Revising Amazing Grace to solve the Wretch Problem

I love to hear “Amazing Grace,” the tune, and the testimonial for transformative change, something a former therapist like me is on board with. I like grace as a concept, and appreciate the long view, imagining that “ten thousand years” hence, the concept would still be powerful.

I’m good right up until the line about “…a wretch like me,” which brings me up short. A writing teacher would say it pulls me out of the story. I do believe in starting wherever you are to seek change, but I don’t believe that you have to be in the wretch zone to hear about ways to make it happen. If this sounds insufficiently humble, it’s the best I can do.

People like me who don’t self-identify as “wretches,” have suggested alternate lyrics. These revisionists prefer to replace “a wretch like me,” with “saved and set me free” or “saved a soul like me,” or “saved and strengthened me.” A couple of these options lack the cadence of the original, but they solve the “wretch” problem.

Such revisions set off a little firestorm online from friends of the original lyrics, who maintain that you can’t just go around changing words that were written in 1748. I disagree.

A little research reveals that the author John Newton may well have merited the designation “wretch,” as he was a slave trader who repudiated his childhood faith and led a debauched personal life. He is said to have experienced a spiritual conversion during a 1748 storm that threatened his life and his slave ship. Soon after, he wrote the first stanza, the part with “wretch” in it.

Like many writers, he put his unfinished masterpiece in a drawer, and revealed himself to be a bit of a slow mover, who continued his slave trading until six years later. It is said that the love of a good woman named Mary may have helped, as they married and he took up religious study. He became an influential and successful minister, packing them in at services. From this platform of success, he eventually wrote a treatise attacking the slave trade.

Along with his first posting as a minister, he acquired a some-time writing partner, a local resident named William Cowper, whose appearance at a time when the congregation was promised a new hymn every week may have helped Newton to finish the work, another relatable experience for stalled writers. Later, the words were matched with the tune we know.

When I hear the song, I just auto-correct the “wretch” line in my own personal head. No one else can hear it, but it allows me to sit still and absorb the message. Newton wrote in his own voice, from his own experience. I need to stretch and rework his words to reach me, here and now. Maybe he wouldn’t mind.

Want to see the lyrics for yourself? Click here.


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