For some singers, there's no saving `wretch'

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

One of the more popular lines in the hymn "Amazing Grace" is "that saved a wretch like me." It alluded to author and former slave trader John Newton's deep introspection after turning away from the heinous practice.

Yet in some modern renditions, it appears that calling oneself a wretch is a bit much for some people.

Some churches use hymnals that have rewritten the line as, "that saved and set me free," perhaps believing that softer language would be more palatable.

The amended version has prompted dismay among some.

"It very much changes the shape of the song because from Newton's point of view, it was a thing so remarkable to come so far down on the spiritual food chain," said Carl P. Daw Jr., executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. "I confess that I have heard it sung [the altered] way largely from people who don't want to acknowledge that they're wretches or that they ever were wretches."

The Rev. Henry Green of Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, who will join other local parishes in participating in Amazing Grace Sunday, said his members prefer the original wording.

"I think the word `wretch' is appropriate to the hymn itself. In its historic setting, in the writer's intent, coming from the depths of disparity and how he envisions himself, helps us to understand" the emotion of redemption, Green said.

Some congregations sing both versions.

"There has been a tussle about it," acknowledged the Rev. David Slater of First Parish Church of Dover, N.H., who mentioned the rewording in a sermon in August.

"We used to sing, `Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,'" Slater wrote on his church's Web site. "But too many people objected to calling themselves wretches. It does sound negative, doesn't it?"

So his congregation uses a version that goes "that saved and set me free" from the hymnal Hymns of Truth and Light. The First Congregational Church in Houston created the hymnal in 1998, compiling hundreds of selections and amending a few.

Margaret Tucker, the hymnal's co-editor, said "saved a wretch like me" in "Amazing Grace" was amended because the words detail an experience specific to Newton. Altering it to "saved and set me free" gives it a general meaning that could apply to anyone, she said.

"I know that sometimes we all feel like a wretch about some things," she said, "but in general, it's not a term that most of us would apply to ourselves."

Upon hearing about Amazing Grace Sunday, Slater said his church would also participate, with some members singing the amended version and others perhaps more unabashed about their human frailty.

"They say, `Thank you, very much, I don't mind calling myself a wretch every once in a while,'" he said.

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