Amazing grace - how sweet the sound (StF 440)

Authors & translators:
Newton, John
Composers & arrangers:
Wright, Paul Leddington
Country or culture:
Singing the Faith: 440 (CD18 #16)
STF Number:

Further information


With the subtitle “Faith’s review and expectation”, John Newton’s most famous hymn was written for the service he was taken on New Year’s Day in 1773. (Thus making 2023 the hymn’s 250th anniversary.) In his diary, Newton wrote that “I preached this forenoon from 1 Chronicles 17: 16,17”. In these verses, King David prays to God, asking: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” He expresses his amazement that Yahweh regards him “as someone of high rank”.

In his hymn, Newton set out to adapt David’s words and experience “to our own use as a proper subject for our meditations on the entrance of the new year . . . They lead us to a consideration of past mercies and future hopes and intimate the frame of mind which becomes us when we contemplate what the Lord has done for us.”

The striking phrase “how sweet the sound” is an aside, a comment, on the opening words, “Amazing grace”: an expression of joy that Newton simply can’t contain within himself. Without that interjection, the uninterrupted opening sentence is blunt and to the point: “Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me!” This is a hymn to the nature and power of God’s grace – what it has done in Newton’s own life (vv.2&3) and what comes by way of promise as a result of that grace (vv.4&5). In response, the complete joy of that first exclamation “how sweet the sound” translates into the eternal, thankful singing of God’s praise (v.5).

A detailed account of the hymn, including Newton’s original sermon notes, and details of the Biblical verses to which the hymn alludes can be found at This resource also includes a performance by The English Chamber Choir of Amazing Grace in which each verse is sung to one of the six earliest tunes to which the hymn is known to have been set.

Amazing grace was first published in Olney Hymns (Book 1), which Newton produced with his friend, the poet William Cowper. Their hymns were written for use in the rural parish of St Peter and St Paul in Olney, where Newton was the curate. (He is pictured in a stained glass window in the church – above.)

John Newton


Described by Sir James Stephen as “one of the second founders of the Church of England” and by John Wesley as a man of “unblameable character”, Newton was acutely conscious of the route his life had taken. As a sailor famously engaged in the trafficking of slaves, he described himself as “the very chief of sinners”. Like John Wesley, Newton would later publish his thoughts on the transatlantic slave trade, in support of William Wilberforce and the anti-slavery campaign.

In June 1758, he wrote:

“And yet in one sense I have a fitness to spread the glad tidings of salvation which few can pretend to. If ever thou permittest me to declare that faithful saying, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; surely the words, of whom I am chief, would be peculiarly expressive and convincing in my mouth. I could stand forth and propose myself instead of a thousand arguments in proof of the doctrine, and might well hope to be of singular use as a pattern of thy longsuffering to all that should repent and believe.”

Newton was a prolific writer. Ordained in 1764, and appointed to Olney, in 1769 he began a Thursday evening prayer service in Olney. For almost every week's service, he wrote a hymn to be sung to a familiar tune. He invited Cowper to join in the project and Newton later combined 280 of his own hymns with 68 of Cowper's into the popular evangelical Olney Hymns collection. A number of these hymns are included in Singing the Faith:

John Newton

Amazing grace – how sweet the sound (StF 440)
Day of judgment! Day of wonder! (StF 732) adapted by Norman Wallwork
Glorious things of thee are spoken (StF 748)
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (StF 322) 

William Cowper (see Pain and passion - the hymns of William Cowper)

God moves in a mysterious way (StF 104)
Hark, my soul! It is the Lord (StF 426)
Heal us, Immanuel! Hear our prayer (StF 650) 

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