While attending a breakout session during the Oasis music and worship conference sponsored by the Campbell University Divinity School on Wednesday, I learned that my all-time favorite hymn was not originally titled “Amazing Grace.”
The hymn was written by John Newton, a former sea captain, active in the slave trade, who once bargained with God during a frightening storm at sea, leading to his conversion. Newton eventually left the sea, and in 1764 became an Anglican priest in the small English town of Olney. The area was rife with Protestant dissenters, who clearly influenced Newton’s uncharacteristic evangelical bent.
While in Olney, Newton and his friend William Cowper wrote hymns as a means of teaching theology to his rural congregation. In 1799 they published a number of these in three volumes, including the one that came to be known as “Amazing Grace.” Although Newton had left Olney for a London parish in 1780, they entitled the hymnbook the Olney Hymns. The hymns were published as poetry only, without musical notation. The Olney Hymns proved so popular that in the next 37 years, at least 37 known editions were printed, in both Britain and America.
In volume one of their hymnal, Newton and Cowper arranged hymns by the biblical text with which they were associated, and “Faith’s Review and Expectation” was based on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, which records David’s astonishment following God’s surprising promise to build the king an everlasting dynasty:
Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and said, “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God; you have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank, O LORD God!
Newton originally published six verses of the hymn, the first three of which survive in most modern hymnals as verses 1-3. The fourth verse endures in some hymnbooks:
(4) The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.
The verse we commonly sing last, the triumphant “When we’ve been there 10,000 years …” was added later by an unknown author, like at least seven other verses that have been sung at various times. The hymn has also been sung to more than 20 different tunes. The one most of us are familiar with, “New Britain,” was first used in 1835 (if I can trust Wikipedia on this), and it stuck.
The final two verses in Newton’s original hymn — like the “10,000 years” verse that replaced them in most modern hymnals, also celebrated the hope of eternal life:
(5) Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess within the veil, a life of joy and peace.
(6) The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine;
But God who called me here below, shall be forever mine. (spelling updated)
The hymn was based on God’s promise of an eternal dynasty for David’s house, but we know that David’s kingdom didn’t last. Christian interpreters have long seen Jesus — a descendant of David — as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s “forever promise.” Thus, we tend to sing the hymn as a celebration of forgiveness and salvation due to God’s amazing grace expressed through Jesus, often called the “son of David.”
For believers, that’s faith’s review, and expectation.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.