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30 November 2003

Number 45 on the top

This morning, I was singing some of my favourite hymns and spirituals softly to myself (as you do) in order to lift my spirits from some non-specific malaise. And I had this insight brought on from singing "Amazing Grace": the difficulty with the correct use of "less" and "fewer" dates back to the early 19th century at least. That's because I just noticed for the first time, after knowing this hymn for over 20 years, that there is this line "We've no less days to sing God's praise". Now, if you're going to tell me, no, you mean the late 18th century, I must correct you there. You see, I always do my research, even for the simple things like this (some would say simple-minded, but just shut up.) It appears that, although John Newton wrote the words in approximately 1779, the last verse, in which the stanza quoted appears, was added by an unknown author, and first appears in 1829 in the Baptist Songster, by R. Winchell (Wethersfield, Connecticut), as the last stanza of the song “Jerusalem My Happy Home.” So there.
This website has the full story of John Newton and Amazing Grace. The story is quite different from what I have heard in a sermon, and yet in some ways, better. I only knew that Newton had been a slave ship captain, had a conversion that changed his life, and wrote Amazing Grace. I did not realize that he continued in the slave trade for some years after his conversion, nor that it was decades between the experience it tells of and the writing of the song. But then I also did not know of the brutality of his early life, that he was a self-taught clergyman, an admirer of John Wesley, and a hugely popular preacher who strongly influenced the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce. The title of this post refers to "Amazing Grace's" designation in the Sacred Harp tradition.

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