For a number of years, John Newton pastored the Anglican church in Olney, a lace-making town about 50 miles northwest of London. His parishioners were mostly uneducated men and women. He made a practice of writing poems, including one titled "Amazing Grace," to help them remember the point of his sermons. His poems were published in 1779 as Olney Hymns.

In many non-Anglican, independent churches, parishioners sang the hymns of Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts's hymns were also sung in Baptist churches, such as the one in London pastored by John Rippon (1751-1836). Rippon, apparently quite the entrepreneur, wished to expand hymn-singing options and bound many of Newton's poems with Watts's hymns, titling the volume A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended to Be an Appendix to Dr. Watts' Psalms and Hymns (1787). His collection found much acclaim, with more than 200,000 copies in circulation.

But A Selection of Hymns did not include "Amazing Grace." Was this because it does not mention Jesus or God but only "grace"? (The familiar concluding verse—"When we've been there ten thousand years," which includes the word God—was a later add-on.) Did Rippon think the language plebeian? Out of four verses of Newton's original (verses five and six were seldom printed), only 11 words are more than one syllable. The late-19th-century hymnologist John Julian, while noting that 61 of Newton's hymns were in current circulation, justified the omission of "Amazing Grace," saying it was "far from being a good example of Newton's work." In any case, "Amazing Grace" went missing from English hymnbooks from the early 1800s, and ...

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