The hymn “Amazing Grace” was approved as an official state song by the Tennessee General Assembly this week. On Thursday, House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) signed the bill.
The language of the bill itself explained the background and significance of the hymn. “Amazing Grace” was originally a poem penned by John Newton, an 18th century Christian minister who walked away from life as a slave ship captain. The poem, later set to music by American composer William Walker, was inspired by his newfound faith in God following his near-death experience while at sea.
The bill acknowledged Newton’s influence within his community by opposing slavery.
“Mr. Newton’s conversion from a merchant and slaver to a man of faith led him to speak out against slavery, and although many of England’s large port cities greatly benefited from the slave trade, Mr. Newton and other social critics began to speak out against the practice,” reads the bill.
In the House Naming and Designating Committee, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) Professor Emeritus of Music Dr. Stephen Shearon testified to the hymn’s global, timeless impact. He noted that, although neither Newton or Walker had any direct connections to Tennessee, the hymn has continually had a significant impact in both the religious and secular world.
“The song ‘Amazing Grace’ is known around the world and is sung in many different languages. It is one of the best-known hymns from the rich body of English language hymnody,” said Shearon.
Shearon explained that the hymn topped pop music charts through Judy Collins’ 1970 rendition, noting the Tennessee ties that inspired Collins’ decision to record it.
“At a time when people were politically polarized and in pain, ‘Amazing Grace’ appealed to those in need of healing – whether Christian or not,” said Shearon. “Collins […] learned the song from her maternal grandmother, a Southern Methodist who lived here in Tennessee. Collins wrote this about her grandmother, ‘She knew, as I did, that “Amazing Grace” had a power to transform and give faith. That wrongs can be righted. That light can follow darkness. That healing is a miracle of faith. This was the power instilled in her and her children.'”
Shearon recounted that Collins’ recording caused many other artists, a great number with Tennessee ties, to issue their own renditions of the song – including Dolly Parton.
The original language of the bill would’ve made Parton’s rendition of the hymn the official state symbol. A House amendment to the bill dropped the language specifying Parton’s rendition, making any rendition of the hymn recognizable as the official state song.
The legislation was a bipartisan effort of State Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) and State Representative Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna).
The bill awaits Governor Bill Lee’s signature for final approval.
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