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.
The words are, no doubt, familiar to many of us who learned to sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” at a young age. The tune might be even more familiar – you don’t have to be religious to recognize a song that seems omnipresent in movies or on TV; at private funerals or public memorial services. We hear it played in grandeur on a stately pipe organ, or by solitary trumpet; by bagpipe, folksy guitar, or jazzy piano. Each different rendition seems to bring out another facet of the song, or elicit a different emotion.
“Amazing Grace” has become a part of our collective conscience, yet too often we fail to stop and listen to the message contained in John Newton’s hymn. And when we do listen, the lyrics often sound harsh and out-of-tune with the current culture of self-affirmation. As a general rule, we prefer not to think of ourselves as “wretches” in need of saving.
There is at least one group in our culture, however, that relates intimately to the message in “Amazing Grace” – those behind bars.
In a 1990 documentary, Bill Moyers explores the impact of “Amazing Grace” on people from all walks of life, including prisoners. The video includes an interview with singer Johnny Cash, who performed the song at his first prison concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957.
“As a song writer, objectively, [I think] ‘There is a song without guile,’” Cash tells Moyer. “Those lyrics are straight-ahead, honest, gut-level, and heart-level.”
Moyers also interviews a number of inmates in Huntsville Prison who are members of the prison choir, to ask them what “Amazing Grace” means to them.
“I was one of these church crowds who never realized the true meaning of ‘Amazing Grace,’” says one inmate. “I was hiding behind it. I was very involved in a church – I was deacon of a Baptist church, I sang in the choir, I taught Bible study.” Now serving time for the attempted contract murder of his wife, the inmate says the most meaningful words to him come from the third verse:
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come.
‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.
“Those words hold in themselves hold a story for a generation of people, if they’ll just listen,” says another.
Cash himself recounts the importance of the song in his life, remembering singing it with his mother and sisters as they worked in the cotton fields in Arkansas, following the death of his older brother. The song served to remind him, even in the midst of the “personal prisons” of his own making, that there was a freedom available only through Christ.
“When I sing that song, I could be in a dungeon, or I’d have chains all over me, but I’d be free as a breeze,” says Cash. “It’s a song that makes a difference. There are some songs that make a difference in your life, and that song makes a difference.”