Newton's "Amazing Grace" never enthralled his country as it has ours. The British apathy is captured in John Julian's classic Dictionary of Hymnology (1892), where he says the famous hymn is "far from being a good example of Newton's work." This indifference might have been because the tune that now seems so essential to the attractiveness and memorability of "Amazing Grace" wasn't yet widely used, or because the British usually preferred a more restrained and unemotional type of religion. Whatever the reason, the words of "Amazing Grace" articulately express American Christianity's emphasis on the conversion experience and simultaneously describe America's cultural and historical journey.

Revival's "camp classics"

At the time of Newton's death, the dramatic religious revival later known as the Second Great Awakening was in progress. Initially centered on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, it was characterized by a huge emotional outpouring of dancing, wailing, jumping, laughing, and collapsing. The new style of "camp meeting" revival demanded a new style of worship. The songs had to be memorable because out in the field, in the half light, there could be no hymnals.

As this religious revolution intensified, a parallel musical revolution was under way. Ordinary working people liked to sing, yet almost none of them could read music, and most churches didn't have musical instruments. This meant that congregations were entirely dependent on song leaders to strike up tunes and carry them.

To make music more accessible, a different notation had been developed that was relatively easy to learn. This was the "shape-note system," so called because the key to recognition was the shape of the note rather than its position. Peripatetic ...

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