Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction. He joined the Royal Navy and became a sailor, eventually participating in the slave trade. One night a terrible storm battered his vessel so severely that he became frightened enough to call out to God for mercy, a moment that marked the beginning of his spiritual conversion. This incredible piece of music and theology rose from his personal struggles with sin; struggles that each of experience every day, no matter how strong our faith.
Yet despite being 235 years old and having survived a plethora of changes in church music, this great song has remained very modern. Over the years the lyrics have been sung to a variety of tunes to help convey the always contemporary message to new generations. I first remember hearing it sung to the tune of House of the Rising Sun in the early 1970's. At Quaker Lake we used to do a song called Calypso, which married verses from Jesus Love Me, O For A Thousand Tongues, Amazing Grace and the Doxology with an easy to sing calypso beat. Andrew Lewis and I (see picture) used to sing the words to the tune of The Theme From Gilligan's Island, once performing it at a talent show at FUMC-K (I will pause now while you sing it to see if that actually works...pretty cool, huh?). My son Will learned a version to the tune of Sweet Home Alabama ("Sweet home up in Heaven, where the skies are so blue...") while at camp a few years ago. No matter the tune, it has always been the message that sets Amazing Grace apart.
There are two versions (besides the original, which is still my favorite version) of which I am particularly fond. One is to the melody of the Eagles' great song Peaceful Easy Feeling. We used that one a lot at youth worship in Kissimmee and in Tampa, with the lyric to Amazing Grace as the verses and the original "I've got a peaceful easy feeling, 'cause I know You want let me down..." as the chorus. In a side note, it was also one of the songs our Guitar Choir played in worship at FUMC-K. That group, featuring Vic Hill, Darin Miller, Pete Lynes, Nate Hill, Jay Lynes, Ben Thacker, myself and others was as much fun as I ever had making music- it was just a lot of work to keep that many amateur guitarists in tune! When I led the congregation in this version at Wesley Memorial, it was by far the loudest I ever heard that group of adults sing.
But my favorite remake came in 2006, when Chris Tomlin released his great project See the Morning (#43 on my CCM Countdown). The final cut on the album was his version of Amazing Grace, which you can hear on the video below. His added chorus ("My chains are gone, I've been set free...") truly drives home the original message of the song- that God's love is unending, and that through Jesus Christ our sins are erased and forgiven every day. In a world where so many church leaders mislead us with talk of performance and piety, this amazing song continues to remind us that Christianity is not about what we DO; it is about what Jesus has already done. That's why we call it the Good News! God's grace is even enough to cover "a wretch like me." And that, my friends, is pretty amazing! Enjoy the video, and have a blessed Sabbath.