John Newton. Olney Hymns in Three Books. Burlington [NJ]: Isaac Neale, 1795. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
John Newton wrote the words to "Amazing Grace" in 1772. It was not for another 60 years that the text was wed to the tune to which it is sung today.
Olney Hymns in Three Books was published in London in 1779, containing only the words to hymns that were linked to specific sermon themes and Biblical references. The publication of hymns in this fashion--that is, without specific melodies and accompaniments--was commonplace in Newton's day. Each congregation adapted the words to well-known songs or hymn melodies whose musical rhythms matched the poetic meter of the text. [ 1 ] It is easy to see, for example, how "Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)" can be sung to the same tune as the words of another popular hymn, "There is a land of pure delight."
Authors such as Newton who published hymnals with text only were able to stress the importance of the ideas and themes that their poems expressed. Also, on a practical level, these hymnals were far more economical to publish and sell because the process of printing music bore additional costs.
After debuting in Olney Hymns, "Amazing Grace" soon appeared in other hymn collections in England, but it flourished in America. In 1789, just ten years after its first publication, it was included in a Reformed Dutch Church hymnal in New York. The following year, Newton's Olney Hymns was published in New York, the subsequent year in Philadelphia and in 1795 in New Jersey. The Baptists next issued the text in Hymns and Spiritual Songs, published in Virginia, in 1793.
"Americans took the song into their hearts," wrote Steve Turner in his chronicle of the hymn's history. [ 2 ] Americans added further stanzas to Newton's poem and eventually set it to the simple, accessible melody by which it is now known throughout the world.
By the early 19th century, the Reform, Baptist, and Congregationalist churches in America were among those that had adopted "Amazing Grace" into their worship service. This interdenominational appeal, Turner notes, may well have been the result of the hymn's popularity during the Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s, a widespread religious movement that found its greatest expression in camp revival meetings. Further dissemination came when the song was published in shape-note hymnals.
Once Newton's text became linked to a notated tune, the emphasis shifted from the words to its music. This specific tune, known as "Harmony Grove," also was employed for "There is a land of pure delight," the hymn text cited above.
The melody for "Amazing Grace" is based on the pentatonic or five-note scale (heard by striking the five black notes on a piano); in fact, in its earliest form, the melody employed only these five pitches. Refinements to the tune are attributed to William Walker, who in 1835 entitled it "New Britain" and published it in a book of hymns entitled The Southern Harmony. This collection was reprinted four times during Walker's lifetime; it sold an estimated 600,000 copies. By the Civil War, as Turner notes, "Amazing Grace" was a vital part of American life." [ 3 ]
Although Newton's poem on its own speaks masterfully of the soul's journey to salvation, it found its most powerful expression when set to Walker's elegant and simple hymn tune. From the pen of a curate in the English countryside, "Amazing Grace" became a beloved anthem expressing personal and communal optimism, fulfillment, and deliverance.
1. Hymns were (and still are) known by two titles: one, the first line of their texts and two, the name of the hymn tune to which the text is sung. Hence, one tune serve for a number of texts. [back to text]
2. Amazing Grace (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 114. [back to text]
3. Ibid. 126. [back to text]