“Amazing Grace”: The African Connection | Faith | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | February 25, 2018 5:00 am
Last Updated: February 21, 2018 at 10:15 am
One of the most popular hymns, if not the most popular, in the hymnal is “Amazing Grace.” That song is one of a testimony for many when they come to Christ. It is a soothing balm for those whose inner souls are bound with the chains of grief, pain, misery, trials and tribulations.
It is often used as a devotional song, especially in some African-American churches on Sunday mornings or mid-week prayer services. Often it is the opening hymn on Sunday mornings at many houses of God, no matter the race, creed, origin, or color.
Before I move any farther into this week’s message, let’s make sure that we know and understand what “grace” is. In Western Christian theology, “grace” has been defined, not as a created substance of any kind, but as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it; the condescension or benevolence shown by God toward the human race.”
In other words, “grace” is a gift from God because of His love for us, even though we all have sinned and do not deserve it. Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV) clearly states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In order to further clarify this “amazing grace” that we so often sing about, meditate on these points from some Bible scholars about “grace”:
• “Grace is the love of God shown to the unlovely; the peace of God given to the restless; the unmerited favor of God” (Justin Holcomb).
• “Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues” (John Stott).
• “[Grace] is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against Him” (Jerry Bridges).
My brothers and sisters in Christ, each day we live, it is only because of God’s “grace,” and that is why we should give thanks to Him before we do anything else when we wake up in the morning and before we retire each night. Further, we should thank Him every opportunity that we get, no matter the place, time, or the company.
“Grace” is our hope beyond death, and it is so amazing because God does not leave us in our dirt, our misery, our fears and our pain. He is right there for us if we just open our eyes and humbly receive Him.
The lyrics to this hymn, “Amazing Grace,” that so many in the Christian world love, were penned by John Newton, a powerful, popular Anglican priest who was the captain of a slave ship before he accepted Christ into his life. His mother died when he was only 7, but his Christian training through her soon left him. He went on several voyages with his father, engaging in slave trading.
It was one day while on the sea, and there was a raging storm that frightened him to the point that he thought he was going to die that he experienced the conversion. However, it took him some time to fully come to the knowledge that he was still doing wrong.
When he penned this beloved hymn, he referred to himself as a “wretch.” Some may look at that as deliberate exaggeration, but he was, as I used to hear my maternal grandmother say, “a wretch undone.” According to Newton himself, he referred to his being as “the old African blasphemer.” Newton knew he had done so much wrong throughout his life and publicly admitted it. Most of all, in that terrible storm, he cried out, “Lord, please save us.” Newton probably felt within his soul that if God’s grace was going to save a “wretch” like him, it had to be “amazing”!
Consequently, just look at what a testimony he left behind in this song that serves as a method to deliverance from one’s wicked ways of the world! Then what is the African connection? As you have already gathered in this message, John Newton was in the slave trading business. There are historical accounts that indicate that the tune of his hymn sounds much like a West African sorrow chant, and Newton may have heard this chant during one of his slave-trading voyages and could have possibly penned his hymn, “Amazing Grace,” to the melody of this chant.
In some hymnals, the word “Unknown” is given for the melody as the name “John Newton” is attributed to the words.
As I continue to share with you the African musical connection to this revered hymn, I invite you to watch a performance at Carnegie Hall by famed gospel singer Wintley Phipps that renders a hair-raising message about the history of the tune, his research, and his singing of “Amazing Grace.” He sings it in a way that you probably have never heard before. I have listened to this performance over a dozen times, and I get goosebumps every time I hear it. If it doesn’t “move” you the first time you hear it, listen again. Here is the link: https://vimeo.com/56399119. It is only just a little over eight minutes long.
Rather than go into more detail about what it entails, I would rather let you hear it for yourself. Please listen and share with the saved and the unsaved.
Have a wonderfully blessed week, and never leave home without Him!
(Anna Bright is a minister and educator in Walterboro. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)