Should We Sing “Amazing Grace”? (audio & text)
Sunday, February 24, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
“Amazing Grace” is a song loaded with history and knotty theology. This year’s auction winner of the sermon topic, Phil Roudebush, asked that I grapple with how we UUs might respond to it. So, here we go!
From Chronicles 1 17:16-17
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said, “Who an I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God, you have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank.”
This House by Kenneth Patton
This house is for the ingathering of nature and human nature.
It is a house of friendships, a haven in trouble, an open room for
the encouragement of our struggle.
It is a house of freedom, guarding the dignity and worth of every person.
It offers a platform for the free voice, for declaring, both in times of
security and danger, the full and undivided conflict of opinion.
It is a house of truth-seeking, where scientists can encourage
devotion to their quest, where mystics can abide in a community of searchers.
It is a house of art, adorning its celebrations with melodies and
It is a house of prophecy, outrunning times past and times present in visions of growth and progress.
This house is a cradle for our dreams, the workshop of our common endeavor.
My most memorable experience with the hymn “Amazing Grace” came in the early 1980s. Debbie and I had recently moved from the New York-New Jersey area, where we were both raised, to Charleston, West Virginia, where I was working in my first newspaper job.
The move was a big change for us in many ways and not least when it came to religion. We had been married in Princeton, New Jersey, in the Unitarian Universalist church where I had grown up. And back there UUs had seemed just part of the religious mix. In Charleston, though, the tiny, lay-led fellowship we found was clearly outside what seemed a mainstream of evangelical Christianity.
Its members included some transplants, like us, but also a fair number of locals who had had their share of battles with the predominant religious perspective. So, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that one Sunday when a visiting minister invited us all to rise and join in singing “Amazing Grace” several in attendance sat instead in stony silence, their jaws set and their arms folded across their chests.
We Unitarian Universalists can have long arguments about what hymns we sing and why. In fact, we’re famously known as people who stumble through hymns because we’re reading ahead to see if we agree with the words. (More about that later.)
But I think it’s fair to say that “Amazing Grace” is a uniquely challenging case, which, I suspect, has something to do with our member Phil Roudebush, who won the church auction item to name a sermon topic, zeroing in on this hymn as my topic. Gee, thanks, Phil. But also I have to say that this hymn, how it’s been used and how we respond to it to offer grist for some fascinating challenges for people committed to the broad liberal path of religion.
So, let’s begin with the origin story, which takes us back to about the middle of the 18th century. Our protagonist is John Newton, born in 1725. By now you’ve likely heard the story of this son of a merchant seaman whose devout mother, died of tuberculosis when he was young. Off he goes to boarding school, then joins his father shipboard.
It is said he learned to love the sea, but not the merchant life. Shy and bookish, he spends much of his time in books. But then comes a shock when he is press-ganged, essentially forcibly enlisted, in the British Navy. After a few years of that brutal living, the Navy foists him onto a slave trading ship, where malaria and dissolute living break his spirit.
His defining moment comes one night when his shoddily-built ship starts falling apart in a storm. Watching waves wash his shipmates overboard, Newton says, the words appeared in his mouth: “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us.” Somehow, he survives the night and Newton marks that as the moment when he first felt what he considered God’s saving grace, his religious awakening, “the hour I first believed.”
It’s worth noting that his conversion doesn’t end his work in the slave trade, though later he did oppose it. That only happens when a mild stroke ends his seaman’s days. He then digs into religious study, eventually persuading a landlord at the parish of Olney to ordain him, even though he lacks a university degree.
That doesn’t trouble his parishioners, many of who are Illiterate laborers and traders. And they like the simple hymns he writes often as an alternative to the more difficult psalms. Early in 1773, he offers them a new one based on the verse from First Chronicles that you heard earlier. It is the passage from the Hebrew scriptures when David expressed his gratitude to God for assuring him that his progeny will always be blessed. “Who am I that you have brought me this far?” It is for him the ultimate expression of grace, the undeserved, divine bestowing of love and care, something that Newton felt his own life had taught him well.
“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 fear 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 forebear to shine
But God who called me here below will be forever mine.”
We can’t be sure what tune that hymn was first sung to, but we know that it wasn’t the one that we sing today. That pairing didn’t happen for another 50 years when John Newton’s words were joined with a tune in American composer William Walker’s Southern Harmony. You’ll notice that the words are a little different from the version most widely used. ‘The “ten-thousand years” verse was added later and others were dropped from most renditions.
It didn’t take long for the song to catch on, appearing in hymnals and songbooks, including those of the shape-note singers. It also was widely embraced in the black gospel tradition, where it was reshaped again.
We don’t have time today for a full discussion of the hymn’s fascinating evolution and history. But it spread across religious traditions and then was picked up mid 20th century by musicians such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez as part of America’s folk revival. It soon became a country music standard and was recorded by dozens of musicians across music genres, from Eric Clapton to Aretha Franklin, topping the charts in a 1971 recording by Judy Collins.
How to account for this hymn’s “amazing” popularity? At least in part, it has to do with the nature of the music and the nature of the message. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the simple tune that makes it eminently singable and satisfying. And while there is a very clear theology underlying the song, it doesn’t hit you over the head, which makes it appealing to diverse audiences. Who hasn’t experienced moments of wretchedness, of dangers, toils and snares and found themselves or at least their spirits rescued by totally unexpected, unexplainable words, actions, or compassionate presence of another?
It’s telling that the hymn doesn’t insist that we regard this grace as divine intervention. It simply offers gratitude for being the recipient of it. It gives us room to make of it what we will.
As I said, though, Newton’s words were grounded in a very clear theology, one that regarded God as the author of all things, that regarded all humans as wallowing in sin from the day of their birth, sin that only God’s unmerited salvation could relieve. It was this theology that my friends in West Virginia had in mind when they angrily crossed their arms in protest when invited to sing, a theology they rejected, yet that earlier in their lives had been used to shame and demean them.
So, I understand. And while I have never had that experience, I have to admit that knowing their experience has made me, too, a bit wary of this hymn. It has helped me understand why in our hymnal the editors gave people (again, reading ahead to see if they agree with the words) the option of singing “soul” in the first verse instead of Newton’s “wretch.” It’s not that the singers never feel wretched about themselves but that they may not care to affirm a theology that denies the inherent worth and dignity of all people that we affirm, even when we feel shamed and debased.
What’s interesting to me is that the hymn is there at all. Our grey hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition,” printed in 1993, is the first to include it. Previous hymnals, printed in 1964 and 1935 respectively, did not. I do not know the thinking that went into including it, though I expect it was a lively discussion. What I suspect is that editors of that hymnal felt that “Amazing Grace” was a powerful part of the religious landscape that it would benefit UUs to experience. As evidence of this, I’d point to other hymns grouped within several pages of “Amazing Grace,” such as the Lutheran standard, “A Mighty Fortress” and the spiritual “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
So, should we UUs sing “Amazing Grace”? Sure. We can find in it the expression of a universal human experience of rising from despair. Whatever its history or theology, it speaks to us of the need to hold out hope of renewal, even in the most troubled times.
And I think that is what made it so powerful to hear President Obama end his eulogy for the nine parishioners of Mother Emanuel AME church with an acapella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” his hesitant baritone growling out the first couple of notes as clergy behind him smiled, stood, and joined in, with the President’s voice, low and slow, reaching into the black gospel tradition, throwing in his own musical ornamentation to draw out the melody and draw in his listeners.
It was not theological disquisition he had in mind. It was healing; it was hope. It was a moment to affirm that bigotry would not prevail, that the nation would disavow hate. And the way forward that he implicitly offered was for all of us to be both givers and receivers of a profound grace that reaches across all that divides us. Whatever our errors, our foolhardiness, our wretchedness we have the capacity, we people of inherent worth and dignity, to rise up and begin again.