“Amazing Grace” is arguably the best-known and most-sung hymn in America—maybe the world. It has deep meaning for millions, across all races and backgrounds, and has long united and comforted our nation in times of sorrow. On any given Sunday, there are thousands of congregations singing it, even 236 years after it was published. But lately, it’s made something of a comeback—if that’s even possible for such an immortal song.
The strains of “Amazing Grace” took on a voice few Americans were expecting late last month when President Obama visited Charleston, South Carolina, to honor the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting. After delivering a moving eulogy, Obama did something few presidents have ever done: He broke into that timeless first verse, sung with the traditional, lilting style of black gospel choirs. As he sang, a tearful crowd of clergy, parishioners, and members of the community sang along with him.
Now, I’ve certainly had my disagreements with this president, but what he did in Charleston was profoundly appropriate and moving. In fact, I did it with him at the end of the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast. And I’ve got to tell you, it is hard not to tear up watching it—especially in light of the supernatural forgiveness members of Emanuel AME Church showed Dylann Roof, the shooter who killed their friends and family just a few weeks ago.
Whether that young man received it or not, he was offered amazing grace. And I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to the lives lost or to the God who saves wretches, than that hymn.
But Obama’s wasn’t the only performance of “Amazing Grace” this summer. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice displayed some of her own talent last week, playing the hymn on the piano alongside violinist Jenny Oaks. The beautiful video, which I hope you’ll watch, was released over the 4th of July, and features black-and-white footage of American service members during World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. “Condi” and Oaks played marvelously, but I have to say, it was once again “Amazing Grace” itself that stole the show.
And it isn’t just political figures revisiting this timeless hymn. As I wrote back in October, the story of its author is now a musical, and it’s easily one of the best productions of my lifetime. Through outstanding performances, it tells the story behind the immortal words—the life, the sins, and the conversion of a wretch named John Newton, the 18th-century British slave captain whom God transformed into a minister and abolitionist.
And as someone who wrote a biography of Newton’s spiritual son, William Wilberforce, I found myself moved beyond words at this depiction of Christ’s power to turn even the darkest life around—and use it to change the world. It’s nothing less than a presentation of the Gospel in action—and on Broadway, no less!
Now what strikes me about this sudden and unexpected revival of “Amazing Grace” and the story behind it is just how appropriate it is in America today. Look, I understand we Christians try to be positive, but there’s a lot of discouraging stuff going on in America right now. If ever a nation was lost and in need of finding, or blind and in need of sight, it’s ours in 2015.
The reason I’m overjoyed to see “Amazing Grace” getting so much attention and uniting so many in moments of sorrow—the reason I’m thrilled that the story behind the hymn is on stage in America’s biggest theaters—is that we need God’s grace just as much as John Newton did. And as Newton himself would no doubt remind us, it’s the story of the One Who offers us that grace that deserves to be sung again and again.
— by Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
This stunning rendition of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” comes from Il Divo.