Three centuries ago in the village of Olney, England, a new parish priest came to town. The townsfolk flocked to hear him, fascinated with his vibrant, personal style of preaching and his checkered past as a slave trader.

In those days learned clergy frequently wrote original verses for congregational singing, and the priest at Olney wrote in a testimonial, plainspoken style, often referring obliquely to his own sordid story and remarkable conversion. Each week, he or an associate would present some new verses.

One of these compositions was titled "Faith's Review and Ex­pectation." It was a plain and plaintive little poem, humble and heartfelt, and for its earliest audiences, it didn't stand out and was soon forgotten. But the song survived the priest, whose name was John Henry Newton. "Amazing Grace" crossed the Atlantic and became perhaps the most beloved hymn in the English-speaking world, not least among African-American communities.