The version of “Amazing Grace” sung by country music legend and philanthropist Dolly Parton soon may become an official state song in Tennessee. Written in the 18th century by slave trader-turned-abolitionist John Newton, “Amazing Grace” regularly tops lists of the most well-known and well-loved Christian hymns.
Last month, two Tennessee lawmakers introduced HB0938, a bill to formally amend the “State Symbols” portion of the state code. Rep. Mike Sparks, a Republican, and Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat, describe in the bill how Newton was converted and then worked to help people “find a deeper understanding and love through their faith.” Sparks and Akbari call “Amazing Grace” one of the “songs of historic significance that have influenced this state.”
After being passed in the House, the bill proceeded to the Naming & Designating Committee. “Amazing Grace” would be the eighth designated song in Tennessee.
Another Honor for Dolly Parton
Parton, a Tennessee native, recently turned down the state’s offer to erect a statue of her on Nashville’s Capitol Hill. “Given all that is going on in the world,” she said, “I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time.”
Last November, news broke that Parton had donated $1 million toward COVID-19 research, and her gift ended up partially funding the Moderna vaccine. Parton’s donation to Vanderbilt University Medical Center was in honor of Dr. Naji Abumrad, who treated the singer after a minor 2013 car accident and became her friend. “I’m just happy that anything I do can help somebody else,” Parton said, “and when I donated the money to the COVID fund, I just wanted it to do good.”
Parton, 75, said in 2019 that she felt God calling her to focus more on Christian music. “I’ve always felt like my music was more my ministry than a job,” she told People magazine. Parton’s recent collaborations with Christian artists include the Grammy-winning song “God Only Knows” with For King & Country.
An “Amazing” History
John Newton, an atheist slave trader who at one point was enslaved himself, described feeling like the worst “wretch” of all. In 1748, God caught his attention during a brutal storm at sea, when Newton’s ship almost wrecked. Newton fell to his knees and asked for God’s mercy and grace. Years later, while serving as a pastor in England, he wrote “Amazing Grace,” which is known and beloved by Christians as well as non-Christians.
Versions of the hymn have been produced by numerous singers and groups with Tennessee connections, including Elvis Presley, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Merle Haggard, and the Oak Ridge Boys.
The epitaph Newton wrote for his own tomb reads, in part: “Once an infidel and libertine a servant of slaves in Africa was by the rich mercy of our LORD and SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”