The World’s Most Famous New Years Song (A Hymn)

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The world’s most famous New Years song is a hymn: “Amazing Grace,” penned by pastor John Newton and unveiled for the first time 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 — a progression you can watch unfold in the hymn itself.

Newton’s original title was more accurate to this purpose (“Faith’s Review and Expectation”), but today it is more widely remembered by its catchy 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. We see direct lines of contact made by the terms house/home, word, and forever. Also notice the corresponding tenses of the hymn echoed in 1 Chronicles 17: past (verse 7: “I took you from the pasture”), present (verse 16: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”), and future (verse 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):

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Paradoxically, the final verse (“When we’ve been there ten thousand years…”) originated in the Afro-American worship tradition, not by the former slave trader. Of all places, the added verse made its first formal appearance within “Amazing Grace” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

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 scope of the Christian life can be found 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”)

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. About 85% of the hymn is comprised of monosyllabic words. Newton was committed 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 physical 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 for New Year’s Day.

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For more on Newton’s life and pastoral legacy, see my book on John Newton here.

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