“Amazing Grace,” by John Newton, is the most famous New Year’s Day hymn in Church history. Newton wrote and unveiled “Amazing Grace” to his Olney congregation on January 1, 1773.
The entire hymn is inspired by 1 Chronicles 17, a chapter that speaks of King David’s past, present, and future. Newton does the same, reflecting on past grace, present grace, and the hope of future grace. It is a perfect way to begin the new year.
Newton originally titled the hymn “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” but today it is more widely remembered by its first two words.
Setting the text of “Amazing Grace” alongside 1 Chronicles 17 will show just how deeply Newton’s hymn soaked up the rich biblical theology of this chapter of Scripture. Direct lines of contact are made by the terms house/home, word, and forever. Also notice the corresponding tenses of the hymn echoed in 1 Chronicles 17: past (v. 7, “I took you from the pasture”), present (v. 16, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”), and future (v. 26, “O Lord, you are God, and you have promised this good thing to your servant”).
While writing my book on Newton, I made this colorized chart to trace the correlations between Newton’s hymn (left) and the inspiring themes from 1 Chronicles 17 (right):
Reflecting his personal practice on New Year’s, Newton’s hymn itself provides a doxological moment in time to stop to thank God for his past mercies, his present mercies, and his future mercies.
The entire Christian life is here in Newton’s hymn:
- salvation (“sav’d a wretch like me”)
- trials (“many dangers, toils, and snares”)
- struggles with doubts and need for divine promises (“his word my hope secures”)
- protection in spiritual battle (“he will my shield and portion be”)
- aging and facing death (“when this flesh and heart shall fail”)
- hopes for re-creation (“earth shall soon dissolve like snow”)
- anticipation for the beatific vision (“A life of joy and peace”)
- and treasuring God forever (“But God, who call’d me here below, / will be for ever mine”)
[Note: The final lines, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…,” were not penned by Newton, but found in the Afro-American worship tradition, and later added to Newton’s hymn, as documented in, of all places, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 (see here).]
From the beginning to the end of this autobiographical hymn, we are introduced to the unwavering grace of God throughout the Christian’s immortal, eternal existence. Newton communicates this vision of the Christian life in catchy language very easily read and sung. Most of the words he uses (about 85 percent of the hymn) are one syllable, and that reveals much about Newton’s commitment to clarity and simplicity, traits that spill over into all his pastoral work and explain his enduring place as a spiritual luminary so many centuries after his death.
Of course, nothing from the pen of Newton endures like this hymn. Amazon.com currently sells the song in 12,700 different versions. It has been recorded in every genre, including jazz, country, folk, classical, R&B, hip-hop — even heavy metal! The popularity of the hymn is obvious at sporting events and political rallies, among other settings. It endures as one of few religious songs that can be sung impromptu in public because many people (if not most people) can recite at least the first verse by heart.
The hymn is, first, brilliant biography (of David) and, second, brilliant autobiography (of Newton). Newton is the wretch, a term he often used to allude to his own sin and to a period of captivity he endured before his conversion. But most brilliantly of all, the hymn functions as a collective autobiography for every Christian. “Amazing Grace” is perceptive biblical theology, embraced by one man deeply moved by his own redemption, articulated for corporate worship. And it is the perfect hymn to study on New Year’s Day.