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Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me

Text by: Augustus Toplady

Music by: Ruth Coberly

 

Here is my recording of this new hymn:  https://youtu.be/x9DBAYb9vuY

 

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee;

Let the water and the blood,

From Thy wounded side which flowed,

Be of sin the double cure;

Save from wrath and make me pure.

 

Could my tears forever flow,

could my zeal no langour know,

These for sin could not atone.

In my hand no price I bring,

Simply to thy cross I cling.

 

While I draw this fleeting breath,

When mine eyes shall close in death,

When I rise to worlds unknown,

And behold thee on thy throne,

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee.

 

This summer, my friend Ruth Coberly shared with me her new setting of the Augustus Toplady’s hymn, Rock of Ages. She named the new tune “Vano” and dedicated the work in honor of her friend Vano Kiboko, a United Methodist evangelist, currently being held prisoner in Makala Prison in the city of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His crime: condemning the injustice of the shooting of an unarmed woman engaged in a non-violent protest last December 8th. On September 15th, Vano was sentenced to 3 years in prison for his crime. The prison he is being housed in was built to hold 2000 people, it currently houses about 8000 people. Food is only provided for 2000 and medical care is virtually non-existent. Vano has effectively been sentenced to death by starvation.

However, like the Apostle Paul, who used his extended imprisonment to preach the Gospel to fellow inmates and his jailors alike, Vano has not been idle. In the 8 months of his confinement he has not stopped proclaiming the Good News. The last count we have is that 800 men have surrendered their lives to Christ and have been baptized. And in recent weeks, Vano has been allowed to begin preaching in the women’s prison where his wife has been holding regular Bible studies. We have a report of 50 women committing their lives to God and are awaiting Baptism into the body of Christ. What Satan intended for evil, God has used as a blessing to hundreds and soon thousands. Out of the darkness of Makala Prison, a blinding light has shown forth.

This new setting of Rock of Ages has become a theme song of this budding church. A recording done by a local chamber choir in the Denver, CO area can be heard every day in the prison and the hymn is sung daily by the inmates.

Vano’s local church struggles to bring in food for an Agape feast and regular meals, and to provide whatever medical care they can. However, the poorest amongst us are wealthy beyond imagination to these people. They dream of owning a bible, we leave our sitting unopened, buried on a shelf someplace.

Vano’s efforts come from his earnest desire to be obedient, even if it means he will perish. I was humbled as I learned about Ruth’s friend and his faith in the presence of the evil one. He is feeding the lost sheep and bringing them to the Lord. Well done, good and faithful servant.

 

 

 

What started about a year ago as a gift to my father, a retired Presbyterian pastor, who missed singing all of old hymns has now grown into a collection of over 1000 recordings. Many of these hymns are understandably in the dust bin of history. And I have found there have been many composers who seem to think that 3/4 and 6/8 are the only meters in the universe (a trend we still see today).

More importantly, I have found how our hymns reflect our cultures more than we may ever imagine. I have had conversations with people comparing texts and tunes where the texts were nearly identical in content but had such different cultural roots (one Baptist and the other Episcopalian) that despite their textual similarities, they would never be used by the other church.
This has given me a bit more tolerance for the CCM world of music and with it a better understanding how this musical genre reflects the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary culture. I don’t have an appreciation of CCM, just an understanding.

I have been struck by the enormous richness of our musical heritage. It is possible to find a hymn which either directly quotes, references, or swerves nearby to just about any scripture used in a service. (Hard to say that about CCM). The more I have explored our vast treasure, the more I have come to appreciate it in all of its glory and warts.

This is the 1000th hymn. A great example of late 19th century middle-American Baptist hymn. It may not appeal to you, but it is one of our’s nonetheless.

Sweet By and By

https://youtu.be/-uVT6DH3HCw

It all began on a Saturday in September almost 45 years ago. My mother walked with me from our home in Bad Axe, Michigan on North Port Crescent south a couple of blocks to South St and then west one house and introduced me to my first piano teacher: Mrs. Snodden. Fast forward to the fall of 2014. After hearing my parents mention several times that no one sang the old hymns anymore, I decided to record a CD’s worth of hymns out of The Hymnbook (Presbyterian 1955) which was used in the church I grew up in. Initially, I thought I would just pick 50 or so of the hymns I remember singing as a child. As it turned out, I couldn’t always remember if I had played or sang the hymns as a child or as an adult at one of the several churches I have worked through the years. And besides, 50 was just not nearly enough to even start with. So began a 6 month journey through the entire hymn book. I have played hymns I haven’t heard for 35 years and many I have never heard before; wondering why such gems had suffered such neglect.

So the journey is complete and I once more arrive at where I began and know it again for the first time. Such a journey is not unlike reading the Bible from cover to cover. You see such an overarching vista of God’s work that the imponderable and un-understandable mysteries which might have caused you to question your faith fade into the very fabric of your faith. You learn that faith is not in the knowing the answer but rather in the acceptance of the question. The final hymn speaks to the mercies of the night and God’s presence throughout our days. In the end of our days and the end or our faith, this is where we arrive, utterly dependent upon the Grace and Mercy of our Father.

 

Here is a link to the entire list of recordings I have done so far with links to all of the recordings:

http://andrewremillard.com/recording-list/

One of the frequent conversations held inside the esoteric world of hymn book editing is the use of supposedly archaic words such as: Thee, Thine, Thou and Thy. This issue reflects the general flattening of our language when it comes to the distinction between levels of personal intimacy. Most recently this has shown up in children and teen’s addressing of adults; especially in addressing their teachers by some form of their first name, whether or not it is proceeded with a Ms., or Mr. This over familiarity has blurred the line which once demarcated the youth from the adult. In several European languages there still exists a clear form of addressing a close friend or family member which is distinctively different from an address towards anybody else. And culturally, it requires a direct invitation to address someone with the intimate form.

One might assume that words such as: Thee, Thine, Thou and Thy, are a hyper formal form of address which is reserved only for religious usage. Nothing could be further from the truth. As our language has changed, we have not made everybody more intimate in our address (school children being excepted). Rather, we have made our intimate relationships no different in address than what is used for a total stranger. An address of “Thou” marked the greatest intimacy. It was reserved only for a lover, spouse, family member, or very close personal friend.

A true “Thou” intimacy is very rare in our lives, we may only have a handful during our entire lifetime. I had a “Thou” with my late, best friend Ralph Bus. Ours was a relationship built upon a complete openness and honesty and uncompromising love for each other. And yet we were as different as two men could be. He loved jazz, and well, I didn’t, but we shared a love of learning and exploring, so when I started to rent pianos to area jazz musicians, Ralph came along and loved getting to go behind the scenes. He also attended every concert I gave without fail.

“Thou” is characterized by a deathbed presence. When I received the call that Ralph had been taken to the Elmhurst hospital and was probably not going to survive the day, I raced to the hospital; getting my first speeding ticket of my life! If my dear friend had been awake, he would have died from laughing at me! But, alas, thou, my friend, we will have to wait for eternity to continue our exploration of our faith and what it means.

As rare as a true “thou” may be, we all have at least one “thou” and that is our Father who knows us better than we know ourselves. The use of Thee, Thine, Thou, and Thy in our hymns is not a religious formality, but a reflection of the greatest of intimacies. An intimacy which burrows into our very being and holds our heart in the strongest and gentlest of hands. So use the “Thou” to address our most intimate of friends, it is the most appropriate way to address the one who loved us so much, the gave his only begotten Son to the cross, so that all may know the love which passes all understanding. Amen.

This is My Father’s World

By: Maltbie Davenport Babcock (1858-1901)

Usually sung to: Terra Beata by:  Franklin Shepherd (1852-1930)

Here is a YouTube recording:

http://youtu.be/ThlHAfnCUAA

1 This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas–
His hand the wonders wrought.

2 This is my Father’s world:
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.

3 This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!

 

Maltbie Davenport Babcock was born in Syracuse, NY on August 3, 1858 and died in Naples, Italy on May 18th, 1901 as he was returning from a trip to the Holy Land. He graduated from Syracuse University and Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. After briefly serving two smaller congregations in Lockport, NY, he became the pastor at the Brick Church in Lockport. He would take frequent walks in the countryside surrounding his hometown which sat upon a hill overlooking Lake Ontario. He would often explain that “I am going out to see my Father’s world” as he set off on these outings. He was very athletic, having been recognized for his accomplishments in swimming and baseball at the university. He was also a skilled amateur musician playing both the organ and piano.

This poem originally had 16 four-line stanzas. Shortly after his death, his good friend Franklin Shepherd (1852-1930) adapted an old English folk melody he learned as a child and condensed Babcock’s poem to the form we find today. The tune he wrote for it he titled: “Terra Beata” which means: terra (earth) beata (blessed… as in “beatitudes”)

Recently, I came across three different articles which look at various cosmological issues of time, space, and dimensions. One was written from the perspective that if it were not for the absolute precision of the universe; so many aspects of cosmological history and law having to be exactly as they are, the universe couldn’t exist in its current state if this were not the case. The conclusion was there must be a God for this to have happened. Another looked at the same set of issues and concluded that this was proof that there was no God. The final article looked at the 10 dimensions of reality physicist/philosophers believe can be postulated. One of the most fascinating part of this article was the discussion of the 4th and 5th dimensions.  I won’t even begin to try to explain these; I will leave that to my physicist brother. But suffice it to say what was described as being knowable from these perspectives completely explained the Biblical concepts of Jerimiah 1:5 “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Or: Romans 8:29 “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Existing outside of time (the 4th dimension) would put one in the position to see all of time in an instant and not experience it linearly as we must.

As I look out of my office window, I see snow covered ground, evergreen bushes, and bare, leafless trees. The sky is clear with only a few whiffs of clouds. This could be seen as either the end of life which winter inevitably brings to the north, or the season which is preparation for the return of life in the spring. Our understanding of time, the seasons, and God’s providence would determine how we understand the world we live within.

This is our Father’s world! All of nature loudly proclaims this to be true. From the cosmos filled with galaxies unknowable, whose light we finally see hundreds of millions and billions of years after it was made, to the strangest sub-atomic particles and dark matter we can only theorize about, we can rest assured that His hand is present.

For all we know about life, we still do not understand what it is which is life. Yet, this mystery we see all around us, the birds in the air and spider descending on a thin string, all share in this wondrous mystery. Everything which has the breath of life declares the wonder of our Father and his work. In this we should take eternal comfort. Though we cannot always understand why Evil might overcome Good for a day, God is the ruler over everything, it is our Father’s world, and in this we shall be glad.

I Sing the Mighty Pow’r of God

By: Isaac Watts 1709

Commonly sung to: “Ellacombe” and sometimes “Zerah”

Here are two YouTube recordings:

(Ellacombe) http://youtu.be/NI1aL8uAZCk

(Zerah) http://youtu.be/T59AmMKWIIo

 

  1. I sing the mighty pow’r of God, that made the mountains rise,
    That spread the flowing seas abroad, and built the lofty skies.
    I sing the wisdom that ordained the sun to rule the day;
    The moon shines full at His command, and all the stars obey.
  2. I sing the goodness of the Lord, who filled the earth with food,
    Who formed the creatures through the Word, and then pronounced them good.
    Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed, where’er I turn my eye,
    If I survey the ground I tread, or gaze upon the sky.
  3. There’s not a plant or flow’r below, but makes Thy glories known,
    And clouds arise, and tempests blow, by order from Thy throne;
    While all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care;
    And everywhere that we can be, Thou, God, art present there.

Though Isaac Watts had no children of his own, he was very concerned with the education of children. He wrote an entire book of children’s songs called: “Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language, for the Use of Children (1715)” for use in worship and education. “I Sing the Mighty Pow’r of God” is the only one left in common use.

Its original title was: “Praise for Creation and Providence”. Though traditionally titles are taken from the opening phrase of the text, the original title covers the entirety of the text very appropriately. The first two stanzas speak to the various manifestations of God’s power and goodness. It is His power which made the mountains and seas and set the sun to rule the day and the moon the night. It is His goodness which filled the earth with food and made all of the creatures. In every aspect of the creation the providence and power of God can be seen; from the flowers to the storms, everything is in His order and care.

Much has changed in the 300 years since this text was penned. In Isaac’s time, life could be easily described and short and brutish. Disease, war, famine, and death were a daily presence. The notion that we should expect anything less if God was indeed “good” was inconceivable. Life was a continuous dance with death. Yet, out of this existence, which would be seen as utter barbarous to a 21st Century American gave rise to this exquisite recognition of the undeniable evidence of God’s hand in all of life. And we, as simply borrowers of life for a short time, must continue to see God’s presence in his creation and our experience of it.

Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne

by: Emily Elizabeth Steele Elliot 1864  (July 22, 1836  – August 3, 1897)

Traditionally sung to: Margaret by Timothy Matthews 1876

YouTube recording:   http://youtu.be/2Pfhdlm9qJs

 

1) Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity:

Refrain:

Oh, come to my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for Thee;

2)  Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal degree;
But of lowly birth cam’st Thou, Lord, on earth,
And in great humility:

Refrain:

3)  The foxes found rest, and the birds had their nest
In the shade of the forest tree;
But Thy couch was the sod, O Thou Son of God,
In the deserts of Galilee:

Refrain:

4)  Thou camest, O Lord, with the living Word
That should set Thy people free;
But with mocking scorn, and with crown of thorn,
They bore Thee to Calvary:

Refrain:

5)  When heaven’s arches shall ring, and her choirsshall sing
At Thy coming to victory,
Let Thy voice call me up, saying, “Yet there is room,
There is room at My side for thee!”

Closing Refrain

And my heart shall rejoice, Lord Jesus!
When Thou comest and callest for me;
Emily Elizabeth Steele Elliot (1836-1897) was associated with the Evangelical Party of the Anglican Church (also known as the “Low Church Party”), she spent her life working with rescue missions and children in their Sunday Schools. For six years she edited a magazine called the Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor. She published at least two books of hymns, and “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” is the best known. She also wrote many books for children and early adolescents, most based upon some biblical moral theme.

She was a niece of Charlotte Elliott, author of the hymn: “Just as I Am.” Two of Emily’s uncles were Evangelical Party ministers, including Rev. Henry Venn Elliott, author of the hymn “Sun Of My Soul,” based on a poem by Rev. John Keble.

In Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne, Elliott weaves several Biblical images and scriptural references together to form a strong theological exegesis of Jesus Christ’s deity and role in our salvation. In Phillipians 2:5-8(KJV) 5Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. This claim starts with Christ being in the presence and having equality with God. Yet he chose to empty himself of all the glory which was rightful his and become the humblest servant, even to His death on the cross. This is the opposite of the typical human understanding of humility as the not striving for something greater and accepting our low or humble position. In Christ we see the true example of humility as in leaving all rightfully glory and gladly accepting the lowest position available and serving there.

This descent into humility was proclaimed throughout heaven and earth by the angels as we read throughout the Nativity stories found in the Gospels.

The greatest irony is the Creator of earth had no home in His creation! If the master of the home has no place to rest his head, then no less should be expected of his disciples.

19And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.20And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

In the fourth stanza Elliot continues this theme drawing from the beginning of John’s Gospel. The Word, the very breath of God, became flesh to live amongst us and yet, we, the world rejected Him who made all of us.

John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And 10He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

Yet in the end the heavens and all the angels will declare the victory that is Christ’s.

9Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: 10That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 11And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, (c 348 – 413)   translated by John Mason Neale

Here is a link to a recording:    http://youtu.be/DHhlpan7V-I

  1. Of the Father’s love begotten Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He, Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see Evermore and evermore.
  2. Oh, that birth forever blessed When the Virgin, full of grace, By the Holy Ghost conceiving, Bare the Savior of our race, And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face Evermore and evermore.
  3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him; Angel hosts, His praises sing; Powers, dominions, bow before Him And extol our God and King. Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert ring Evermore and evermore.
  4. This is He whom Heaven-taught singers Sang of old with one accord; Whom the Scriptures of the prophets Promised in their faithful word. Now He shines, the Long-expected; Let creation praise its Lord Evermore and evermore.
  5. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father, And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving And unending praises be, Honor, glory, and dominion, And eternal victory Evermore and evermore.

 

This is the oldest hymn found in most hymn books. Prudentius started his life as a lawyer and was quite successful, rising to the rank of judge before leaving it all behind at the age of 57 to become and aesthetic and spend his remaining days writing religious poetry.

The Church had recently received official sanction from Emperor Constantine in 313. The first couple of centuries after this occurred were marked by significant theological struggles which would lay out the shape and form of our faith two millennium later. These verses are extracted from a much larger work in which Prudentius, with the precision of a legal mind, addresses one of the early heresies which threatened the early church (and which still is present to this day.)

Arius (c250 – 336) propagated one of the most contentious ideas which Prudentius addresses within the context of this poem. Arius believed that God the Father and the Son did not co-exist throughout eternity. Arius said that Jesus, the Son, did not exist before his birth. Jesus was nothing more than another created being. Though he may be divine, he was not equal to God the Father. Arianism, as this position came to be called, was also known as nontrinitarianism and forms of it can be found in Armstrongism (though less so more recently), Mormonism, and Unitarianism.

Within the very first line Prudentius proclaims the eternal aspect of the Son’s existence from before the world’s existence. He is the beginning and the end, the source of that have been and will be. The second stanza speaks of the virgin birth and the coming salvific role the Son will play out. Every voice on Earth and Heaven will declare His praises. The promised one from ages past has come, let all of God’s creation proclaim it. The Son, the Father, and the Holy Ghost are due unending and eternal praise, honor, and glory; evermore and evermore. Amen.

It is Well with My Soul

Horatio Spafford

Music by Philip Bliss

Tune: Ville du Havre

YouTube recording:  http://youtu.be/tPR-vSCRNlE

1)When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain:) It is well (it is well), with my soul (with my soul),

It is well, it is well with my soul.

2) Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

(Refrain)

3) My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

(Refrain)

4) For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:

If Jordan above me shall roll,

No pain shall be mine,

for in death as in life Thou wilt whisper

Thy peace to my soul.

(Refrain)

5) And Lord haste the day, when the faith shall be sight,

The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;

The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,

Even so, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain)

After the great fire of 1871, in my beloved home of Chicago, which destroyed nearly everything I owned, I spent my days helping those whose loses were even greater. I worked with my dear friend D.L. Moody to do whatever we could to help our neighbors. Out of this, I began to feel His calling to know Him ever more and to pursue a different path for my life.

A couple of years after the Great Fire, my beloved wife, Anna and our four young daughters set sail to Europe for an extended vacation and to visit Mr. Moody as he preached throughout England. At the last minute I was detained on business and would have to follow them later. While in New York, booking them on their passage, I felt a need to change their cabins from mid-ship to the bow. I am not sure why I did this, I just felt it had to be done.

Oh what tragedy! My heart is broken into pieces! Why, oh God, did you take my children from me?

Just days after leaving my arms, my precious children passed into His arms as the Ville du Havre sank to the ocean’s bottom, rammed mid-ships by another vessel. Only my beloved Anna survived.

After receiving Anna’s telegram which read: “Saved alone. What shall I do?” I set out immediately to bring my beloved and heartbroken Anna home. One day, during the crossing, the captain calls me to the bridge. He shows me on his chart where we are and tells me it is here that Annie, Margret Lee, Elizabeth, and my infant Tanetta went home to be with Jesus.

Upon returning to my cabin I pour out my anguish and my continued dependence upon my Savior. Despite my utterly broken heart, I know that peace, which flows through my life, comes from the blood of Christ which was shed for me. No matter the hardships or trials which Satan may throw my way, I can rest in the comfort of my Savior.

Andrew Remillard from the perspective of Horatio Spafford

(A few years later Horatio, Anna, and their two young daughter born after the tragedy, Bertha, and Grace move to Jerusalem. They established the American Colony and dedicated the remainder of their lives to the care of the poor and needy without regard to faith or status. Horatio died of malaria in 1888 and was buried at the Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem. Anna continued their labors in Jerusalem until her death in 1923. Their daughter Bertha also lived her entire life in Jerusalem.)

Amazing Grace

by John Newton (1725–1807)

Tune: New Britain

YouTube recording: http://youtu.be/Tq1qMwpvzZM

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. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed! The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be as long as life endures. Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace. The world shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun refuse to shine; But God, who called me here below, Shall be forever mine. 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’d first begun.

 

As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ we celebrate the most powerful message of all time in the cross as it represents one thing above all else: God’s totally underserved gift of grace. From the exile from Eden, where God provided the skins Adam and Eve were to wear; through the exile in Egypt and the arrival in the Promised Land, through the Law and Temple Sacrifices, all the way to the final sacrifice upon the cross, blood was required for our redemption. The consequences of sin are real, yet, in Grace a means for our redemption has been provided. On the Day of Resurrection God says once again: “I got this.” It is not of our doing, lest anyone should boast, but totally undeserving of redemption, we are redeemed by the grace of the Almighty. And how amazing that grace is to a wretch like me!

Through great sin we learn of greater salvation. John Newton (1725–1807) knew the power of grace first hand. He spent his youth from his pre-teen years until about 30 years old on the sea, primarily in the slave trade. He made many trips between Africa and the Americas picking up and selling Africans into slavery, taking African wives (even while married back home), and living a fully self absorbed life. He was a rebellious man toward both human authority and God’s authority. At one time his rebelliousness caused his own enslavement on the island of Sierra Leone. Sailors are known throughout history for their profane language, Newton was known as the most profane of all. He often would create new profanities, never before heard, and hurl them at the captain of his ship, much to the amusement of the crew and non-amusement of his captain. One time he was nearly starved and beaten to death for his indiscretions. He was a man who lived his life in open defiance of all authority and especially God’s authority. However, his recklessness often placed him near death, as these experiences piled up he began to wonder whether he could possibly be worthy of God’s mercy.

After one particularly harrowing sea voyage Newton had a conversion experience of sorts and decided to dedicate his life to God. However, the conversion process for him was very slow and only in stages was his life reclaimed for God.

At the age of 25 he married his childhood sweetheart Mary “Polly” Catlett. By 30, he suffered some sort of collapse and never returned to the sea. He gained work at a customs house and began to give himself the education he never received as a youth; teaching himself Latin, Greek, and Theology. He and Polly were very active in the local church and it was eventually suggested to him to apply for a clerical education. He was initially rejected because of his lack of education and his association with evangelicals and Methodists. These were small sects who operated independent of the official Church of England. He was eventually accepted and after his education took a position in Olney, a small town of about 2500 most illiterate farmers.

Amazing Grace was probably written about 1772, about 8 years into his new role as priest in the Anglican Church. It was not for another 8 years, in 1780 that he began to privately express regrets about his participation in the slave trade and not until 1785 that he began to actively speak against slavery which he did ardently for the rest of his life. This change in attitude is pretty reflective of the general thinking within in English Society as well. It was not until the late 18th century before the abolitionists movement began to take hold. Yet, throughout his life you can see the fearful working out of his salvation. Each of his near death experiences and humiliations brought him closer to knowing the Grace which was already present. Even after coming to an understanding and acceptance of God’s underserved and unfailing grace, Newton still had to grow in his understanding of what this grace demanded of him.

Newton never hid from his past and would use his own experiences to explain the Gospel to his congregation. The directness of this hymn and the first person language have made it one of the greatest Christian songs of all time. The language is very simple with very few even multi-syllabic words. The tune, source is unknown, is a simple pentatonic song. It has only 5 different pitches which is also common to all nursery songs. Out of such simplicity, God’s message has been declared to millions for nearly 250 years.