Well-known singer Wintley Phipps, born in Trinidad and Tabago in 1955, moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, at a very early age where he later attended Kingsway College, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian Academy. Before he became a world-renowned singer he also attended Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, where he received a Bachelors of Arts degree in Theology. I have a particular interest in Oakwood University since the campus borders the property where my mother lay in a rehab center before she passed into the presence of Christ less than three years ago in Huntsville. I wrote about Oakwood at that time commenting on my visit to the slave cemetery next door on the grounds at Oakwood. The school was begun by faithful Adventists who cared for slaves before the Civil War and for the poor former-slaves who struggled to recover after the war. Phipps later earned a Masters of Divinity degree from the best-known Adventist school, Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. I have personally visited Andrews University several times over the past thirty or so years.
Wintley Phipps is best known for his music but he is a first and foremost a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He has served as the senior pastor to several churches in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, including the Capitol Hill and Seabrook Seventh-Day Adventist Churches. He currently serves as Pastor of the Palm Bay Seventh-day Adventist Church in Palm Bay, Florida.
Phipps has performed for a number of American Presidents including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama at several National Prayer Breakfast events and other important celebrations. He also performed for the 1984 and 1988 National Democratic Conventions, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and President Nelson Mandela. He has appeared on various programs such as the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. television special, Dr. Robert Schuller's Hour of Power Telecast, the Billy Graham Crusades, for the Pope at the Vatican, and was the guest soloist at Diana Ross' wedding ceremony in Switzerland. He has also performed on Saturday Night Live, Soul Train and the Oprah Winfrey Show. He has conducted lectures in Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa and North and South America. Wintley Phipps is married to Linda Diane Galloway Phipps and they have three sons: Wintley Augustus, II, Winston Adriel, and Wade Alexander.
Most of you have heard Wintley Phipps sing, whether you remember his name or not. Wintley Phipps did a performance at Carnegie Hall in 2007 in which he explained the likely origins of the most famous hymn in all the world, Amazing Grace. His presentation of this hymn, and the use of “The Black Notes Only,” will not only teach you about music (if you are not a trained musician) but it will stir your soul so deeply that I believe you will be moved beyond words. I have watched this presentation several times and have wept more than once. Believe me this is worth your time. I now watch this several times a week. If your soul gets down watch it. Honestly I am weeping right now as I finish this blog listening once again to Wintley’s melodious voice sing my favorite hymn once again.
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It is a great, heart-warming story, but unfortunately, it is NOT TRUE. Newton wrote the words of the hymn as a poem, which was how it was published in 1779. We have no idea whether he sang it to any particular tune, but we do know that the melody it is currently sung with (New Britain) was not associated with the song until the 1830’s. Before that time, it was undoubtedly sung to numerous other melodies.
To be clear, it allows sentimentality to replace historical fact. Yes, John Newton (1725-1807) was a slave trader (until 1754), and, yes, John Newton was later ordained an Anglican priest (in 1764), and, yes, John Newton penned the hymn text , “Amazing Grace” (published without music in 1779 in “Olney Hymns,” a text collection co-authored with William Cowper). Yes, the indigenous folk melodies of Africa are generally pentatonic (as is true of the folksong of most every culture on the planet), and, yes, the song of African slaves was often characterized by the musical traditions of their homeland (though the all-important role of drumming was regularly discouraged and even prohibited by slave owners), and, yes, both black and white spirituals in North America are also often pentatonic (more a product of their folk origin than of any sort of cross-culturization).
However, the well-known folk tune now universally associated with Newton’s text originated on this continent, first appearing in print with a different text in 1829 in the American folk hymnal, “Columbian Harmony.” The tune and Newton’s text did not come together until 1835 (28 years after Newton’s death) when hymnal editor William Walker paired them in “Southern Harmony,” a text and tune collection published, ironically, in New Haven, Connecticut. Thus, despite the romance of Winley Phipps’ story of Newton “setting his words to a slave melody,” Newton never heard, sang, or even encountered the melody now so closely associated with his famous words.
Does that historical fact in any way diminish the significance of this beloved hymn and its familiar tune? Absolutely, not! On the other hand, attempting to increase its significance through hymnological mythology is not only irresponsible, but, in this instance, absolutely unecessary.