Utilizing Worship Fusion – Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)

This post was contributed by worship leader Mike Hale.

A “blended” worship service commonly means a service designed to use both traditional hymns as well as contemporary songs or choruses—whether the mix leans more heavily to one side or the other, or is right down the middle. (Of course you can also use other styles of music as well, but for this discussion let’s stick with hymns and choruses.)

However, creative writers and musicians sometimes go beyond just sprinkling hymns and choruses throughout the worship list for the day and take the extra step of creating one piece of music that is more a “fusion” of something old and familiar with something fresh and new.

Using symbols to describe the process—just placing two different worship styles one after another (for example, a contemporary chorus after a traditional hymn) can be represented as A + B = AB. Whereas creatively fusing these elements together in such a way that both are mutually transformed into a new third thing can be seen as A + B = C.

A great example of this is the song Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone), a fusion of the John Newton poem, “Amazing Grace,” and a new chorus, "My Chains Are Gone," co-written by Chris Tomlin (pictured left) and Louie Giglio, published in 2006. The result is a centuries-old hymn contextualized with modern music and with an additional chorus that uses common contemporary language to help us as we respond to the Father through Christ and by the Spirit in thanks and praise. (Click here to see a video of Tomlin discussing and demonstrating the song on the newsongcafe program.)

ChristianityToday has referred to the poem by Newton—former slave trader turned pastor—as “probably the most famous hymn in history.” The article Whatever Happened to Amazing Grace, from the March 2011 edition, traces the song’s origins as well as major differences in the circumstances and timing of its publication, acceptance and popularity on each side of the Atlantic.

As pastor of a mostly uneducated Anglican congregation in the lace-making town of Olney, just northwest of London, Newton often wrote poems, including one titled “Amazing Grace,” and wedded them to familiar tunes in an effort to reinforce the point of his sermons. In 1799 the Olney Hymns were published, containing 280 poems from Newton, along with 68 from poet William Cowper, a layperson helper in the congregation. (Pictured left is a page from the Olney Hymns. Near the bottom are the first few lines of the Newton's poem that eventually became the famous hymn "Amazing Grace.")
In many non-Anglican, independent churches, parishioners sang the hymns of Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watt’s hymns were also sung in Baptist churches, such as the one in London pastored by John Rippon (1751-1836) [who] wished to expand hymn-singing options and bound many of Netwon’s poems with Watt’s hymns, titling the volume A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors…..
Rippon’s collection became quite popular, with more than 200,000 copies in circulation. But though containing many of Netwon’s works, “Amazing Grace” was not among them. Was it perhaps the lack of mention of Jesus or God (the final verse—“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” includes the word God, but was added later), or low-brow plebeian language? (Only 11 words from the four of the original verses that are commonly printed contain more than one syllable.) Late-19th century hymnologist John Julian simply said of the omission that “Amazing Grace” was “far from being a good example of Newton’s work.”
In any case, “Amazing Grace” went missing from English hymnbooks from the early 1800s, and did not appear in England, with the familiar “New Britain” tune, until 1964.

Across the Atlantic the situation was quite different. Some historians think Olney Hymns came to the United States with Scottish immigrants who settled in Kentucky and Tennessee…[and became] particularly popular in Methodist camp meetings in the first decades of the 19th century. In 1835 it appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, wedded to the now-standard New Britain tune… [and reaching] a circulation of 600,000—about one copy for every 40 people in the country. However “Amazing Grace” remained absent in many of the major Protestant denominational hymnals in the North.

From 1947 on, “Amazing Grace” began to migrate from its stronghold in the southern states into the secular mainstream. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performed it that year on the radio and subsequently included it in one of her releases. [The video here is of Mahalia's 1971 appearance on the Johnny Cash TV program.] Other singers who made it well known included Judy Collins (who sang it as an anti-Vietnam War protest) [Collins video here is from 1976 concert with Boston Pops], Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Willie Nelson. Arlo Guthrie sang it at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. [Guthrie video here is from 70's, in concert with Pete Seeger.]
To provide the beloved old hymn with new life and a fresh voice for today’s worshipers, Tomlin and Louie Giglio added the powerful chorus, "My chains are gone / I've been set free / My God, my Savior has ransomed me / And like a flood His mercy reigns / Unending love, Amazing grace!"

A less obvious but important part of this “worship fusion” creation is that the entire piece is now sung in the 4/4 time signature, whereas “Amazing Grace” is more traditionally played with a waltz feel. As evidence of its popularity, for the past several years Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) has consistently been listed in the CCLI’s top ten worship songs, as reported by churches in their copy activity reports.

Traditional versions of “Amazing Grace” will no doubt continue to be sung for many generations to come. But this new version with the inclusion of “My Chains Are Gone” is one more way the Spirit has inspired current generations to tell the story of the Eternal Father’s unending love for each person and all creation—the amazing redeeming grace and freedom found in Jesus.

Please share what other “worship fusion” songs are being sung in your congregations.