Today is the birthday (in 1725) of John Newton, the author of an enduring work of art, "Amazing Grace." The verses, originally composed as an accompaniment to a 1773 New Year's Day sermon, chart his personal faith journey. Born in London, he went away to sea as a boy, and developed into a bawdy and rebellious sailor who openly mocked religion and became captain of a slave ship.
His conversion came while out on the ocean, when caught in a bad storm of the coast of Newfoundland. His transformation wasn't immediate; like "Amazing Grace" itself, it took a while to take hold.
But in time, the words were destined to be sung millions of times a year into a new millennium he could only imagine. "Amazing Grace" became a famous Christian hymn, a moving African-American spiritual, an iconic ballad of the self-help movement, and, ultimately, an ecumenical -- and sometimes even secular -- expression of the perpetual human search for redemption. John Newton's newfound Christian faith, and the seriousness with which he embraced it, led him inexorably to the abolitionist movement -- "was blind, but now I see" being more than an evocative couplet.
Originally titled, "Faith's Review and Expectation," his verses began showing up in Southern hymnals in the 1830s as "Amazing Grace." After South Carolina-born composer William Walker assigned a melody known as "New Britain" to it, the song essentially became part of the American canon, and a particular favorite of African-American church-goers.
Its words were so powerful, its tune so hypnotic, and its applied meaning so profound that it was embraced by lapsed Christians, and even non-Christians. In the 20th century, "disrobed" versions, in the language of author Steve Turner, became popular. One of the most notable was by folk singer Judy Collins, who performed it one day to ease tensions in her 1970s encounter group. Her record producer, who happened to be present, included it on her next album.
Yes, the song was meant to soothe -- but also to challenge. And in his book on "Amazing Grace," Turner contrasts Collins's version with the rousing, live, 14-minute rendition performed by Aretha Franklin at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts.
"Perhaps Aretha Franklin giveth," wrote Newfoundland literary scholar Steve King, "what Judy Collins hath taken away."
I like to think that John Newton would have appreciated both July Collins's and Aretha Franklin's versions. As King notes in his essay on Newton, the sailor-turned-pastor left behind an autobiography and many letters in addition to "Amazing Grace." In those letters, "the old African blasphemer" reveals himself as quite human, and ever-mindful of the sinner that lurks beneath the man who was saved:
Last week we had a lion in town. I went to see him. He was wonderfully tame; as familiar with his keeper, as docile and obedient as a spaniel. Yet the man told me he had his surly fits, when they durst not touch him. No looking-glass could express my face more justly than this lion did my heart. I could trace every feature: as wild and fierce by nature; yea, much more so; but grace has in some measure tamed me. I know and love my Keeper, and sometimes watch his looks that I may learn his will. But, oh! I have my surly fits too; seasons when I relapse into the savage again, as though I had forgotten all.
The moral of Newton's story, and the moral of his hypnotic hymn, is that keeping the faith -- like secular self-betterment -- is a continuous undertaking.