John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” has topped the pop charts in several countries on multiple occasions, most recently when the film by that name was released in 2007. Newton’s biographer Jonathan Aitken estimates that it is performed at least 10 million times annually. But not everyone understands its message. One survey found that 20% – mainly young people – thought it was about a wonderful girl called Grace!
The hymn was written by a coarse, cruel slave trader who first called out to God in the midst of a storm that nearly threw him overboard. Newton came to see the light only gradually, continuing to ply his trade even after his conversion. He wrote the song “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” while waiting in an African harbour for a shipment of slaves. Later though, he renounced his profession, became a minister, and joined William Wilberforce in the fight against slavery. John Newton never lost sight of the depths from which he had been lifted. He never lost sight of grace. When he wrote “ . . that saved a wretch like me” he meant it with all his heart.
The hymn was the subject of a 1990 documentary film made by Bill Moyers, a Baptist minister and legendary US journalist who became press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson. The film includes a scene from the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert staged on 11 June, 1988 at Wembley Stadium, London and broadcast to 67 countries and an audience of 600 million. Various musical groups, mostly rock bands, gathered together in celebration of the changes in South Africa, and for some reason the promoters scheduled an opera singer, soprano Jessye Norman, as the closing act. The film cuts back and forth between scenes of the unruly crowd in the stadium and Jessye Norman being interviewed. For 12 hours, groups like Guns ’n’ Roses blast the crowd through banks of speakers, stirring up fans already high on alcohol and drugs. The crowd yells for more curtain calls, and the rock groups oblige. Meanwhile, Jessye Norman sits in her dressing room discussing “Amazing Grace” with Bill Moyers.
Jessye tells Bill that Newton may have borrowed an old tune sung by the slaves themselves, redeeming the song – just as he had been redeemed. Finally, the time comes for her to sing. A single circle of light follows Jessye, a majestic African-American woman wearing a flowing African dashiki, as she strolls on stage. No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye. The crowd stirs, restless. Few recognize the opera diva. A voice yells for more Guns ‘n’ Roses. Others take up the cry. The scene is getting ugly. Then Jessye begins to sing, very slowly:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.
A remarkable thing happens in Wembley Stadium that night. Seventy thousand raucous fans fall silent before Jessye’s aria of grace. By the time she reaches the second verse, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved . . . she has the crowd in her hands. And by the third verse, “ ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home,” several thousand fans are singing along, digging far back in nearly lost memories for words they heard long ago.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
Jessye Norman later confessed that she had no idea what power descended on Wembley Stadium that night. Philip Yancey, who tells this story to finish his superb book “What’s so Amazing about Grace” (Strand, 1997), says “I think I know. The world thirsts for grace. When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.”
Graeme Swincer is a retired agricultural scientist, international development programs coordinator, and cross cultural consultant, trainer and researcher. He taught at a theological seminary in Indonesia in the 1970s and worked with World Vision and similar organisations for the next 30 years. Graeme and Sue have three daughters and seven grandchildren.