vocal choir) (as "New Britain")
Recorded ca. July 1922 in New York City.
Released on Brunswick 5150
As we can see on the label of the 78 RPM pictured ABOVE, the Original Sacred Harp Choir took their version from page 45 of The Original Sacred Harp:
The first edition of The Sacred Harp, published in 1844 and compiled by B. F. White, set "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "New Britain," but put it in four-part, rather than three-part harmony as in The Southern Harmony. Historian Steve Turner states that "this was to become the most influential tune book of the shape-note movement."
Here's page 45 of the Original Sacred Harp:
The second version I found is a very beautiful one by The Wisdom Sisters.
They were very likely the first ones to use the familiar title "Amazing Grace".
(c) The Wisdom Sisters (vcl duet unaccompanied)
Recorded April 23, 1926. Atlanta, Ga.
Released on Columbia 15093-D
(c) H. R. Tomlin (sermon with singing; assisted by Rigoletto Quintette of Morris Brown University) Recorded August 19, 1926 in New York City.
Released on Okeh 8378
Rev. H.R. Tomlin – Amazing Grace
Next up: 3 versions by the Rev. J.M. Gates from 1926. Here's the first one:
Rev. J. M. Gates (as "Amazing Grace") (spoken intro; with singing; unacc.)
Recorded September 7, 1926 in New York City
Released on Pathe Actuelle 7514 and Perfect 114
And here's the second one:
(c) Rev. J. M. Gates (as "Amazing Grace") (sermon with singing)
Recorded September 10, 1926. Camden, New Jersey.
Released on Victor 20216-A
And the third one
(c) Rev. J. M. Gates ( as "Amazing Race") (sermon with singing)
Recorded December 6, 1926. New York City.
Released on Gennett 6013, Champion 15199, Silvertone 5021, Herwin 92003, Paramount 12782 and Black Patti 8015
(c) Allison's Sacred Harp Singers (1928) (vocal group with organ) (as "Jewett")
Recorded May 7, 1928 in Richmond, Ind.
This is the "Amazing Grace" lyrics sung to another tune:
Released on Gennett 6675
(c) Vaughan Quartet (1929) (as "Amazing Grace")
Recorded November 4, 1929. Richmond, Ind.
Released on Vaughan 1750
(c) Rev J.C. Burnett and his Congregation (1938) (as "Amazing Grace")
Recorded August 1, 1938 in New York City
Released on Decca 7494
Next up: 4 versions recorded by the Lomaxes:
(c) Jesse Allison, Vera Hall, and Dock Reed (1939)
This recording is among more than 3,000 acetate discs that John A. Lomax, his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax, and John's son, Alan Lomax, made for the fledgling Archive of American Folk-Song during the 1930s (recorded in Livingston, Alabama, May 26, 1939, AFS 2684 A1). This recording features a trio of singers, singing a highly ornamented variant of the "New Britain" melody and using the lining-out lyric technique.
(c) Leadbelly (1940) (as "Amazing Grace")
On August 23, 1940 Huddie Ledbetter recorded "Amazing Grace", during a marathon recording session with Alan Lomax, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
2 versions were released on the Leadbelly album: "The Library Of Congress Recordings" (Elektra – EKL-301/2)
(c) Blind Willie McTell (1940) (as " Amazing Grace" )
Recorded November 5, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Blind Willie McTell was recorded in an Atlanta hotel room in 1940 by John Lomax on one of his last trips to the South on behalf of the Library of Congress. The story goes that Willie McTell (age 42) was spotted by Lomax playing for tips in the parking lot of the Pig ‘n Whistle BBQ. Lomax pulled into the parking lot and offered McTell one dollar plus cab fare to meet him at his hotel room for an impromptu recording session the next morning. Despite the meager compensation, McTell agreed and the historic session took place. That morning in November McTell recorded 14 tracks, including five folk ballads that he had never recorded before.
His slide maneuvers on "Amazing Grace" are strikingly reminiscent of Blind Willie Johnson's technique.
(c) Sacred Harp Singing Society, led by Uncle Bill Hardeman (1942)
George Pullen Jackson, a distinguished scholar of sacred American music, accompanied Alan Lomax to document the 1942 Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Birmingham, Alabama. They recorded 28 discs of hymns, fuguing-tunes, and anthems, along with several interviews. This version of "Amazing Grace" is in the shape-note singing style, from The Sacred Harp book, in four-part harmony using the "New Britain" melody (recorded by Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson in Birmingham, Alabama, August 1942. AFS 6702 A4).
(c) Dixie Hummingbirds (1946) (as "Amazing Grace")
Recorded in February 1946
Released on Apollo 108
In the year 2000 it became the 7th gospel record inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
(c) Mahalia Jackson (1948) (as "Amazing Grace")
Herbert James Francis, organ;
Recorded in Chicago on December 20, 1947
Released on Apollo 194
(c) Fairfield Four (1948) (as "Amazing Grace")
Released on Bullet 292
Listen to a sample here:
(c) Golden Gate Quartet (1949)
Released on the compilation "Our Story" Columbia 494053
(c) Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Lottie Henry and the Rosettes
Recorded February 21, 1951 in New York City.
Released on Decca 14575
(c) Carl Smith with The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle (1952)
Carl Smith and Carter Family (Mother Maybelle, Anita, June, Helen Carter [vcl], Grady Martin [el gt], Velma Smith [rh gt], Johnny Sibert [steel], Hal Smith [bass], Gordon Stocker [piano]. Producer: Don Law)
Recorded April 11, 1952 Castle Studio, The Tulane Hotel, 206 8th Ave. North, Nashville, TN -
Released on Columbia 20986
(c) Maceo Woods at the Hammond Organ (1955) (as "Amazing Grace") (instrumental)
Recorded September 1954
Besides recording his singing group, Vee-Jay also recorded Maceo Woods as a solo artist playing his Hammond organ, first in April and again in September 1954. The second session produced his gospel hit, "Amazing Grace," which according to gospel expert Lee Hildebrand remains the "best-selling instrumental in African-American gospel history."
"Amazing Grace" came about from Woods’ work on Vivian Carter’s radio show. Woods' job was to play organ interludes on the show, and at one point he was noodling around on "Amazing Grace." Carter was taken with the number, immediately taped a complete run-through of the gospel classic, and made it the theme for her show. Then the number was released in January 1955 as a single on Vee-Jay 122.
(c) Jesse Fuller (1957) (as "Amazing Grace") (instrumental)
Recorded in Oakland, Ca, April 22, 1955; prod. by Tom Spinosa
Released in 1957 on 10 inch album: Frisco Bound! with Jesse Fuller
(c) Weavers (1960) (as "Amazing Grace")
Recorded April 1, 1960.
Released 1963 on The Weavers at Carnegie Hall Vol. 2
(c) The Soul Stirrers (1963) (as "Amazing Grace")
Recorded under the direction of Sam Cooke on Feb. 27, 1963 at Universal Studios, Chicago.
Released on the next album:
(c) Big Brother & The Holding Company (Medley of Amazing Grace / Hi Heel Sneakers)
Recorded at The Matrix on January 31, 1967.
Big Brother & The Holding Company – Amazing Grace - Live at The Matrix, 1967
(c) Judy Collins (1970) (as "Amazing Grace")
Judy Collins decided to record "Amazing Grace" in the late 1960s amid an atmosphere of counterculture introspection; she was part of an encounter group that ended a contentious meeting by singing "Amazing Grace" as it was the only song to which all the members knew the words. Her producer was present and suggested she include a version of it on her 1970 album Whales & Nightingales. Collins, who has a history of alcohol abuse, claimed that the song was able to "pull her through" to recovery. It was recorded in St. Paul's, the chapel at Columbia University, chosen for the acoustics. She chose an a cappella arrangement that was close to Edwin Othello Excell's, accompanied by a chorus of amateur singers who were friends of hers. Collins connected it to the Vietnam War, to which she objected: "I didn't know what else to do about the war in Vietnam. I had marched, I had voted, I had gone to jail on political actions and worked for the candidates I believed in. The war was still raging. There was nothing left to do, I thought ... but sing 'Amazing Grace'." Gradually and unexpectedly, the song began to be played on the radio, and then be requested. It rose to number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, remaining on the charts for 15 weeks, as if, she wrote, her fans had been "waiting to embrace it". In the UK, it charted 8 times between 1970 and 1972, peaking at number 5 and spending a total of 75 weeks on popular music charts.
(c) Mieke Telkamp (1971) (as "Waarheen, waarvoor...")
In 1971 the Dutch singer Mieke Telkamp got her first golden record for "Waarheen, waarvoor", a song with original Dutch lyrics by Karel Hille, written on the melody of "Amazing Grace".
She recorded "Waarheen, waarvoor" together with the Hi-Five under the direction of Harry de Groot, after an idea of Frank Jansen, who also did the production.
Telkamp's version stayed on the Dutch charts for 24 weeks and in later years was frequently heard on funerals.
As we can hear, Telkamp's version is a clear blueprint of Judy Collins version.
(c) Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (1972) (as "Amazing Grace") (instrumental)
Another act which is clearly a blueprint of Judy Collin's version is the Chart-Topping version by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
Although Collins used it as a catharsis for her opposition to the Vietnam War, two years after her rendition, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, senior Scottish regiment of the British Army, recorded an instrumental version featuring a bagpipe soloist accompanied by a pipe and drum band. The tempo of their arrangement was slowed to allow for the bagpipes, but it was based on Collins': it began with a bagpipe solo introduction similar to her lone voice, then it was accompanied by the band of bagpipes and horns, whereas in her version she is backed up by a chorus. It hit number 1 in the UK singles chart in April 1973, spending 24 weeks total on the charts, topped the RPM national singles chart in Canada for three weeks, and rose as high as number 11 in the U.S. As of 2002, it is the best-selling instrumental record in British history, and a controversial one, as it combined pipes with a military band. The Pipe Major of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards was summoned to Edinburgh Castle and chastised for demeaning the bagpipes.
(c) Johnny Cash and The Carter Family (1970) (as "Amazing Grace")
In October 1970 Johnny Cash recorded a version (together with the Carter Family) which was used for the Columbia motion picture "I Walk the Line" starring Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld.
Johnny Cash – Standing on the Promises / Amazing Grace
(c) Johnny Cash and The Carter Family (1975) (as "Amazing Grace")
In June 1974 Johnny Cash recorded a full orchestra version of "Amazing Grace" released on his 1975 album Sings Precious Memories, dedicating it to his older brother Jack, who had been killed in a mill accident when they were boys in Dyess, Arkansas. Cash and his family sang it to themselves while they worked in the cotton fields following Jack's death. Cash often included the song when he toured prisons, saying "For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person."
Johnny Cash – Amazing Grace
(c) Byrds (1970) (as "Amazing Grace")
In June 1970 The Byrds recorded a version for the "Untitled" album, which was originally intended to be the final track on the album
It was not included on the album, although a live version is included on "(Untitled)/(Unissued)" (issued in 2000), with "Amazing Grace" appearing as a hidden track.
The Byrds – Amazing Grace
(c) Rod Stewart (1970) (as "Amazing Grace")
In November 1970 Rod Stewart recorded "Amazing Grace" which was included on the "Every Picture Tells a Story" album. "Amazing Grace" is not listed on the label on most editions, and on some CDs is part of "That's All Right".
(c) Elvis Presley (1972) (as "Amazing Grace")
Elvis Presley recorded a version of "Amazing Grace" on March 15, 1971.
It was released on his "He Touched Me" album.
(c) Aretha Franklin (1972) (as "Amazing Grace")
In January 1972 Aretha Franklin recorded "Amazing Grace" as the title song of an album released in June 1972.
(c) Amazing Rhythm Aces (1975) (as ""Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song)"
In 1975 the Amazing Rhythm Aces recorded a variation on "Amazing Grace".
"Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song)" was released as a single and made #9 on the country chart, although it stalled at #72 on the pop chart.
(c) Yes (1976) (as "Amazing Grace") (instrumental)
Recorded at Advision studios, London on November 4th, 1976, the traditional "Amazing Grace" performed as a solo here by Chris Squire, was finally released on the remastered version of the Yes-album "Going For The One".
(c) Daniel Lanois (1989) (as "Amazing Grace")
Daniel Lanois recorded "Amazing Grace" for his debut-album "Acadie" in 1989.
The melody of "Amazing Grace" is virtually unrecognizable and only Aaron Neville's singing gives you a hint of its identity.
(c) Bob Dylan (2002) (as "Amazing Grace")
Sung in the background of the movie "Masked and Anonymous". Never issued on CD.
(c) Pete Seeger (2009)
From Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Concert (Clearwater Concert), Madison Square Garden, 5/3/09. Pete Seeger leads the audience in Amazing Grace.
More versions here:
100+ coverversions are on the next site:
Discography of Recordings in the Library of Congress:
Finally: "Amazing Grace" also bears some resemblance to "Must Jesus Bear This Cross Alone".
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