RAY COLLINS: Amazing Grace

Whenever I travel to Ireland I like to visit the villages, towns and areas where my many Irish forebears lived.

One place I was keen to visit was Lough Swilly in County Donegal the location from which one branch of our family embarked upon their journey to Australia in 1841. Whilst there I was told that Lough Swilly was also the place that was part of the inspiration for the writing of the hymn Amazing Grace. 

It was into Lough Swilly that a Slave Ship captained by John Newton sought refuge after a massive storm that almost sank the vessel. Newton, who was at that stage irreligious and a rather nasty personality, felt that they may have been saved by God and it is said that he penned the first verse of Amazing Grace at that point.

It didn’t instantly deter him from continuing his involvement in slave trading but some time later he saw the error of his ways and, upon ceasing to trade, he studied theology and became a minister. He became an advisor to William Wilberforce who led the anti-slavery campaign in England. Newton became a writer of hymns of which one was Amazing Grace, many years after his experience in Lough Swilly.

It has long been a favourite hymn of mine but following my visit to Lough Swilly I cannot sing it or hear it played without picturing that image of Newton’s ship being saved in that safe harbour.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.

Amazing Grace has taken on a new dimension following the eulogy that President Barack Obama gave for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney who was the minister of the Church in Charleston, South Carolina where he and eight parishioners were shot by a young white man.

The eulogy is simply stunning. In my mind it will go down with Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as one of the most moving addresses in history.

News snippets have shown President Obama singing the first verse of Amazing Grace, joined in voice by the congregation of mainly African American people but that occurs towards the end of the eulogy.

It is the build up to that point that gives the quality to this amazing address as he weaves the words “amazing grace” through a statement of deep faith and constant references to the struggle of African American people to be treated justly in the “land of the free”.

My words cannot do justice to his heartfelt address.

I would just encourage everyone to take the forty or so minutes to sit and watch the first African American President of the United States relive for us the key points of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech. It will be an inspiring forty minutes.

Ray Collins Image
Ray Collins

Ray Collins is the Director of Schools within the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. He is an authority on education issues.

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