The Story of the Hymn
by Linda Granfield
illustrated by Janet Wilson
Themes include: history, slavery, language, music, religion
About this book:
The words to the popular hymn "Amazing Grace" were written by a
man who was both a slave trader and abolitionist. John Newton
was a man of paradoxes: for many years he earned his living
from the slave trade, and yet he was for a short while a
slave himself, planting lime trees in Sierra Leone. A
horrific storm at sea in 1748 led Newton to his new life as
a minister and anti-slavery activist. He recollected both
his deliverance from the storm, and his life without God, in
his most famous creation.
1. Take time before reading the book to consider carefully
the two words that comprise its title. First, think about
everything that comes to mind when you hear the word
"amazing." Consider amazing sights, amazing activities,
amazing feelings. Next, use a dictionary (or better yet,
several dictionaries) to explore the various meanings of the
word "grace." Some dictionaries will have a number of
definitions of "grace"; as you look at the book's cover
illustration, try to decide which of the dictionaries'
definitions might most relate to the story you are about to
2. Interview someone you know (perhaps a grandparent or a
neighbor) about the hymn "Amazing Grace." What do they know
about it? Where have they heard it sung? Has it ever been
performed for an occasion that they especially remember?
Make a collection of quotations from people who have special
memories about the hymn. Consider recording the
recollections of the people you interview, and invite them
to sing a bit of the hymn for you. Display the quotations
on a bulletin board, or build a web page where you can
present the quotations and the voices. (interpersonal)
3. What is a hymn? Who sings hymns? Where are they sung?
What do hymns have in common that makes them different from
other types of songs? Do you know the names of any hymns?
(musical, logical, linguistic)
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4. Sometimes people take a long time to make a change in the
way they live their lives. Have you made any changes in
your life, such as moving, trying something new, or making a
new friend? What types of changes seem to happen suddenly?
What types of changes take place gradually? What changes
are we able to make choices about? What changes seem to be
beyond our control? (intrapersonal)
5. This book is about a man named John Newton who lived a
life that was at times difficult and unhappy, at times
pleasant and peaceful. Construct a time line that will help
you to understand John's life in the context of his times.
(Try using a roll of adding-machine tape to make your time
line. Use a ruler. Let one centimeter equal one year.)
Begin your time line in the year 1725, when John was born.
Mark off twelve centimeters, and write the year 1737, the
year John first went to sea. In this same way, add the
following dates to the time line:
1741 (approximately) - John Newton was a slave on a lime
plantation in Sierra Leone, Africa.
1745 (approximately) - John began to work on ships that
1748 - John almost lost his life at sea in a dreadful
storm off the coast of Newfoundland. He prayed, "If this
will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us." The ship
survived the storm.
1754 - John Newton resigned from his job as captain of a
ship that transported slaves.
1763 - John became a clergyman in Olney, England.
1771 - Together with his friend William Cowper, a poet,
John published a book of hymns, which included the one known
as "Amazing Grace."
1775 - The American colonies declared themselves to be
independent from England, and the American War of
1780 - John Newton moved to London and met William
Wilberforce, a politician who was trying to persuade
England's Parliament to make slavery illegal.
1783 - The American War of Independence ended.
1788 - John wrote a pamphlet that described his "Thoughts
Upon the African Slave Trade." He was trying to convince
the government that slavery was an unlawful and evil thing.
1789 - The French Revolution began. French people fought
against their own government and got rid of their king and
queen in 1793.
1792 - Almost half a million British citizens signed
petitions asking that the slave trade be abolished, but they
were defeated, and the slave trade continued.
1807 - John Newton died at the age of 82. That same year,
Britain abolished the slave trade, meaning that slaves would
not be "imported" as cargo from other countries.
1838 - Slavery itself became illegal in England and its
1865 - Slavery became illegal in the United States.
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When your time line is completed, look closely at how much
time passed between the major events in John Newton's life.
How many years went by before he stopped being part of the
slave trade? How many more years passed before the slave
trade finally ended?
Consider some reasons why it might have taken so long for
governments to pass laws making slavery illegal. Imagine
waiting thirty, or fifty, or a hundred years for something
to change. What year would it be in the future if you had
to wait that long? How old would you be? What do you think
you would be doing then? (logical-mathematical,
6. When John Newton worked as a slave, he lived in Sierra
Leone, a country in the western part of Africa. Many of the
African slaves were taken aboard ships off the coast of
Sierra Leone. Find Sierra Leone on a map. Look at the
shape of the land, the mountains, and the rivers. Do some
research about Sierra Leone as it is today. What does it
look like? What do people do there? Do they still grow
limes, as they did when John Newton was young? ? Do
plantations still exist? (spatial)
7. Buy a lime at the grocery store. See if you can tell
where it was grown. How do you think it may have come to
your town? Cut it open and smell it. Taste it. Do some
research on a disease called "scurvy" and see if you can
explain why limes were so important on sea voyages like the
ones John Newton made. (bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic)
8. Do some research on the history of slavery. When and
where in the world have people had slaves? What causes
someone to become a slave? What are some of the ways people
throughout history have struggled against slavery?
9. (For older students.) The final page of this book tells
us that slavery still exists today, in our own time, in our
own world. What can you find out about modern-day slavery?
Use up-to-date research sources such as newspapers, news
magazines, and web sites. Discover what sorts of work
slaves do, who is enslaving them, where they live, and if
and how they travel from place to place. (linguistic,
10. From the book Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn we
learn that when John Newton was alive, hymn books contained
only the words, not the melodies, to the hymns: "People
chanted the printed verses, imitating the singing of each
line by a leader." What are some ways that we share
melodies with each other today? What role do electricity
and radio waves play in our capacity to share music with one
another? Try this variation on the old game of "Operator"
or "Pass It On": With a class group, divide the students
into four sections. Take one section into another room and
teach them to sing "Amazing Grace" (or perhaps a less
familiar song). Then ask the first group to teach the
second group using only their voices (no instruments or
notations). The second group then teaches the third group
and so on. Have the fourth group sing it for the whole
class. Discuss this process with the whole class: How did
it feel trying to pass the song along? What happened to the
song as it was passed from group to group? (musical,
You might extend this activity into a discussion of the
sorts of things the kidnapped African people could bring
with them onboard the ship. Often the only things they
could transport were the things they could carry in their
heads: their language, their stories, and their songs.
Research some West African folk songs, and try to bring in
recordings of songs or tales told by the "griots," the
traditional African storytellers. Try to imagine ways of
remembering and passing on these songs, using only voices
and simple instruments. (musical, linguistic)
11. Consider three periods in John Newton's life: his
childhood, his time as a captain on a slave ship, and his
old age, when he was a preacher and an abolitionist. Write
and perform a short play in three acts, with each act
corresponding to one of those three periods. For each act,
show John Newton in dialogue with another person (real or
fictitious) as he tries to make a difficult decision. Be
sure to consider the setting for each scene, and try to
convey the emotions the people in the play might be feeling.
(linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal,
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12. We learn from this book about the terrible, crowded
conditions of the captured Africans onboard the slave ships.
On some ships, platforms divided the space in such a way
that slaves had less than a meter of space (less than three
feet) in which to crouch, all day and all night. To help
you understand what this may have been like, try spending an
hour under a table. While you are there, keep a journal in
which you record your physical feelings, your emotions, and
what you notice of the world around you. Try to stay there
for a full hour without standing up or moving around. This
will give you some sense of the discomfort the slaves felt
as they lived in such a small space for days or weeks at a
time. (bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal)
13. Many of us today find it very hard to believe that
someone would choose to be involved in the slave trade.
Even John Newton continued to be a captain of a slave ship
for quite some time after he felt "saved" by divine mercy
during a storm. It is hard to understand why someone would
make such a choice, but an important part of understanding
history is being able to grasp the many and complex reasons
why people made the choices that they did. To look more
closely at this issue, divide a piece of paper into two
columns. Title one "Advantages of being the captain of a
slave ship," and title the other: "Advantages of quitting
the slave trade." Try to find information in Amazing Grace:
The Story of the Hymn to list in both columns. When you
finish, talk with someone, or write a short essay,
explaining what choice you think is the better one, based on
the evidence you gathered from the book.
Slave Dancer by Paula Fox. The story of a young New Orleans
boy who is kidnapped and forced to play his pipe aboard a
slave ship so that the slaves can "dance" and get their
exercise. A well-written but difficult and sometimes
disturbing book for older readers (grades six and up).
Amazing Grace. A Bill Moyers special, available on video,
in which he explores the history of the hymn and speaks with
people about its impact on their lives.
The Olney Pancake Race - It's a race that
takes place in the town where John
Newton lived and wrote the song. Join the fun and have your own Pancake Race.
Other Tundra Teacher Guides:
The Legend of the Panda,
The Long Road,
Lucy Maud and the Cavendish Cat,
A Mountain Alphabet,