“Amazing Grace” is quite possibly the best known hymn ever to come from the Christian songbook, but its story is much less ubiquitous. Penned in 1772 by John Newton, a slave trader turned anti-slavery advocate who would eventually become a clergyman for the Anglican faith, the lyrics were written after Newton was caught in a tumultuous storm while sailing up the Irish coast to Donegal. Had the storm been any worse, we may not have had the timeless hymn today.
Born in England, in 1725, Newton found himself pressed into service with the Royal Navy as a young man. When his time of service had ended, he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade, which was at the height of its prevalence. It was during one trip from Africa to Ireland that his vessel was caught in a storm of epic proportion.
Fearing his demise, Newton cried out for God’s mercy, while he wondered to himself if there could be any mercy for someone involved in the wretched business of slavery. According to Irish Central, Newton often referred to himself as a wretch, acknowledging the sinfulness of his profession even before he began his conversion to Christianity. The ship would ultimately reach port undamaged, but the storm had a profound effect on Newton and marked the beginning of his spiritual conversion.
Although his opinions on slavery began to sour, Newton remained active in the Atlantic slave trade for about another six years before he resigned his post. Ending his seafaring days all together, Newton began to study Christian theology and became a vocal abolitionist. He was ordained to the Church of England in 1764 and was named the curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire. There, he began to write hymns in earnest with help from the English poet William Cowper.
“Amazing Grace” was originally written to illustrate Newton’s sermon at a New Year’s Day service in 1773, although it is unclear if there was any music attached to it. The hymn was published in 1779, but the song fell into relative obscurity in England. It would eventually become an emblematic Black spiritual when it was popularized by the Baptist and Methodist communities of the 19th-century American South. It was at that time when American songwriter William Walker composed the modern beloved melody.
Today, Newton’s story has been remembered by a viewing platform constructed at Lough Swilly, in County Donegal. It stands on the site where Newton began his conversion to Christianity. The €30,000 platform includes a mosaic design incorporating the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” as well as an image of the ship.