Amazing Grace lyrics

Philosophy cosmetics "Amazing Grace" fragrance.

I wish I could claim the cleverness to link the above image with this post, but I have to credit the idea to music historian Steve Turner and his book Amazing grace: the story of America’s most beloved song (Harper Collins 2002).

Because I’m a dramaturg, I’m rarely content to settle for an easy answer to, “Can you find the lyrics to “Amazing Grace”?” I’m compelled to go deeper, to make sure that the verses we select have resonance and meaning even if those details remain hidden from the audience at large.

Fortunately, I’ve got acres of content at my fingertips, not the least of which is Turner’s book about the hymn and this Library of Congress “illustrated timeline” with “musical examples”. I’m not sure how you want to “run” the chorus of singers, Cameron, but the LofC link gives a host of renditions of the tune. Just be sure to start from about 1950 onward in the timeline because prior to that date the stanza of “Amazing Grace” were set in shape-note music and most of them make use of a call-and-response rhythms that do not adhere the the beat and melody most contemporary audiences expect. The race and class dimensions of the standardization of “Amazing Grace” are given their due in Turner’s text. Since I’ve only given Turner’s book the most cursory of reads for the purposes of this post I will not attempt to summarize the extensive history he has compiled. I will, however, talk a bit about a discovery I made from his book about the verse that I believe Jacob mentioned wanting to make sure we included:

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 first begun

This has become the expected fourth stanza of the song, however, it was not in the original six verses written by John Newton, the eighteenth-century English sea captain and slave trader turned evangelical Christian preacher and composer of the Olney Hymnal (published 1779), which included  Hymn #41: Amazing Grace.  The above stanza was actually written into “Amazing Grace” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (herself a sister of a hymn writer) in her germinal American novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

“The Lord forbid!” said Tom, fervently.”You see the Lord an’t going to help you; if he had been, he wouldn’t have let me get you! This yer religion is all a mess of lying trumpery, Tom. I know all about it. Ye’d better hold to me; I’m somebody, and can do something!”

“No, Mas’r,” said Tom; “I’ll hold on. The Lord may help me, or not help; but I’ll hold to him, and believe him to the last!”

“The more fool you!” said Legree, spitting scornfully at him, and spurning him with his foot. “Never mind; I’ll chase you down, yet, and bring you under, — you’ll see!” and Legree turned away.

When a heavy weight presses the soul to the lowest level at which endurance is possible, there is an instant and desperate effort of every physical and moral nerve to throw off the weight; and hence the heaviest anguish often precedes a return tide of joy and courage. So was it now with Tom. The atheistic taunts of his cruel master sunk his before dejected soul to the lowest ebb; and, though the hand of faith still held to the eternal rock, it was a numb, despairing grasp. Tom sat, like one stunned, at the fire. Suddenly everything around him seemed to fade, and a vision rose before him of one crowned with thorns, buffeted and bleeding. Tom gazed, in awe and wonder, at the majestic patience of the face; the deep, pathetic eyes thrilled him to his inmost heart; his soul woke, as, with floods of emotion, he stretched out his hands and fell upon his knees, — when, gradually, the vision changed: the sharp thorns became rays of glory; and, in splendor inconceivable, he saw that same face bending compassionately towards him, and a voice said, “He that overcometh shall sit down with me on my throne, even as I also overcome, and am set down with my Father on his throne.”

How long Tom lay there, he knew not. When he came to himself, the fire was gone out, his clothes were wet with the chill and drenching dews; but the dread soul-crisis was past, and, in the joy that filled him, he no longer felt hunger, cold, degradation, disappointment, wretchedness. From his deepest soul, he that hour loosed and parted from every hope in life that now is, and offered his own will an unquestioning sacrifice to the Infinite. Tom looked up to the silent, ever-living stars, — types of the angelic hosts who ever look down on man; and the solitude of the night rung with the triumphant words of a hymn, which he had sung often in happier days, but never with such feeling as now:

“The earth shall be dissolved like snow,
The sun shall cease to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Shall be forever mine.

“And when this mortal life shall fail,
And flesh and sense shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining like the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.”
(554-556 e-version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, University of VA Library)

FYI, various stage dramatizations of this novel played to packed houses all over the US starting in 1852, fading into obscurity only after the late 1930s.

For her part Stowe borrowed these lines from another hymn, “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” (1790), which boasted 50+ stanzas over its two-hundred year history (that’s 200 years prior to 1790!).

If you listen to some of the musical selections from the LofC illustrated timeline, you’ll notice that post-1950 recordings include and/or end with the Stowe-inserted stanza. That indicates to me that we are truer to the experience of the song for most of our audience if we include it as well.  From the rough timing at last Thursday’s rehearsal it seems as if four stanzas will cover the time we need and still allow us to have the song end definitively as the angels leave the stage. You all will probably need to practice to discover a consistent timing. Here are our four stanzas in order. On the off chance we find we need to include a fifth, let me know and I’ll add one more at the end.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved 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 fear relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

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

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 first begun.

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