Sunday, July 25, 2010

Amazing grace

Yesterday (July 24th) was the 285th birth anniversary of John Newton. From the time I read his biography with my mother when I was probably 9 or 10 years old, the story of this man and then later, the words of his beautiful hymn have ministered deeply to me, as they have to so many other believers. The story of (in the words on his tombstone) 'an infidel and a libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, (who) was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.' The story of deep inner forgiveness and awakening that called him to write those words that strike right to the centre of our being - Amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me. The story of a man who said at age 82, 'My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour'.

The story of Newton's life is well known and documented (two good biographies are here and here), but I recently learnt that there is an interesting theory on the origin of the melody for Amazing Grace. Originally entitled 'Faiths Review and Expectation' and written to go with a sermon that Newton preached, this beloved hymn is believed to have been inspired by 1 Chronicles 17:16 which reads 'And David the king came and sat before the LORD, and said, Who am I, O LORD God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?'. There is no record of the original melody as hymns were not written to sheet music at that time. However, all authentic versions of the hymn give credit to Newton only for the words and not the melody. The tune that is most commonly associated with the hymn is called 'New Britain' and its origin is unknown. This tune is written in the pentatonic scale, which has only 5 notes (compared to the usual 7). The pentatonic scale is the one used in most of the Negro Spirituals and is believed to have been brought over from Africa by the slaves. The theory (which is inimitable explained by Wintley Phipps in the video below posted here by WNYChristianRio) is that possibly John Newton heard the melody being sung by slaves he was ferrying to America and later set it to the words of this song which tells the story of the inner journey he made from being the captain of a slave-ship to being one of the greatest proponents of Abolition in the United Kingdom.

Recently Amy and I watched the stately, historical movie 'Amazing Grace', which is the story of William Wilberforce and his struggle to abolish slavery. John Newton is portrayed in the movie as being afraid to confront his past as a slave-ship captain for a very long time. In fact, even after his conversion, he continued as a slave-ship captain and when he retired due to an illness, he invested money in the slave-trade for some time afterward. Though he changed his views on slavery much earlier, it was only at the end of his life that he finally could talk and write about it. He published a forceful pamphlet entitled 'Thoughts on the slave trade' describing the horrific conditions on the slave ships, which was circulated widely and considered one of the last nails in the coffin of slavery in the UK.

A recurring thought recently, has been this danger - that though I may believe in God and truly want to follow Him, I may knowingly or unknowingly stay with my sinful nature and all that it brings with it. The transformation that sets me apart as a true disciple remains far away. As I read Paul's account of his conversion in Galatians 1: 11-24, it occurred to me that without heavenly revelation, we may be fervently striving to follow God, but may be on completely on the wrong track. The conversion from Saul to Paul comes only by this divine revelation. Only when the scales fall from our eyes can we know 'the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance and the surpassing greatness of His power' (Eph 1:18,19). We need this revelation. Individually and as a body of Christ. This is my daily prayer.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for telling the story of 'Amazing grace.'in a new way. The song continues to bless each time we sing it. The details about the tune and Newton's involvement in Abolition was good to read.
    You have a gift of telling a story in a way that brings it very near and draws us to think about it. We need to retell the old old stories stories with new meaning from our own lives and that will surely touch those who read as your story touched me.
    As Katharine Hankey (1866) said in her song 'Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon'... Papa and I continue to tell stories to one another daily and often they are moments of grace for us and we trust you both have started doing the same to each other. God bless you both and keep you 'in touch' with each other and with Him.

    Here is the song by Katharine Hankey
    1. Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
    Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
    Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
    For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.
    Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
    Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.
    2. Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
    That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
    Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
    The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.
    3. Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
    Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
    Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
    In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.
    4. Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear
    That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.
    Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,
    Tell me the old, old story: “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”