Engraving of an older heavyset man, wearing robes, vestments, and wig
Anglican cleric John Newton in his later years
William Walker first joined John Newton's verses to the "New Britain" melody to create the hymn known as "Amazing Grace"
Author Gilbert Chase writes that "Amazing Grace" is "without a doubt the most famous of all the folk hymns." Jonathan Aitken, a Newton biographer, estimates that it is performed about 10 million times annually. "Amazing Grace" stands as an emblematic African American spiritual and exemplar of Appalachian shape note hymnody. In the nineteenth century the hymn was sung by First Americans enduring the ordeal of the Trail of Tears, by abolitionists, by soldiers in the U.S. Civil War, and by homesteaders settling the Prairies. By the twentieth century the hymn had achieved international popularity. In mid-century it enjoyed renewed popularity among activists in America's civil rights movement.
"Amazing Grace" is John Newton's spiritual autobiography in verse. He grew up with no particular religious alignment. He was pressed (involuntarily forced) into the Royal Navy and became involved in the Atlantic slave trade after his discharge. In 1748 a storm battered his vessel so severely that he prayed to God for mercy. He continued in the slave trade after this moment of conversion. In 1754 or 1755 he left seafaring altogether and began studying Christian theology. Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began to write hymns with poet William Cowper. "Amazing Grace" was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year's Day of 1773.