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
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
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
"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
"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.
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.
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
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
"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