Amazing Grace (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 23 October 2016 (Audio available)

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
’twas blind but now I see.

La Grâce du Ciel est descendue
Me sauver de l’enfer. 
J’étais perdue, je suis retrouvée, 
Aveugle, et je vois clair. 

Amazing Grace has to be about the most beloved hymn ever written. It is sung by church choirs and congregations, by opera singers, shape singers, country, folk and rock stars, and gospel choirs. It’s been recorded by famous vocalists many of us are sure to recognize: Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, Johnny Cash, Ani DiFranco, Marion Williams, Sam Cooke, the Canadian Tenors … and the list goes on forever.

It’s been translated into many languages and sung across countries and cultures, each tradition with its own sound. In the US, Amazing Grace became one of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement. In the 60s it found its way out of the church and the protest march and into the Billboard Top 100 when it was sung by folk singer Judy Collins. Today it is an anthem sung in any church you visit as well as plenty of secular venues. You can hear it sung in white churches and black churches, in Spanish,  French, Cherokee and Cree (here’s a beautiful example in Cree:

Last June, in Charleston, North Carolina, a young white man, who said he wanted start a race war, shot and killed nine African-Americans during an evening prayer service. A few days later, US President Barak Obama stood before the grieving community to deliver his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He took a long moment of silence and then burst out singing Amazing Grace in the black church gospel tradition. The congregation joined him, singing in defiance and hope. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound… It was a defining moment in Obama’s presidency.

Gospel singer Marion Williams once put it this way: “That’s one song that gets to most everybody…It’s a song that gets to the heart of man.” It’s song that can bring us to tears without knowing why. It hits us at a gut level. Some say it’s the tune. For me, it’s always been the words.

It’s interesting how our hymnal gives us the option to change the words. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” If you don’t like word “wretch” you are invited to sing, “how sweet the sound that saved a soul like me.” 

To be a wretch is to be a sinner, a miscreant, someone who is base, despicable, without scruples. In French, you might define wretch as “un mécréant, un infidèle, un transgresseur…” The word comes out of a theology that sees humanity as wretched as possible, that can only be redeemed through God’s grace. 

As I explained a couple of weeks ago, Unitarians and Universalists reject that vision of humanity and grace. We see humanity as loveable and always redeemable, with or without the will of something understood as God. So, our hymnal offers us a choice: Sing the song as it was written and preserve its history, or let go of a word that seems to devalue who we are.

Lots of people sing this hymn, but not many know the story behind it. It’s a song we tend to take for granted, like so many of the songs we sing. Words and tunes blend together. They can touch us in powerful ways, but we don’t always know why.

So, here’s the real story behind Amazing Grace — and yes, this is a story that has inspired a Broadway musical and at least two films.

In 1725, a baby boy named John Newton is born in London, England. His mother reads the Bible to him as he grows, while his father, a shipmaster, sails the Mediterranean Sea. Two weeks before John’s seventh birthday, his mother dies. It has to be an emotionally devastating loss, as he is quickly sent off to boarding school and then brought home to live in his new stepmother’s house. At the age of eleven his father takes him to sea and he becomes a sailor. 

When John’s father retires, he arranges for his son to work on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, but John has other ideas. He signs up with a merchant ship. A year later, he is captured and forced to serve the British Royal Navy, a common practice in those days. Conditions on naval ships were terrible, but if you refused to serve, you were hanged.

John was not a very obedient sailor. He tried to desert, to run away to see his childhood sweetheart. When caught, he was publicly flogged, receiving eight dozen lashes in front of the whole crew. His humiliation led him to dream of killing the captain and committing suicide, though apparently, he was able to creatively channel his frustration by writing obscene poems and songs about the captain to the delight of the other crew members.  Eventually, he transferred to a slave ship that was bound for West Africa. 

To say that John didn’t get along well with the crew of the slave ship would be to put it mildly. He’d act out and be deprived of food or thrown in chains. The captain got so fed up with him that he basically gave John to a slave dealer when they arrived in Sierra Leone. John became a slave, to the dealer’s wife and, for five years, suffered humiliation and abuse. He was eventually rescued by a friend of his father’s.

In 1748, John boarded a ship, the Greyhound, and headed home to England. The captain of the Greyhound is recorded as saying that John Newton was the most foulmouthed sailor he had ever met. “And I’ve heard more than my share of salty language at sea,” he said. John wrote of himself:

“I was formerly one of [Satan’s] active undertemptors and had my influence been equal to my wishes I would have carried all the human race with me. A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner [compared] to what I was.”

A storm hit the ship and bore a hole through the side. As water poured in and the ship began to sink, John called out to God for mercy. For eleven hours, he steered the ship through the night and contemplated the state of his soul. When the ship survived, and drifted to safety, John said he had found faith. 

He spent the rest of his trip back to England reading the Bible. He would later say that his life changed that day, but his conversion was not complete. For the next seven years, he would continue to work on slave ships. He wanted to marry his beloved, but her family said he was too impetuous and unreliable. So, he felt he had to prove himself by making enough money to be worthy of her hand. He deluded himself into believing that he had empathy for the slaves he transported, that he could offer them better treatment than other slave traders. 

He did eventually marry his sweetheart, and he stopped sailing a few years later, when he suffered a stroke. After the stroke, John began to teach himself Latin and Greek, as well as Christian theology. He and his wife became immersed in the church community and friends encouraged him to become a priest. 

It would take seven years before the Church of England agreed to ordain him and sent him to serve the impoverished town of Olney in southeast England. There he began to collaborate on a volume of hymns with the poet, William Cowper. 

John Newton was not a polished writer, yet he was a rare preacher for the time. He spoke from his own brokenness and his words moved people. Sunday morning services became so crowded that they had to enlarge the church’s gallery. In 1773 he wrote a hymn to illustrate a sermon for New Year’s Day. He began with these words:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.

When John Newton wrote the word “wretch” he meant, without a doubt, that he had truly been a wretch and still had been saved. Was he lamenting his role in the slave trade as well as his “wicked ways” and the years he had rejected God? It’s hard to say. It would take another fifteen years before John Newton would publish a pamphlet detailing the horrors of the slave trade. Then an aging man, he regretted that his confession had come much too late. He wrote: 

“It will always be a humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Much of what we know about the slave trade in the Middle Passage is thanks to John Newton’s diaries. His detailed recollection of his experiences — of the horrible conditions and treatment of slaves, of slaves stacked so close together on the ships that there was no room to move — these descriptions would help to sway the British Parliament to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade. It would take another 26 years before slavery itself was abolished in the Commonwealth (in 1833). It’s worth noting that slaves were not proclaimed free in the US until 1863. 

When the hymn Amazing Grace was first published, its critics said that John Newton was a mediocre, unsophisticated writer of verse who hardly used any words with multiple syllables. His congregation probably sang the hymn as a chant. In those days, hymnals were collections of nothing more than written words. People were free to choose the melodies. So Amazing Grace was probably sung to more than twenty different tunes, until it got tied to New Britain, the tune that we sing today. 

The hymn never really caught on in England, but it came to be popular in the US during the Second Great Awakening, the Protestant revival movement of the early 1800s. It was sung by white Protestant congregations in the South, and it was included in hymnals for soldiers fighting during the Civil War, probably on both sides. At the same time, Amazing Grace found its way into the slave experience as an African American spiritual.

In the period leading up to the Civil War, abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe dramatized the slave experience in her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s this moment in the book when the slave Tom, in his hour of greatest need, sings several verses of Amazing Grace. But he also sings a verse that was not in John Newton’s original hymn:

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Then when we first begun.

This was a verse that had been passed down orally from generation to generation within African American communities. These were words of hope, as important to slaves and slave descendants as Newton’s original verse:

Through many dangers, toils and snares, 
I have already come; 
’tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.

In many Gospel versions, this verse often ends with the words “and grace will lead us home.” 

Think about that. Here’s the confession of one single man, who had been both slave and slave trader, that becomes the collective expression of an entire people who were slaves and who found hope in his words. To go from singing “grace will lead me home” to “grace will lead us home” is monumental.

When I began work on this sermon, I thought that I’d take this time to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and what it means for us in Canada. I think of the Indigenous communities here, of the unconscionably high proportion of native peoples who fill our prisons equivalent to the high proportion of African Americans who fill the prisons in the US. I’ve also heard stories of racial profiling by police from black friends here in Montreal that sound painfully similar to the stories I’ve heard from black friends in the US. I know that there are unjust imbalances here as much as there. I know that there is white privilege here as much as there. 

Right now, I can’t help but be worried for my homeland, the US. We’ve been watching the opening up of a festering wound that has enabled racism to be expressed in ways I so naively hoped was becoming a thing of the past. There are days when what I see is about as wretched as it can get. Yet I see light, when the president of the International Chiefs of Police issues a formal apology “for the actions of the past and the role that [the police] profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.” Like the work that is being done toward reconciliation here in Canada, apologies don’t fix the problem, but it’s a start.

This is Amazing Grace, the day when the oppressor wakes up to say, “I was wrong.”

I once was lost, but now am found,
’was blind but now I see… I see what I’ve been doing…

Today, Amazing Grace is sung as it once was and with new meaning. It’s a song that speaks to the alcoholic and the addict, to the angry parent and the brokenhearted child. It brings hope to all of us who know we have failed in some way in our lives, who know that we have failed ourselves and each other at times. It speaks to the hope that we can find our way to a place of greater justice.

Some people will tell you that the hymn has gotten a bit cliché, but what could be more powerful than a hymn that speaks to our hearts and reaches across communities and cultures? John Newton was able to capture our brokenness and our need for hope in a way that has become timeless.

And I believe, someday, grace will lead us home.

Amen. Blessed Be. Namaste.

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