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SLSO Songs of America | "Amazing Grace"

"Amazing Grace"

arr. by Adam Maness

Kennedy Holmes, vocals

Jessica Cheng, Andrea Jarret, violin

Andrew Francois, viola

Jennifer Humphreys, cello

The Piece

One of the most recognizable tunes in America, “Amazing Grace” has a complex history. The text was written by John Newton, an eighteenth-century English priest and slave trader, later turned abolitionist. Newton based the hymn’s opening lines on his own near-death experience while traveling on a ship transporting enslaved African people.

The hymn crossed into the consciousness of America’s Black community during the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century, where it was sung at large outdoor revival gatherings. According to Reverend Matthew J. Watts, a pastor in West Virginia, the song spoke to a desire for “freedom, of one day seeing God face-to-face, of one day being with him for all of eternity, and no longer subjected to the type of cruel treatment [enslaved people] experienced.” The song became a significant Black spiritual and is one of the most performed pieces of music today.

The Place

First Baptist Church of St. Louis, located in midtown just a few blocks northeast of Powell Hall, celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2017. With roots as a Baptist mission teaching enslaved people to read and write, the church became an integral meeting place for the abolitionist movement. Its founder and pastor, John Berry Meachum, was a formerly enslaved man who bought his freedom, and eventually that of his wife and children. The Meachums worked tirelessly to improve life for African American people in St. Louis by attending to the spiritual needs of the congregation, educating the community, helping free enslaved people, and even providing their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The church has survived significant hardships throughout its history, including rigid discriminatory laws, threats, and fire. It holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating Black church west of the Mississippi, and it has called its current location at 3100 Bell Avenue home since 1917.

First Baptist Church has partnered with the SLSO through the IN UNISON program since 1997.


Special thanks to the First Baptist Church of St. Louis and Rev. Henry L. Midgett, Pastor.

Special thanks to the Centene Charitable Foundation, the Steward Family Foundation, and World Wide Technology for their support of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.


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