“It seems kind of like an all-purpose, hopeful song,” says Steve Turner, author of “Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song.” But while the song has a universal message, its origins are much more complex.
For one, while the song is a well-known anthem of the civil rights movement, its original text was written by a former slave trader. John Newton was an Anglican priest in England in 1773, when he debuted a hymn to his congregation called “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”
The hymn opened with a powerful line: “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) That sav’d a wretch like me!” And it drew on Newton’s own experience as a slave trader — specifically, from a near-death experience he’d had decades earlier, when the slave ship he was on encountered a violent storm, prompting him to convert to Christianity. (Newton didn’t speak out against slavery until 1788.)
The hymn wasn’t particularly popular in England, according to Deborah Carlton Loftis, executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. But she says in the United States, it became well-known during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s when thousands of people — white and black — would gather for outdoor revival meetings.
Songs were important to these meetings — although not always exactly as they were written. Revival leaders frequently switched out melodies and borrowed verses from other hymns. “There were choruses and refrains that people could learn quickly,” Loftis says.