The gospel hymn “Amazing Grace” is one of the most beloved songs of all time. It has also long been rumored to be associated with slavery in America, although many of the myths associated with the song have been debunked by historians and music professors.
John Newton, a former English slave trader and clergyman, wrote “Amazing Grace,” which was published in 1779 for the book, “Olney Hymns.” The song carries a melody today that was allegedly established by a slave, although that theory has been largely disproven.
The truth is that Newton wrote the song decades after his slave-owning days and after becoming a minister. The song was one of several of its kind popular in Britain’s evangelical community but may have had some personal meaning for Newton as well. In his youth, he was known to be a profane and rebellious man who struggled to be a more upright individual for many years before his religious conversion.
Another persistent rumor about the song’s origin is that Newton, a seafarer, was sailing through a violent storm and survived the ordeal. As the tale goes, the storm was so powerful that it inspired Newton to write the song to repent for his evil ways. That’s only partially true – he was inspired by surviving a horrific storm, but wrote the song some time after.
There is also another rumor that songs like “Amazing Grace” could only be played on the Black keys of the piano, also known as the so-called “Slave Scale.” This too was proven to be nothing more than a myth.
The way “Amazing Grace” is performed today is with a melody established some time in the 1835, taken from a song called “New Britain.” In the years since, it has become a popular gospel hymn in Black churches perhaps due in part to Mahalia Jackson’s 1947 recording and also due to its lyrical content, which reflects the struggles of the African-American experience in America.