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Amazing Grace and
the Trail of Tears

By Eric Shackle

Amazing Grace, "almost certainly the most spiritually moving melody ever created," was written by John Newton, an Englishman who had been in turn a slave and a slave-trader. Seventy years later, across the Atlantic, thousands of displaced Cherokees sang the hymn as they were herded along the tragic Trail of Tears.

After a checkered and violent career as a  boy and young man, Newton "saw the light," and ended his days as a respected clergyman in the English village of Olney, whose other claim to fame is its annual Pancake Day race (described here last month).

"Amazing Grace might very well be the most easily recognizable hymn ever written," says the Newton Library website. "It's been recorded by popular singers, performed on TV, used in commercials and it was even played in it's entirety during the broadcast of the women's gymnastic competition of the 1996 Olympics. Many people who never stepped foot in a church could recite the first few lines and maybe even the whole first verse..."

In her book, Amazing Grace, The Story of the Hymn, Linda Granfield wrote "Newton was a man of paradoxes: for many years he earned his living from the slave trade, and yet he was for a short while a slave himself, planting lime trees in Sierra Leone. A horrific storm at sea in 1748 led Newton to his new life as a minister and anti-slavery activist. He recollected both his deliverance from the storm, and his life without God, in his most famous creation."

Al Rogers, a librarian with the General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin. wrote a detailed biography of Newton in the July-August 1996 issue of Away Here in Texas. Here's an extract, copied with his permission:

"Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. When John was eleven, he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. In 1744 John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.

"Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John's father. John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, one which plied the slave trade.

"Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions. However, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through a violent storm, he experienced what he was to refer to later as his 'great deliverance.'

"He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, 'Lord, have mercy upon us.' Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him..."

[Safely back in England, Newton married, and taught himself Latin, Greek and Hebrew.]

"He decided to become a minister and ...was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton's church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. He preached not only in Olney but in other parts of the country.

"In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends. Cowper helped Newton with his religious services...Among Newton's contributions which are still loved and sung today are How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds and Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, as well as Amazing Grace.

"Composed probably between 1760 and 1770 in Olney, Amazing Grace was possibly one of the hymns written for a weekly service. Through the years other writers have composed additional verses to the hymn... "

Rogers says these are the six stanzas that appeared, with minor spelling variations, in both the first edition in 1779 and the 1808 edition:

Original 1779 English version

Translation of Cherokee version

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
God's son
paid for us
then to heaven He went
after paying for us.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!
But He said,
When He rose,
"I'll come again"
He said when He spoke.
Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
All the earth will end
when He comes.
All will see him
All over the earth.
The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
All the good people living
He will come after.
Heaven always,
in peace they will live.
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.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Rogers says the origin of the melody is unknown. Most hymnals attribute it to an early American folk melody. A Bill Moyers  TV special on Amazing Grace speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.

Seventy years after Newton composed the  hymn, thousands of displaced Cherokees sang the words, probably to a tune they had previously known, on the dreadful Trail of Tears.

"Amazing Grace is almost certainly the most spiritually moving melody ever created," says the Stellar Flutes website. "There was a PBS television special with Bill Moyers a couple of years ago devoted to making this point. A song of both sadness and joy, it was sung repeatedly on the Trail of Tears, and through the years these moving sounds have risen from many a Native American flute."

In 1830 the U.S. Congress  passed the Indian Removal Act, despite bitter opposition from many Americans including Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett who declared "I would sooner be honestly damned than hypocritically immortalized."

Cherokee men, women, and children were herded into makeshift forts with minimal facilities and food, then forced to travel 1000 miles west, often on foot. A detailed report of what is termed "one of the saddest episodes of our brief history," is shown  at a North Georgia website. A fine painting of the Trail and many more details are posted at a Missouri website which says:

"One can only imagine the suffering that was taking place...  Disrespectfully uprooted, homeless, they were embarking on a long journey in worn-out moccasins in the unforgiving dead of winter.  Enduring river crossings, ice floes and relentless winds, they had only a blanket for warmth - if they were lucky. You imagine huddling around a fire, comforting your mother while she gets weaker and weaker ... wondering, as she, when the suffering would end, and whether she would even live to see it."

Frankie Sue Gilliam, editor of Twin Territories "Oklahoma's Only Historical Newspaper," takes pride in being an "Okie from Muskogee" and a Cherokee. She traces her ancestry back to Little Terrapin, one of 300 Cherokees who, having mostly supported England in the Revolutionary War, moved westward from Arkansas in 1817.

She told us by email "Amazing Grace is a very important song to the Cherokees, and is often referred to as our national anthem."

Copyright 2002   Eric Shackle    Story first posted March 2002

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