History of Hymns: 'Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone'
“Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone”
by John Newton and Chris Tomlin
Worship & Song, 3104
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
My chains are gone! I’ve been set free . . .
(For complete lyrics, see https://genius.com/Chris-tomlin-amazing-grace-my-chains-are-gone-lyrics)
In a Facebook Live video posted on July 13, 2017, worship leader Chris Tomlin (b. 1972) sits in a patio chair, an acoustic guitar in hand. Behind him, landscaped boulders mark the elevation lines, while scattered pines and hardwoods reveal a commanding view of the late afternoon countryside. Festooned with a baseball cap featuring the state flag of Colorado, a black T-shirt, and jeans, the native Texan Tomlin exhibits the reflective warmth associated with his public persona.
After singing a portion of his enormously popular version of “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone” at half tempo, Tomlin welcomes the viewers to this “behind the song” story of how he came to write the piece. Amidst muffled yells and laughter from his off-screen daughters, Tomlin offers a disclaimer: “I never set out to take the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ and add something to it—anybody would be crazy to do that! It’s only the greatest song ever written.” Instead, Tomlin recounts a plane ride whereon he had a chance encounter with a friend who told him about some acquaintances who were making a movie about William Wilberforce called Amazing Grace (2007). His friend mentioned that the producers of the film were wondering if Tomlin would be willing to “do something” with the hymn of the same name.
After briefly recounting Wilberforce’s work toward abolishing the slave trade in Europe, Tomlin explains the life of “Wilberforce’s mentor,” John Newton (1725-1807), who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” (1779) after his conversion and abandonment of his career as a slave trader. (For further history see Hawn, 2018, n.p.) While pondering the proposal, Tomlin read about the history of John Newton and reflected on the depth of the lyrics in their context of slavery. Out of this reflection, he had an epiphany: “So these words just started flowing one night—my chains are gone, I’ve been set free, my God, my savior, has ransomed me—” Tomlin breaks off here and describes the word ransom “—I was thinking about how you pay a ransom for a slave—” he continues reciting the lyrics:
‘and like a flood, his mercy reigns. Unending love, Amazing Grace.’ And so I wrote that little refrain, and started singing it out to the hymn, never thinking it was going to do anything!
Tomlin chuckles and puts his hands up defensively as he looks away from the camera.
I sent it to the guys saying, ‘hey, if you want to use this for the movie, that’d be great,’ never dreaming that churches would adopt this version of ‘Amazing Grace.’ So I count it an incredible privilege to be in a long line of people who’ve sung this song.
Explaining this long line of singers, Tomlin delightedly exclaims that he is by no means the first person to modify the hymn. In fact, the final—and arguably most famous—stanza was not even written by Newton, but was added by “some guy . . . a hundred years after the hymn was originally written.” That “some guy” who attached the stanza to the hymn was E. O. Excell (1851-1921), in Coronation Hymns for Sunday School (1910), although as Hawn and others note, the original author of this stanza is unknown (Gerkin, 2019, n.p.).
Before concluding his video with a performance of “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone,” Tomlin again expresses gratitude and awe that his work has the honor of being associated with “probably the greatest song in the history of humanity,” and he joyfully recounts the stories people have shared with him about how the song had impacted them.
As is implied by Tomlin’s gestures and stated justification for his version of “Amazing Grace,” the addition of his refrain has been met with considerable criticism. For example, Christian blog roundup site Patheos featured a series of posts by Jonathan Aigner criticizing Tomlin (See Aigner, 2017, n.p.). Even the Christian satire blog “Babylon Bee” got in on the act with “Federal Judge Orders Chris Tomlin to Stop Adding Choruses to Perfectly Good Hymns.” (See “Judge Orders,” 2017, n.p.) Some of these critiques are well founded: the revenue generated by copyrighting and distributing a version of a famous hymn is considerable, and since claiming the work of another for your own personal gain is generally considered theft, such revenue may be ethically dubious.
While I take some issue with such practices, and I certainly am skeptical about Tomlin’s attestations that he had “no idea” his version of “Amazing Grace” would be so popular (it’s only the “greatest song ever written”; it also closes his album, See the Morning ), I find the commercial aspect of church music unavoidable, if I’m being honest. Unless I decide to live to an alternate 1985 (an allusion to Back to the Future, Pt. II ), I must acknowledge that hymnal compilers from all centuries have financially benefited from such actions (although often at the expense of the writers and composers, sadly). It was no accident that the most popular hymns of today and yesterday were included in one version or another in nearly every successful hymnal. Are we so naive to believe that Excell, Walker, et al, received no monetary reward for their compilations? It seems fair to say that Tomlin is right in asserting that he is just one in a long line of church musicians who have arranged or amended “Amazing Grace” or another such hymn for their own use. (Think of Charles Wesley’s “O for a Thousand Tongues” vs. Ralph Hudson’s “Blessed Be the Name” and Isaac Watts’s “Come We that Love the Lord” vs. Robert Lowry’s “Marching to Zion.”) Instead of offering yet another critique of such practices—nor indeed, of offering a spirited defense—I wish to consider an aspect of this piece’s performance in the contemporary worship idiom favored by Tomlin that has gone unexamined: the theological metaphors of the musical accompaniment.
It seems fair to say that Tomlin is right in asserting that he is just one in a long line of church musicians who have arranged or amended “Amazing Grace” or another such hymn for their own use.
It is well established that Tomlin, like the historical muse for “My Chains Are Gone,” John Newton, is deeply influenced by Calvinist theology. It is therefore unsurprising that Tomlin concludes his rendition with Newton’s original final stanza (cited below), instead of the hopeful and optimistic celebration of eternal bliss in Excell’s addition found in most hymnals (which Hawn and Carl P. Daw, Jr. suggest was more befitting the Armenian tenor of the Second Great Awakening; See Hawn, Part II, n.p.):
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forebear to shine
But God who called me here below
Shall be forever mine.
One of the hallmarks of Tomlin’s lyrical offerings has been an unwavering confidence in the absolute sovereignty of God, a prime Calvinist tenet. As Joshua K. Busman has noted in his comparative analysis of Tomlin’s version of “God of this City” versus Irish band Bluetree’s original, Tomlin’s musical setting eliminates tonicization of the relative minor from the original so as to inflect confidence in God’s inevitable acts of justice in the world, rather than on the need for human partnership with God in those acts (Busman, 2015, 199-214). While both versions are in the key of C Major, Bluetree tonicized A minor during the verses to convey a sense of dis-ease so as to impel action. Tomlin eliminates this tonicization, and the effect of the tune becomes one of unwavering confidence rather than a call to action. (See Busman, 2015, 208-213 for a complete description of this analysis.)
This tendency is present in “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone” as well. While there are no substantial alterations to the harmonic structure of the song (aside from the usual improvisations and simplifications common to folk or pop styles of music), the guitar accompaniment features a notable absence from NEW BRITAIN’s setting. Aside from changing the key from F Major to G Major (reportedly to sit at the upper end of Tomlin’s register in order to convey a sense of emotional gravitas), the third of the tonic G chord, “B,” is noticeably missing. This results in a chordal structure of stacked fifths—G-x-D-G-D-G (x represents the muted A string). The highest inversion of the tonic fifth—D-G—is held as a suspension on the B and high E string throughout the entire song, only resolving the G to an F# for a brief moment at end of the PAC in the refrain.
The effect of this gesture is one of complete stability. By stacking fifths and extending the upper interval throughout the song, what dissonance there is becomes incidental. This stability assures the singer and listener of God’s unending, irrevocable grace. While there is not space here to explain this musical/theological metaphor further, I must say that this gestural device pervades Tomlin’s work, such that it is the most common chord construction across all of his albums. In fact, I have on more than one occasion referred to it as “the Tomlin chord.”
This musical apparatus seems to suggest a coherence between Tomlin’s theological position on matters of history and the musical devices he is known for. This is understandable. It is profoundly comforting to sing of grace and the assurance of God’s favor toward us in the context of a harmonically stable—dare I say conventional and lackluster—musical setting. This is a good thing. I am, however, concerned by the implications of a musical setting that treats major thirds as unwanted dissonance: what if such preference indicates an unwillingness to engage experiences or even theologies that challenge our notions of certainty? While it is certainly a stretch to conclude that eliminating the third from “Amazing Grace” is a theologically thin discourse, I am not convinced that entertaining such a stretch is unwarranted, given the prevalence of this gesture in Tomlin’s repertoire and the analyses of his work offered by Monique M. Ingalls (2011, 2018), Busman, and others. To be sure, a musical setting that emphasizes confidence in God’s sovereignty is immensely fitting to the theme of “Amazing Grace.” Yet when applied more broadly, I am concerned that this perception of the world does not match up with lived reality. Moreover, I suspect that grace itself does not match up with such a perception.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Jonathan Aigner, “But Seriously Chris Tomlin, Good Hymns Don’t Need Your New Choruses,” Patheos: Ponder Anew (July18, 2017), https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2017/07/18/seriously-good-hymns-dont-need-new-choruses.
Joshua Kalin Busman, “‘Yet to Come’ or ‘Still to Be Done’? Evangelical Worship and the Power of ‘Prophetic’ Songs,” Congregational Music-Making and Community in a Mediated Age, ed. Ann Nekola and Tom Wagner, Congregational Music Studies (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 199–214.
Lia C. Gerken, “Edwin O. Excell.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed July 8, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/e/edwin-o-excell.
C. Michael Hawn, “Amazing Grace, Part I,” History of Hymns (November 15, 2018), https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-amazing-grace-part-i.
_____. “Amazing Grace, Part II,” History of Hymns (November 22, 2018), https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-amazing-grace-part-ii.
Monique M. Ingalls, “Singing Heaven Down to Earth: Spiritual Journeys, Eschatological Sounds, and Community Formation in Evangelical Conference Worship.” Ethnomusicology 55, no. 2 (2011): 255–279.
Monique M. Ingalls, Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
“Federal Judge Orders Chris Tomlin to Stop Adding Choruses to Perfectly Good Hymns,” The Babylon Bee (July 18, 2017), https://babylonbee.com/news/federal-judge-orders-chris-tomlin-stop-adding-choruses-perfectly-good-hymns.
Nathan Myrick, a native of Warroad, MN, received his M.A. in theology from Fuller Seminary, and PhD in church music from Baylor University. His research focuses on musical activity and human flourishing in the context of Christian communities. He has produced two musical albums and numerous articles and book chapters. He is currently assistant professor of church music at Townsend School of Music, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia.