The Originals: Amazing Grace

The Originals: Amazing Grace

“Amazing Grace” existed in print form for several decades before the invention of recording devices. The song has been recorded thousands of times, and sung countless more. In fact, one biographer has estimated the song is performed 10 million times annually.

So, who recorded “Amazing Grace” first? We’ll get to that, but first, some background.

The original lyrics for “Amazing Grace” were composed by converted slave trader John Newton in Buckinghamshire, England in 1772 and subsequently published in 1779 as part of a songbook titled Olney Hymns. It is thought the lyrics were first presented at a public church meeting on January 1, 1773. At that point, no particular melody was associated with the “Amazing Grace” text. The lyric was essentially a poem written in “common meter” (8 syllables followed by 6 syllables twice, or 8.6.8.6). The words could be paired with any suitable melody that followed the same pattern. This was a standard practice at the time. Tunes were assigned names separate from lyrics.

Several decades later in the following century, in 1835 to be more precise, Newton’s lyrics were paired with an American melody called “New Britain.” Twelve years later in 1847, the “Amazing Grace” lyric and the “New Britain” melody appeared for the first time together in print in an American hymnbook titled Southern Harmony, published by William Walker.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. The earliest known recording of “Amazing Grace” was made in July 1922. (Given the popularity of the hymn, it’s definitely possible that an earlier recording was made, but it’s the earliest example we can find.)

The performers on the 1922 recording are credited as The Original Sacred Harp Choir. Research indicates the choir probably consisted of a choir of Sacred Harp singers from Georgia and Texas who traveled to New York to record several hymns. A total of eleven songs were recorded during the sessions. Eight of those were released on four Brunswick label singles (#s 5146, 5147, 5150, 5151).

Click HERE to hear the earliest known recording of “Amazing Grace/New Britain.” This recording has been preserved in the Library of Congress and since it was released in 1922, it’s in the public domain.

John Newton wrote a total of six verses, but only four of those are presented by The Original Sacred Harp Choir. John P. Rees is often credited as the author of an additional verse that begins “When we’ve been there…”, but there is some debate as to whether Rees was the true author. The verse became associated with “Amazing Grace” after Harriett Beecher Stowe included two of Newton’s verses followed by the “When we’ve been there” verse in her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“When we’ve been there…” is positioned as the final stanza in most modern hymnbooks, while two or three of Newton’s original verses are typically excluded. Here are Newton’s six original verses followed by the familiar final verse.

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.

‘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!

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

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.

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.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

Here’s a list of artists who have recorded “Amazing Grace” over the years from our sister site, SGHistory.com.

Category Audio, History

David Bruce Murray

David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both SGHistory.com and MusicScribe.com. David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.

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3 Comments

  1. Kyle Boreing
    Reply February 01, 15:32 #1 Kyle Boreing

    That’s the first time I can recall hearing the chord pattern go to the 5 chord on “sound.” I’ve always heard it move back to 1 at that point.

    What’s interesting to note is that “Amazing Grace” also fits well to other melodies. Have you heard it done to “House Of Rising Sun”?




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