The Creation of “Amazing Grace”—The Sermon and the Hymn

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John Newton penned the words of “Amazing Grace” to accompany his sermon on New Year’s Day, 1773. The sermon was based on 1 Chronicles 17, especially verses 16 and 17. In this chapter, God sends the prophet Nathan to King David to tell him that because David wished to build God a house, God will in turn build his household into an everlasting dynasty. David responds with a grateful prayer that exalts the God of Israel. According to his sermon notes, Newton encouraged his congregants to read this text with a “thankful heart” and to use it to reflect on the “past mercies and future hopes” provided by the Lord.

The lyrics to “Amazing Grace” flow from the language of God’s promises and David’s contemplation of the grace and favor being shown to him as stated in 1 Chronicles 17:16–17. Each line of the hymn corresponds to a point in Newton’s sermon based upon this chapter. Below, each stanza of the song is given together with points from John Newton’s sermon notes and the biblical verse or verses that stand behind them. While we cannot be absolutely certain about all of these correspondences, research by Marylynn Rouse, director of The John Newton Project, has made very strong arguments in favor of them.

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 into the distant future. You regard me as someone of high rank, O Lord God!'
1 Chronicles 17:16–17, NRSVUE

This essay has been adapted from Marylynn Rouse’s essay, “Amazing Grace in the Life of John Newton,” published in the exhibition catalog, Amazing Grace: How Sweet the Sound, edited by Amy Van Dyke, 2018, 43–51.