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Something to contemplate while you visit St Columb’s Cathedral.

There are few, if any, better know hymns (and yes, it started out as, and still is, a hymn) in the world then Amazing Grace.

Ireland is famous for the quality of its poets and writers and many readers will be familiar with Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and William Butler Yates to name but a few.

Perhaps it is something in the Irish air that moves people to poetry, song and other forms of artistic expression.

Amazing Grace was neither written by an Irishman nor was it written in Ireland but there is certainly a very strong argument to mount that the writer was inspired to write the hymn while on a very unexpected visit to Ireland and numerous visits to St Columb’s Cathedral during that visit.

John Newton who was born in Wapping, London in 1725 was by his own admission a wretch, a cad, a scoundrel and certainly not one that one would ever have expected he would become an influential preacher and prolific hymn writer who would pen what is probably the world’s most famous hymn.

Newton made his name as a North Atlantic slave trader and a foul mouthed one at that. On one particular voyage across the Atlantic in 1748 Newton narrowly escaped death by reaching the Co Donegal (Ireland) shore just in time before a most horrific storm started. He had also pretty much run out of food. This close encounter with death marked the beginning of his spiritual journey – “the hour I first believed”– and was to prove the turning point in his life.

His ship needed extensive repairs and while these were being carried out Newton journeyed to Derry. While there he went out on a shooting expedition with the Lord Mayor and thereon narrowly escaped death for a second time when he accidentally discharged his firearm shooting a hole in his hat which was on his head at the time.

This second near-death experience convinced Newton that God was watching over him and lead him to spend most of his remaining time in Derry praying in St Columb’s Cathedral where-in he took communion and pledged himself “to be the Lord’s for ever and only His”.

While he returned to the slave trade for a number of years he eventually gave up ‘this unhappy and disgraceful trade”. Folklore, at least, would have us believe that his giving up of the slave trade was as a result of an epiphany in St Columb’s. He later became a mentor to William Wilberforce in the latter’s long battle to get anti-slavery legislation through the British Parliament.

Newton became a clergyman in 1764 and used his own hymns over the next forty years to illustrate his sermons.

Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” to illustrate his New Year’s Day sermon in 1773. The words of the hymn refers back to his dramatic rescue from death (not once but twice) and his conversion in Derry – “the hour I first believed”.

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.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.


This entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on many trips to Londonderry/Derry. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Bishop’s Gate – No Surrender to James II – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – The City on the Foyle.


2 thoughts on “Amazing Grace – Newton and the Derry Link

  1. Very interesting. And also explains the next line – “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come” – I reckon nearly shooting yourself in the head is definitely a snare!

    Liked by 1 person

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