"Amazing Grace" is a Christian hymn with words written by the
English poet and clergyman John Newton (1725–1807), published in 1779.
Containing a message that forgiveness and redemption are possible
regardless of sins committed and that the soul can be delivered from despair
through the mercy of God, "Amazing Grace" is one of the most
recognizable songs in the English-speaking world.
Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without
any particular religious conviction, but his life's path was formed by a
variety of twists and coincidences that were often put into motion by his
recalcitrant insubordination. He was pressed (forced into service
involuntarily) into the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service became
involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his
vessel so severely that he called out to God for mercy, a moment that
marked his spiritual conversion. However, he continued his slave trading
career until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his 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. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the
verses; it may have simply been chanted by the congregation. It debuted in
print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper's Olney Hymns, but settled into
relative obscurity in England. In the United States however, "Amazing
Grace" was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the
early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies, but
in 1835 it was joined to a tune named "New Britain" to which it is most
frequently sung today.
Author Gilbert Chase writes that "Amazing Grace" is "without a doubt the
most famous of all the folk hymns," and Jonathan Aitken, a Newton
biographer, estimates that it is performed about 10 million times annually.
 It has had particular influence in folk music, and has become an
emblematic African American spiritual. Its universal message has been a
significant factor in its crossover into secular music. "Amazing Grace" saw
a resurgence in popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and has been
recorded thousands of times during and since the 20th century, occasionally
appearing on popular music charts.