Amazing Grace: Some Early Tunes
Anthology of the American Hymn-Tune Repertory
Bethel University | About Mark Rhoads | Contact


This site is linked on the Cowper and Newton Museum and the Library of Congress: Amazing Grace websites.

Is There a Question About the Tune?

In the 2006 film Amazing Grace the actor who played William Wilberforce sang John Newton's "Amazing Grace" to the familiar variant of the tune NEW BRITAIN, the American folk-hymn tune with which this hymn has been linked worldwide for many years. If the creators of the film had chosen a more authentic tune they would have used one from the late 18th- or early 19th-century England. Choosing a tune from the period, however, may have just confused an audience that assumes the familiar tune NEW BRITAIN and the hymn "Amazing Grace" were born together. But this hymn and the tune we all know were not linked until much later.

John Newton published "Amazing Grace" in Olney Hymns in 1779. Olney Hymns was a typical hymnal of the time in that it contained only texts, no music. As far as we know the earliest variants of the tune NEW BRITAIN did not appear in print until 1829 with other words, and in an American tune book at that. NEW BRITAIN no doubt existed before that time in oral tradition, perhaps as a Scottish folk song; but the first wedding in print of NEW BRITAIN and the hymn "Amazing Grace" did not appear until 1835 in William Walker's famous shape-note singing-school tunebook Southern Harmony. Furthermore, for more than 100 years NEW BRITAIN was just one of many tunes to which "Amazing Grace" was sung.

There Were Other Tunes?

According to The Hymn Tune Index Newton's "Amazing Grace" first appeared interlined with a tune in A Companion to the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hymns (Green: London: c.1808). The tune was called HEPHZIBAH (known as TISBURY in some later tunebooks) by John Jenkins Husband which first appeared in print with another text in A Collection of Psalm Tunes (Smith: London, c. 1790). Because of this printed association some writers have suggested that "Amazing Grace" was first sung to HEPHZIBAH; but this printing of tune and text twenty-nine years after the publication of Olney Hymns gives little assurance that Newton's Olney congregation first sang "Amazing Grace" to this tune, especially since the tune did not appear in print until eleven years after the publication of Olney Hymns. Given the practice of congregations freely choosing tunes to go with hymns, the Olney congregation could have first sung "Amazing Grace" to any number of English Psalm tunes in common meter and probably not HEPHZIBAH.

Curiously, this beloved text was virtually unknown in English hymnals until the 1960s when it hit the pop charts, according to Carlton Young in Companion to the the United Methodist Hymnal. It would have been known, perhaps, by the churches that adopted Olney Hymns as their hymnal, and there were many. "Amazing Grace" became known in America over the course of the the first half of the 19th century, especially among revivalists. When it was included in American tunebooks, it was printed with many different tunes well into the 20th century. The tunes linked with "Amazing Grace" included in this website (excluding HEPHZIBAH) are just some of the ones printed in America between about 1850 and 1880. Jack Marti intermixes HRS with "Amazing Grace" The familiar variant of NEW BRITAIN and the harmonization that we all know come from E. O. Excell's Make His Praise Glorious, 1900.

Twenty year ago or so I recall hearing "Amazing Grace" sung to the theme from the old American TV show Gilligan's Island. But the best fit in my opinion is with the tune to "House of the Rising Sun," a song on the pop charts in the 1960s. The connection between the original text and grace is stunning.

Some History: Hymnals and Tunebooks

It is easy to assume that hymnals have always looked the way they look today, tunes and hymns appearing together with the hymn fully interlined with the music. Actually, with only a few exceptions this now familiar format dates from about the 1930s; and it is this format that gives us the idea that certain tunes were always associated with certain hymns. For example, today we associate Isaac Watts' "Joy to the World" with Lowell Mason's tune ANTIOCH, and we could hardly imagine that it might have been sung to any other tune. But this hymn (or more accurately, a metrical Psalm published in Watts' text-only Psalms Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, 1719) was known as "Psalm 98 (Part 2)" to most English and American congregations in the 18th and early 19th centuries and was probably sung to a variety of common-meter tunes in parishes across the countryside. Mason's ANTIOCH did not appear in print with "Joy to the World" until 1839 in The Modern Psalmist, published in Boston.

In England and America during this time hymns were not as closely associated with specific tunes as they are today. A given hymn could be sung to a number of different tunes that matched the meter of the text. In addition hymns and tunes were most often printed in separate books. Hymnals (text-only) were commonly held by parishioners in the pew. This made it necessary for the leader to announce the hymn and the tune in a worship service. Tunebooks contained harmonized tunes, sometimes with no text at all or with a verse or two of a model hymn (seldom complete) interlined with the music. In rare cases tunes were appended to hymnals: hymns in the front, tunes in the back. By the mid-19th century the so called "hymn and tune book" began to appear, but even in these a number of hymns were printed in poetic form below a harmonized tune; and although hymnals in this format began to appear in the pew in the 1850s and 60s, this practice remained uncommon until the early 20th century.

If you liked this site, check out
Anthology of the American Hymn-Tune Repertory




Southern Harmony, 1835

The Bridgewater Collection of
Sacred Music
, 1821

A Compleat Melody, 1734

The Revivalist, 1872

Devotional Hymn and Tune
Book, 1864

The Sabbath Hymn and
Tune Book, 1864


The recordings were made by the 2007 hymnology class at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota, Dr. Mark Rhoads, Professor. The tunes were sung in unison simply to illustrate the melodies, although small congregations or those who determined that part singing or the use of instruments was unacceptable might have actually sounded like this.