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Hymn Ignored for 120 Years Becomes ‘Spiritual National Anthem’

In 1779, a British pastor published a hymnbook titled Onley Hymns. It became an immediate bestseller. The public largely ignored Hymn #41 in the collection, titled “Faith’s Review and Expectations.” The author of the hymn made no further mentions of it in his diaries during the remaining 30 years of his life. For the next 120 years it never caught on with churchgoers, or with anyone else. Hymn #41 only made one appearance in all the other hymnbooks published in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a hymn without honor in its own country.

But when Hymn #41, originally written by the pastor and former slave trader John Newton, jumped over the shores to America, it quickly rose in popularity. After someone renamed it, a singing instructor from South Carolina set the lyrics to a new tune. During the 1850s, the hymn added some lyrics from African American worship. On December 10, 1947, the famous singer Mahalia Jackson recorded a version of the hymn.

Eventually, this obscure hymn, which is known today as “Amazing Grace,” has become what one person has called “the spiritual national anthem of America.” It’s original author, the pastor and theologian John Newton, would have been astonished by the universality today of the hymn he wrote 250 years ago for his local church worshippers. What he composed to illustrate a village sermon has developed into a global anthem.

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