The Story of Amazing Grace

One of the most fascinating parts of the history of  the song “Amazing Grace”, is the formation of the last verse. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the classic novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” only a few years after the tragic death of her son Charley. Her baby died of cholera, and she grieved miserably. Now she understood what it was like when slave women had their newborn children ripped from their arms and taken away from them forever. She had an emotional link to the American slave.

The book was published in 1852. More than any mere speech or tract, it would be this sensational book that would personalize the issue of slavery for many Americans. Readers identified with the slave Uncle Tom and his cruel master Simon Legree as if they were real people. And just like the antislave movement had grown in power from its origins in England, led by John Newton and his protege William Wilberforce, in America Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel spread the same fire. Within a few years, the American Civil War would be fought over the issue. Abraham Lincoln would later meet the author and joke, “So you’re the little woman who wrote a book that started this great war.”

In the story, the main character Uncle Tom, has a vision one night where he sees Jesus and looks into the eyes of grace and mercy. As the vision fades and Tom is suddenly awake he remembers the “triumphant words of a hymn” from happier days and begins to sing the first two verses of John Newton’s famous hymn, but he continues with a third verse, one that Newton never penned.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, Then when we first begun

Tom is a changed man now. He gives up any idea of physical freedom and embraces the eternal freedom that is his legacy as a follower of Christ. He devotes himself wholeheartedly to sharing this hope in Christ with his fellow slaves. The outcome is not hard to foresee. Simon Legree, Uncle Tom's vicious owner, has Tom whipped to death. Yet, his legacy lived on.

This is the first use of the final verse of “Amazing Grace” that can be found. Most scholars believe that it was Uncles Tom’s Cabin, therefore, that finished the work that John Newton had done. It was the book that inspired America to take a stand against slavery, just as Newton, through Wilberforce, had done in England. This is the path of grace. It begins at the foot of the cross and leads to your present day freedom.

Newton’s hymn, of course, has easily outlived him. People wonder at the power of “Amazing Grace.”  What is so amazing about it? The hymn is an anthem that crosses cultures and races, it’s heard at Olympic ceremonies and presidential inaugurations. It’s considered essential in a time of disaster; a crisis such as the one of September 11, 2001. Shoppers at Amazon.com may choose from among 3,832 separate recordings of the hymn. It comes in every style, crosses every line, and reaches any and every ear. And when it is announced in a church service, people stand a little taller to sing it. They lift their voices a bit higher. Some of them feel that, just for a moment, they are catching a glimpse through the gates of heaven.

We can only imagine what John Newton would make of all of this. He would point out that his verses do no more, and no less, than tell the old, old story - the one that never grows old. They speak of the incredible joy of salvation from the clutches of sin, of the amazingness of grace.

Perhaps it is not the song after all; perhaps it has never been the song but the idea - and the fact that this hymn is simply the one that best captures the lightning. The lightning is grace.

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written: “There is no more wonderful word than ‘grace.’ It means unmerited favor or kindness shown to one who is utterly undeserving...It is not merely a free gift, but a free gift to those who deserve the exact opposite, and it is given to us while we are ‘without hope and without God in the world.’”

What the world hates is religion. What they crave is grace. Jesus dealt harshly with the religious and offered grace to the outcasts. If we desire to reach the unchurched we must learn to offer them grace, not religion.

"Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?" Romans 2:4

Questions: How does this song effect you? How do you see grace? Do our churches reflect the "lightning" that the song so powerfully captures?