Hymn of the Day - Advent to Epiphany

Jan 01 Amazing Grace – Marylynn Rouse

Amazing Grace! (how sweet the sound)
John Newton (1725-1807)
Public Domain
Olney Hymns, Book 1, Hymn 41

Tune: AMAZING GRACE, Southern Harmony, Public Domain

Marylynn Rouse photo

Marylynn Rouse

St Peter & St Paul Olney Parish ChurchSt Peter & St Paul Olney Parish Church

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,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has 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.

‘A consideration of past mercies and future hopes’
‘A proper subject for our meditations on the entrance of a New Year

(John Newton)

John Newton portraitToday is the anniversary of the first time that Amazing Grace was sung, in the parish church of Olney in 1773. The hymn holds the Guinness record for the largest collection of versions of one song – over 3,000. Its appeal is remarkably wide: a favourite for both weddings and funerals. Crowds often sing it spontaneously at scenes of national crises. What lies behind a hymn which speaks so powerfully to the hearts of so many in such diverse situations?

The author was John Newton, a connoisseur of the heart of God and the heart of man. Exactly twenty years earlier he was reflecting on the annual practice of stocktaking by businessmen, as they review their past and make projections for their future. Why should a Christian not be similarly wise, he reasoned, about his spiritual progress? ‘It seems a proper employment of the first day of the New Year to look both backwards and forwards.’ He adopted this practice from then on. This explains the title for his New Year’s Day hymn: ‘Faith’s review and expectation’.

Amazing Grace was almost certainly written to accompany his sermon on 1 January 1773, to help his hearers apply the message to their own lives. Newton chose to preach from a passage of Scripture, 1 Chronicles 17, which follows the same theme of looking back to the past and ahead to the future – in this case including the promise of the coming Messiah.

First he cautioned his congregation: ‘The Lord bestows many blessings upon his people, but unless he likewise gives them a thankful heart, they lose much of the comfort they might have in them.’  He explained how David had wanted to build a house for the Ark of the Covenant, but the Lord sent him a message by Nathan ‘assuring him that his son should build the house and that he himself would build David's house and establish his kingdom.  This filled his heart with praise.’

Beginning with David’s exclamation in verse 16, ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?’ Newton asked his hearers to reflect on their own lives. ‘What was I when the Lord began to manifest his purposes of love?’ At that time, he said, we were miserable, rebellious, ‘blinded by the god of this world.  We had not so much a desire of deliverance.  Instead of desiring the Lord's help, we breathed a spirit of defiance against him.  His mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired.’ Most of us had ‘endeavoured to shut him out till he overcame us by the power of his grace.’

Hence:
Amazing grace!  …
That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

If we had such an unpromising start, as David had when the Lord had called him ‘from following the sheep’ (v7) to becoming the King of Israel, how then have we come ‘hitherto’ (ESV ‘thus far’)? (v16) The Lord reminded David (v8) I have been with you wherever you have gone and have cut off all your enemies from before you. Similarly we ought to recall His ‘providential care’ before our conversion, ‘preserving us from a thousand seen, millions of unseen dangers, when we knew him not’.

And so:
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,

Many could recall, said Newton, ‘the never to be forgotten hour when he enabled us to hope in his mercy’:

How precious did that grace appear, 
The hour I first believed!

David remarked that though this change of circumstances was great, ‘yet this was a small thing in thine eyes, O God, for thou hast also spoken of thy servant’s house for a great while to come’. (v17)

Newton enquired regarding the Lord’s present mercy and goodness to us: ‘Are these small things?  Yes, compared to what follows – He has spoken for a great while to come, even to Eternity.  Present mercies are but earnests of his love, present comforts but foretastes of the joy to which we are hastening.  O that crown, that kingdom, that eternal weight of glory!  We are travelling home to God.  We shall soon see Jesus, and never complain of sin, sorrow, temptation or desertion any more.’

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.
                                    (v9)

It seems to have struck Newton forcibly that the words ‘for ever’ appear eight times in this passage. He concluded his hymn by declaring that life on earth is transitory,

But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine
.

This video summarises the source of John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace

This next video allows us to hear the hymn sung as Newton himself probably did. The English Chamber Choir sing a different tune per verse, beginning with the four earliest tunes in use by Moravians for Amazing Grace during Newton’s lifetime. They conclude with two early versions of New Britain, the last easily recognisable today.

Amazing Grace earliest tunes recorded by The English Chamber Choir

Prayer (John Newton’s prayer on 1 January 1773)
‘My exercise of grace is faint… But my eye and my heart is to Jesus. His I am, Him I desire to serve, to Him I this day would devote and surrender myself anew... O Lord accept my praise for all that is past, enable me to trust thee for all that’s to come.’
[1]

Resources:

See the Amazing Grace submenu at www.johnnewton.org for much more including Newton’s full sermon, his words to the hymn Amazing Grace, and a table showing how the Scripture texts parallel the hymn text. See Tune for comments by Michael Baughen and Carl Daw. Additionally, there is a wealth of background to download from AG Resources including powerpoint slides of the hymn and ‘Resources for a short concert on Amazing Grace’ (The English Chamber Choir’s recording of the 6 earliest tunes, the score by conductor Guy Protheroe and the JNP’s background to the tunes).

Acknowledgements:

Newton’s sermon on 1 Chronicles 17:16,17 is from Lambeth Palace Library MS2940, his Diary for this period from Princeton University John Newton Collection CO199. The video audio tracks are by Sam Rotman (1st video) and The English Chamber Choir (2nd video). Newton’s portrait by John Russell is from Church Mission Society.

Marylynn Rouse

The John Newton Project

www.johnnewton.org

[1] The last sentence is drawn from one of Newton’s favourite hymns by Joseph Hart, No prophet, nor dreamer of dreams, from  the 7th verse [Hymns composed on various subjects, Joseph Hart,1759]:

This God is the God we adore,
Our faithful unchangeable Friend ;
Whose love is as large as his power ;
And neither knows measure nor end.
'Tis Jesus the first and the last
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home.
We'll praise him for all that is past.
And trust him for all that's to come.

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