John Newton wrote the song. It has been recorded by a variety of artists in estimates that vary from 6,600 to 11,000 times. Chances are you know the words. It is sung in churches, at funerals and public events, and even on the radio when the Judy Collins’ version was on the charts and played for 67 weeks beginning in 1970. You may even know about Newton’s history as a slave trader and his dramatic conversion to Christianity when he turned away from captaining the ships and became a pastor. The part he played in transporting free people into slavery was his lifelong regret. The circumstances surrounding the song’s genesis are dramatic.
I can think of a handful of people whose awareness of the grace swirling around them with open arms caused drastic changes in their lives. C. S. Lewis comes to mind. Paul on the road to Damascus. Alice Cooper and Bob Dylan lived out their early grace days in stark terms. There are many more we have never heard of who have had similar experiences. Of course, there are also many who have left Christianity for other faiths, atheism, or a vague spirituality. Some are born to Christian parents or slide bit by bit into faith and sometimes bit by bit out of it. Sometimes we hedge our bets like soldiers in foxholes or Denny Crane on Boston Legal. Or we start off excited and gradually lose interest when the awareness dies down.
Jerry Maguire shows us what grace on the move can be like. As a successful agent to top athletes, Jerry is confronted at the hospital by the concussed football player’s son who asks him to protect his dad by getting him to stop playing. He glosses over it with the kid and later sees himself for what he has become, far away from the pure goals he had when he started out. Inspired by memories of his mentor while on a road trip, Jerry writes a mission statement calling for his company to get back to putting the players first and caring about the fans.
It is distributed to everyone at work and he later experiences major regret, wishing he could get it back. However, when he arrives at work his coworkers applaud him. Bets begin on how long it will be before he is fired. His enthusiasm dies down in the face of rejection by the company, his girlfriend, and his former clients. He pays a high price but gradually the new company he founds with the one employee who follows him takes shape with the changes he called for in his mission statement. Jerry learns to live in a new reality with new disciplines.
The song Amazing Grace is also a confession of a previous life changed to become a celebration of an encounter with grace. It is not about rising in position or wealth or fame. For Newton it is about being freed, having his eyes opened to what is important. He finds forgiveness for his sins. On a quest to have a good time before he meets grace, he quickly discovers, much like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, it was all worthless. Life without God has no meaning and the storm that causes him to confront the state of his life turns him back to his memories of his mother teaching him the Bible. For Newton, grace truly is amazing. It seems many of us agree or long to understand his experience, judging by the popularity of his song.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.
Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking
Off the Beaten Path:
Judy Collins sings the 1970-71 hit Amazing Grace: https://youtu.be/G3G-suuZgK4
The story of Amazing Grace and the Judy Collins’ version by Cary O’Dell: https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/AmazingGrace.pdf
The story of John Newton writing Amazing Grace: https://youtu.be/8m8AHHduTM0
The conversion story of C. S. Lewis by Kathy Schiffer: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/how-did-c-s-lewis-convert
Saul/Paul’s conversion story: https://youtu.be/oi95cv0tk9Q
Interview by Greg Laurie with Alice Cooper: https://youtu.be/WbuQfvJhuA0
Exploration of Bob Dylan in Blowing in the Wind: Dylan’s Spiritual Journey on the BBC’s radio program Sounds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b011c0s2
Alan Shore and Denny Crane discuss God: https://youtu.be/YJD-18xHfvU
The mission scene from Jerry Maguire: https://youtu.be/zDbV2-tZgbg
Writer Frederick Buechner speaks about grace: https://youtu.be/mLMSLM0WM3Q