How Sweet the Sound

'Amazing Grace' will be sung Sunday to mark the 200th anniversary of the end of the U.K.'s slave trade_ and to raise awareness for those still enslaved

February 15, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

The Rev. Charlotte Clemons of Baltimore's Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Church says her favorite lyrics in the popular hymn "Amazing Grace" are "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see." She utters the line with the boldness of a self-described former transgressor who has lived every word.

The Rev. Ralph Manuel, minister of music at Heritage Baptist in Annapolis, prefers the verse that begins, "When we've been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun," and proudly obliges to sing it.

But for Bert Polman, professor and chairman of music at Grand Rapids, Mich.'s, Calvin College, it's the title of the hymn that stands out. He remembers when the song became so common in the 1960s that many who liked it didn't know what it was about. He'd chuckle at the question: "Who's this Grace and what's so amazing about her?'"

"Amazing Grace" will be on the minds of many this weekend. Several choirs in the region will join thousands worldwide in singing the hymn Sunday to mark the bicentennial of the abolition of slave trading in the United Kingdom. That act in 1807 moved John Newton, a former slave trader turned clergyman, to write the hymn.

Amazing Grace Sunday is a worldwide campaign to commemorate the event 200 years ago, considered a precursor to the end of legalized slavery in the U.K. and later in the United States. It's also meant to call attention to human trafficking that still exists in such places as Thailand, the Dominican Republic and even the United States - where uncounted numbers are trafficked here annually and forced into prostitution.

More than 3,100 churches and religious organizations in the United States and Canada plan to sing "Amazing Grace" on Sunday, including more than three dozen in Maryland. Other nations taking part include Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, Panama, Thailand and Dubai.

While more recognized in Britain, the bicentennial of the ending of the slave trade there will also come into the mainstream next week with the Feb. 23 release of the movie Amazing Grace by Bristol Bay Productions. It chronicles the efforts of British abolitionist William Wilberforce to persuade Parliament to end a practice that had helped England become a global power.

Sunday's commemoration was organized by several of Bristol Bay's corporate and nonprofit partners, including World Vision, Family Christian Stores and the National Association of Evangelicals. Some of those organizations mentioned Amazing Grace Sunday on their Web sites. Many churches said they read about it in religious-based newsletters.

In addition to houses of worship, including some synagogues, don't be surprised to hear a spontaneous rendition of "Amazing Grace" on college campuses, in coffee shops, on radio stations, at hospices and relief organizations.

"This is not a faith-exclusive project; it reaches beyond any coalition of people," said Erik Lokkesmoe, manager of the Washington-based Amazing Grace project, which is coordinating Amazing Grace Sunday. "We've received anecdotal stories of people who are saying, `I have no faith at all, but I'll be singing the song at my house on that day.'"

Few songs are as widely recognized as "Amazing Grace." It is also one of the most famous pentatonic songs - meaning it requires only five notes of the music scale.

It's now best known by a tune that came from Appalachia in the early 19th century, not the one Newton originally used. The final stanza that begins "When we've been there 10,000 years" also was not part of the original. An American composer, E.O. Excell, penned it in 1910.

The song's historic roots haven't prevented it from being adopted by popular culture, including versions by such varied artists as Judy Collins, Aaron Neville, Elvis Presley, Sinead O'Connor, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. It was featured in a Bill Moyers documentary, used in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and sung by actress Meryl Streep in the film Silkwood.

The first words of the hymn, if not the whole first stanza, are as engrained as any famous movie line or TV catchphrase: "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."

"One thing that appeals to people about it is that it's like a spiritual exhaling after you've been holding your breath," said Carl P. Daw Jr., executive director of the Boston-based Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. "It has a quality of, `Oh, that's exactly right, and it says what I needed to say.'"

Though initially penned by Newton after he came to terms with the ruthlessness of slavery and his role in the practice, the song has taken on many roles. It's become a song of mourning, of introspection, of redemption and humility.

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