If you are a Civil War history buff, you might associate the name Mt. Weather with a strategic mountain top fought over several times as a lookout point by both North and South; if a serious traveler, you might just know it as a place on the map of Virginia in the Blue Ridge mountains about fifty miles west of Washington D.C. right next to the West Virginia line. If you are something of a conspiratorialist, you might recall articles describing the place as “Doomsday City”, or something similar. Actually, you would be right on all counts.
First constructed during the Cold War as an “Alternate National Capital”, it is –among other things – a vast, hardened, underground facility equipped to keep our government working in any kind of calamity or disaster, complete with a subterranean infrastructure. It is, in short, one of the most protected and secret sites in America. I cite these facts to underline the sense of aloneness and isolation I felt during a one-week stay there a few years ago in the course of anti-terrorism and weapons-of-mass-destruction training. Our small handful of emergency planners and responders from “the outside world” were restricted to carefully-marked walkways, corridors and buildings, and our quarters, while adequate, were almost reclusive.
One evening, I had repaired to my second-floor room when I heard the skirling notes of a bagpipe – a sound which has always struck a responsive chord in my inner being. I descended the stairs, and popped my head outdoors, not at all sure whether I might merely be hearing someone’s radio or tape recorder. My heart began to take special notice as I recognized the familiar notes of “Amazing Grace”, a favorite of every piper I had ever known. At last sure of direction, I strolled a ways down one of the few roadways not marked “off limits” to us, and into view came the figure of a fellow student from Utah, standing alone on a patch of lawn, playing his heart out. One by one, a few others from our small cadre joined us, sitting on a piece of nearby curbing or tree stump, surrounded by the emptiness of the secret underground city beneath our feet, mesmerized by the unexpected magic of the music. Not just any music, but one of the most beloved of American hymn songs for more than two centuries. Especially revered by members of the military, and often played as well at the funerals of police and firefighters, it is generally looked upon as “American as apple pie”; part and parcel of our unique cultural heritage.
While the connection with frontier America is certainly true, with the words and music appearing in the hymn books of dozens of denominations dating back to the 18th century, the words are the gift of an English preacher named John Newton, an individual whose story reads like a piece of creative fiction. Born in London in 1725 the son of a ship’s master, he followed his father to sea, serving on the crew of a British man-of-war in the most harsh and brutal of environments. As punishment for an attempt to desert, he was consigned to service on a slave ship, eventually working in the English slave trade in Sierra Leone where he was subjected to humiliating abuse at the hands of the master he served. His personal epiphany came in the midst of a terrible storm at sea in May, 1848. So profound was the depth of the religious conversion which took place within him that night that he forever after counted his life as beginning on that night.
Burdened with an overpowering sense of guilt, he channeled his life into becoming an ordained minister in The Church of England and finding a way to redeem himself from what he saw as a sinful past forever blemished by an association with slavery. Unlike other preachers whose service was marked by an outward piousness, Newton presented himself as a repentant “sinner” seeking his own way back while reaching out to others. His little parish at Olney, Buckinghamshire attracted such a following that the building had to be enlarged. There he authored the words to as many as 280 hymns, and the “Olney Hymn Book” was born and found its way across the Atlantic to the New World.
Students of church music history are unsure of the origins of the music which became intertwined with Newton’s powerful words, but I for one would find a touch of eternal justice in the opinion that it came from a spiritual melody raised by the voices of some of those same black slaves.
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.
The vicarage in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England where John Newton often met with such fellow writers of verse as William Cowper, and where he wrote “Amazing Grace” around 1760.