John Robertson

Mixed media: hand carved from copies of Newton’s autobiography, hemp rope, knotwork, acrylic sheet, typeset, LED lighting, printed images, thumbscrew,
touch activated switch, plywood in dimensions of mercy seat, white oak frame, cotton cloth
43.75″ tall x 26.25″ wide without frame
Hymn: Amazing Grace
Author: John Newton
Year Published: 1779

Artist Statement

The main theme of the hymn “Amazing Grace” is that of divine, saving grace, the kind needed by a drowning man thrown a life line.

John Newton, the author, began his voyage to salvation during a storm in the north Atlantic in March of 1748 while aboard the Guineaman Greyhound bound from Africa to England.  In response to the storm and fear of being shipwrecked, he cried out to God for the first time since perhaps childhood.  This voyage had also quite literally saved him from a life as a white slave to a business partner turned master in Sierra Leone.  Once back in England, he began a successful career as a slave ship captain.  It was on a voyage as a “slave dealer” while ill with a fever that his moment of salvation occurred.  In his words, “I made no more resolutions, but cast myself before the Lord to do with me as He should please.  I do not remember that any particular text or remarkable discovery was presented to my mind; but, in general, I was enabled to hope and believe in a crucified Savior.” (John Newton, Out of the Depths).   He remained a slave ship captain for many years.  However, as his Christian faith deepened, he became a Church of England clergyman, author, and outspoken abolitionist.  He was a mentor to William Wilberforce who campaigned for and eventually won the battle to outlaw slavery in England in 1807.

“Amazing Grace” was inspired by the passage in I Chronicles  17:16-17:

Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and he said: “Who am I, LORD God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?  And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, LORD God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.

“Amazing Grace” was originally meant to be sung by Newton’s congregation in Olney, England for his Ney Year’s Morning sermon on January 1, 1773.  At this time, Newton was writing hymns to instruct and explain the scriptures to an uneducated and illiterate working-class congregation.  “Amazing Grace” was published in 1779 as “Faith’s review and expectation,” Hymn 41 in Olney Hymns.    The name “Amazing Grace” was first attached to the hymn around 1877 by Ira Sankey.

The hymn has been modified from its original form over time.  The original version has no music associated with it, and Newton’s congregation would have likely sung the words to the tune of an already popular song.  The modern version of “Amazing Grace” is sung to the tune of “New Britain,” which first appeared attached to “Amazing Grace” in 1835 arranged by William Walker in his shape-note tunebook The Southern Harmony.  Modern custom is now to sing only the first three stanzas.  The original fourth, fifth and sixth stanzas are dropped and an different fourth stanza is added.  The first known documented use of this “new” fourth stanza is found in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).  This verse may have originally come from the hymn “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” as published in 1790.

The song is simply about grace.  Grace is essentially a gift, freely given and unearned.  It can also be defined as forgiveness for a transgression.  Newton was referring to the Christian concept of grace.  In this sense, grace is given by God through the sacrifice His son, Jesus Christ.  The gift of salvation is given freely to an unworthy mankind.  Christian doctrine believes that mankind, through our own actions, is doomed, that we are like drowning men in need of a lifeline.

The main image of the piece is a life-sized left hand, reaching out of the waves of a stormy sea.  In the open hand is a piece of hemp rope.  The hand is carved paper from multiple copies of Newton’s autobiography, Out of the Depths. The wedding ring on the ring finger is made from lines of Newton’s autobiography describing his conversion (quoted above). The ¾” hemp rope ends in a whipped (palm-and-needle whipping) stopper knot (also known as Mathew Walker’s knot).  The hand signifies the need for salvation through grace and the rope symbolizes that grace.  It is through no strength, ability or merit of his own that the drowning man has been offered a life line, but because of the mercy of someone else.  The hand is open signifying the choice he has to accept or refuse his salvation.  This reflects the belief on the artist in Free Will rather than the Calvinist belief in predestination of the author behind the hymn.

The knot in the rope is not the typical bowline knot that would be tied by a sailor hurriedly trying to save a mate cast overboard.  This type of stopper knot, called Matthew Walker’s knot, prevents a rope from slipping through a grasping hand.  The whipping (palm-and-needle whipping) prevents the cut end of the rope from fraying.  Both the knot and the whipping take time, tools, and planning.  The analogy points to the grace offered through Christ as something   and prepared to be offered rather than quickly thrown together.

The foreground waves are cut from reproduction of William Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1851).  The background waves are from a reproduction of a the painting Christ Stilleth the Tempest by John Martin (1852).  Turner’s painting illustrates the depravity of the trade Newton participated in when he began is journey to salvation.  Slavers would commonly throw dead or dying slaves overboard to collect insurance on their loss during the voyage.  The slaver ship had just been hit with a typhoon.  Martin’s painting symbolizes that even in the midst of the storm, Christ reigns supreme. It references Mark 4:35-41.

“Amazing Grace” has become a commercialized part of Americana, stripped of its original meaning and intent.  Nothing could symbolize this commercialization more than a comic book villain named Amazing Grace.  One of the waves around the hand is formed from comic pages featuring this villain.

The glazing is acrylic sheet engraved with the hymn now known as “Amazing Grace”, exactly as it appeared when first published in Olney Hymns (1779) as Hymn XLI, “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

The words are lit by white LED lighting that is activated by touching thumbscrews attached to  the frame.  The thumbscrews or pilliwinks are one of the less severe torture devices often used by slave ship captains (including John Newton) to punish unruly slaves.  If a man who tortured other human beings and trafficked in their misery can receive grace, then I can too.  The thumbscrews are attached to the frame by bent cut iron nails.

The length and width of the parent rectangle that, when cut, forms the parallelogram shape, is approximately equal to that of the mercy seat (Exodus 25:17).  The mercy seat is the name for the lid of the Ark of the Covenant that held the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  A blood sacrifice of atonement was sprinkled on the mercy seat to avert the judgement of God against the sins of Israel.  The mercy seat was where God met with Moses (Exodus 25:22) and was the sight of grace in the Old Testament.

The frame is in the shape of a parallelogram, similar to the moulding of the captain’s quarters window on an English merchant ship of the mid-1700’s.  The frame is made from white oak, a common material used in the construction of English Merchant Ships in the 18th century.  The interior “mat” is made of stretched cotton cloth reminiscent of period sail cloth.

Special thanks to Eric Henderson for his advice on the appearance and construction of merchant ship windows in the 18th century, to Gordon Laco for his advice on the appropriate rigging and knot work (though I did not follow his advice in regard to the knots),to Eric Hartley for turning my idea of a parallelogram into a usable CAD drawing, to Justin Abbott for his invaluable number of man hours assisting with the actual construction, and to Andy Fox for his advice on finishing the wood of the frame.

“Amazing Grace” as it appeared in 1779 in Olney Hymns as Hymn 41 “Faith’s Review and Expectation”:

I.  C  H  R  O  N  I  C  L  E  S.

H   Y   M   N     XLI.

Faith’s  review  and  expectation.

Chap. xvii. 16,17.


1  AMazing grace! (how fweet the found)

That fav’d a wretch like me !

I once was loft, hut now am found,

Was blind, but now I fee.

2 ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears reliev’d ;

How precious did that grace appear,

The hour I firft believ’d !

3 Thro’ many dangers, toils and fnares,

I have already come ;

‘Tis grace has brought me fafe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

4 The Lord has promis’d good to me,

His word my hope fecures ;

He will my fhield and portion be,

As long as life endures.

5 Yes, when this flefh and heart fhall fail,

And mortal life fhall ceafe ;

I shall poffefs, within the vail,

A life of joy and peace.

6 The earth fhall soon diffolve like fnow,

The fun forbear to fhine ;

But God, who call’d me here below,

Will be for ever mine.


Updated original Lyrics

Amazing Grace, by P&D of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards on Album Heart of the Highlands published Jan 1, 2005

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.


Aitken, Jonathan. “John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace” Crossway. 2007. Newton, John. “Out of the Depths” Revised Edition.  Kregel Publications. 2003. Turner, Steve. “Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Beloved Song” Ecco. 2002. Vanhorn, Kellie Michelle. Eighteenth-Century Colonial American Merchant Ship Construction. Masters of Arts Thesis.  Texas A&M University. 2004 The John Newton Project.

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