Amazing Grace 250: An Amazing Year

As Amazing Grace 250 comes to a close, we look back on what has been an Amazing Year!

1st January 2023 at the MK Rose, Campbell Park
African & Caribbean Arts & Heritage Union
Forever?: Roderick Williams, Chineke! Rommi Smith

Amazing Grace 250 – how it all began

Trustees of the Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney knew that the 250th anniversary of the hymn Amazing Grace on 1 January 2023 was a milestone to be marked. 

Written in Olney by Reverend John Newton (1725 – 1807) for his New Year’s Day service in 1773 at the town’s St Peter & St Paul Church, today the Museum shares the history of the life of John Newton and of this hymn which, since making its debut in the Buckinghamshire market town, has become internationally known.

Less known is the life story of John Newton, a naval seaman and slave ship captain before a religious conversion led him to become a clergyman and a key figure in Britain’s Abolitionist Movement.  

Amanda Molcher, Trustee of the Cowper & Newton Museum, said:

“It was of fundamental importance to us that this anniversary gave people an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about Amazing Grace and John Newton, and from the outset we were determined that this had to be a partnership project.  Through discussions in Olney and with the wider community including MK City Council, the Open University, the parish church of St Peter & St Paul, the Friends of the Caribbean-MK, the Stables, the African Diaspora Foundation-MK, the African and Caribbean Arts & Heritage Union-MK, the Sierra Leone Community-MK, Arts & Heritage Alliance-MK and Olney Town Council we established a steering group.  Together, we developed the Amazing Grace 250 (AG250) project and were delighted when our programme, Amazing Grace 250: A Diverse Legacy, secured funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England and the MK Community Foundation.”

Amazing Grace 250 – launch events

On 14 July 2022, AG250 launched with a special event at the Cowper & Newton Museum.  James Walvin, Professor Emeritus in History at the University of York and author of Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn (University of California Press, November 2023), addressed guests who included the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, the Mayors of Milton Keynes and Olney and other civic, cultural and community leaders.

This was followed the next day by Amazing Grace and its Legacies: Reflections at 250, a two-day conference co-hosted by the Museum, the Open University and St Peter & St Paul Church featuring leading speakers and attracting delegates from around the world.  The conference is now available on You Tube.

Jane Brushwood, Town Clerk for Olney Town Council, said:

“Being a partner of the Amazing Grace 250 programme and supporting the Cowper & Newton Museum, has been a great opportunity for Olney Town Council. The anniversary year has been something special for our residents to get involved in, bringing the Amazing Grace hymn and its legacies to the people of Olney – and far beyond.”

Amazing Grace 250 – in the community

From the Amazing Grace Community Quilt to the Amazing Grace Community Orchard, the anniversary has inspired events across the community.

 

A highlight was the formation of the Sweet Sound Choir.  Choral director, Craig McLeish, said:

“I was delighted to be asked to lead Sweet Sound Choir!  Whilst there are lots of wonderful choirs locally, what we didn’t have was a Gospel Choir – and as soon as the word was out there was lots of interest in joining!  Starting with a concert at St Peter & St Paul Church and going on to feature in the Songs of Praise Amazing Grace special in January, the Choir has gone from strength to strength.  Singers from Sweet Sound joined the 250 Voices Choir that sang in the Community Choirs Festival at Campbell Park this summer.”

Amazing Grace 250 – in the Museum

Working with Museumand, the National Caribbean Heritage Museum, new displays were created at the Cowper & Newton Museum to share the history of the life of John Newton and the story of Amazing Grace.  A new online exhibition was curated making virtual visits available for the first time.

Between December 2022 and March 2023, the Museum hosted Sierra-ously Surprising, an exhibition exploring the art and culture of Sierra Leone organised by the Sierra Leone Community-MK and visited by, amongst many others, representatives from the Sierra Leone High Commission in London. The Olney-Newton Link, based in Olney also contributed objects and information relating to the link between Olney and the town of Newton in Sierra Leone.

Alongside welcoming more visitors to the Museum this year, many more people have contacted the Museum to become volunteers.  One of the new volunteers is Derek Martin, who said:

“It has been a great year to be a volunteer at the Cowper & Newton Museum – learning more about John Newton from expert historians, talking with visitors about his eventful life and his journey from slave trader to abolitionist, and of course singing Amazing Grace as part of the 250th anniversary celebrations! The anniversary year has given me the opportunity to train as a tour guide for the museum, telling the story of Cowper and Newton and how their lives were woven together during their time in Olney.”

Amazing Grace 250 – the big day

All eyes were on Olney and Milton Keynes on New Year’s Day 2023 as the 250th anniversary of Amazing Grace was marked through a series of events and activities. 

The special day began in Olney with a service at St Peter & St Paul Church, where the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Bishop of Dover and the Bishop in Canterbury, preached the 250th anniversary sermon and the congregation sang Amazing Grace.

Revd Pritchard-Keens from St Peter & St Paul Church said:

“It was incredible to welcome 300 people into the church to join in with the Amazing Grace service – every seat was filled and we really managed to raise the roof and provide something extra special on New Year’s Day. We had input from different parts of the community, including all four churches in the town, and it really was an event for all.”

“We have also been extremely pleased to host within the church a series of other Amazing Grace events over the course of the anniversary year including educational visits and concerts, and look forward to continuing to work with community groups and the wonderfully supportive Cowper & Newton museum to build our new education area so that we can continue to teach people about the history of this incredible hymn.”

The service in Olney was followed by the Amazing Grace Pilgrimage Walk in Milton Keynes, which started at Middleton Hall and ended at the MK Rose – where Amazing Grace was sung once again.  Cllr Mike Kasibo, founder and CEO of African and Caribbean Arts & Heritage Union MK, said:

“I had the pleasure of being part of the planning of several AG250 events and the Union has been delighted to take part in a number of events, including on New Year’s Day.  We were very touched by the stories from around the world and the different languages that Amazing Grace was delivered in.”

He continued:

“The Amazing Grace song has a very significant impact around the world. To learn of the origins and reasons for the song is a poignant reminder of the struggles people of African heritage have faced for hundreds of years. We believe that this history should be remembered and taught to our young people for all to have a common respect for the impacts of the slave trade that are still felt today.”

In addition to events in Olney and Milton Keynes, in the run up to New Year’s Day the Museum launched a campaign inviting people from around the world to join The Big Sing by sharing their own recordings of singing the song through social media.  Chris Madeley, Heritage Engagement Officer at the Cowper & Newton Museum, said:

“We couldn’t quite believe the reach of our Amazing Grace Big Sing on New Year’s Day.  We were contacted by choirs and singers nationwide and also in Italy, the USA, South America, Australia and more.  Throughout the course of the year, we have also welcomed many more international visitors to our Museum, which has been fabulous.”

Amazing Grace 250 – young people

Creating opportunities for young people to explore the legacy of Amazing Grace and to share their thoughts and feelings has been an important part of the project.  The 2023 MySayMK youth conference, organised by Milton Keynes Youth Council, brought together students from secondary schools across the region to learn more about the history of Amazing Grace and, through the life of John Newton, to learn more about slavery.  Young people visited the museum and then developed their own responses through creative writing and music workshops.

Lisa Thompson, Democratic Participation Officer, Milton Keynes City Council, said:

“Milton Keynes Youth Council (MKYC) co-hosted this year’s MySayMK youth conference with the Cowper & Newton Museum for 250 years of Amazing Grace (AG250). The conference was attended by 49 students from 9 secondary schools from across Milton Keynes and the young people were able to develop a wider understanding on how the Transatlantic Slave Trade is still relevant and how this links to what is going on in the world today.  Students attending this event have hopefully gone away with lots of information that they will be able to share with their peers and schools.”

And through Seeing Together, pupils and staff from St Vincent’s Specialist School for Sensory Impairment and Other Needs based in Liverpool joined with students from Olney Middle School to take part in creative workshops and Olney Scouts and the Amazing Grace Orchard to sow seeds in the meadow and plants a tree they had grown from an acorn. Their visit culminated in a performance at St Peter & St Paul Church.

Amazing Grace 250 – world premiere

As a lasting legacy of the Amazing Grace 250 project, the Cowper & Newton Museum with The Stables commissioned a new piece of music that would be a contemporary response to the hymn.  Entitled Forever? this new commission received its world premiere at The Stables on 22 July as part of IF: Milton Keynes International Festival.  With music composed by Roderick Williams and words by poet Rommi Smith – and supported by Arts Council England and Milton Keynes City Council – the sell-out premiere was performed by musicians from the acclaimed Chineke! orchestra and also featured Sweet Sound Choir. 

Another stand of this project saw musicians from the Chineke! orchestra delivering workshops in local schools and the Music Hub.

Touring exhibition

Thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Cowper & Newton Museum now has a pop-up touring exhibition, which takes the story of John Newton and Amazing Grace nationwide.  The exhibition has already been on display at the Wilberforce House museum in Hull, the birthplace of abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) to whom John Newton was a mentor.  The exhibition has also toured St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London, where John Newton was Rector for 27 years following his time in Olney, Milton Keynes Central Library, Rochester Guildhall Museum, and will moving to the John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol and Moggerhanger Park,

Tom Jones, Chair of Trustees, Cowper & Newton Museum, said:

“It has truly been an Amazing Year, and I want to thank everyone who has made it possible.  We have always been at the heart of our local community here in Olney but through this project we have been able to reach worldwide, and to be a catalyst for important conversations about our shared heritage and history.”

“Whilst Amazing Grace 250 comes to a close, the partnerships we have made and projects we have delivered mark the start of a new chapter for our Museum, and we very much look forward to the future.”

Cllr Robin Bradburn, Deputy Leader of MK City Council, said:

“Milton Keynes City Council has been proud to be a major funder for the Amazing Grace 250 Year. We’ve supported the Cowper & Newton Museum in bringing the city and its diverse communities together to commemorate such a significant event. The heritage, music and community programmes have delivered a fantastic range of activities, exhibitions, performances and learning materials that have engaged many people in Olney, in Milton Keynes and across the world.  We look forward to supporting the museum and its partners in the future.”

Grace will Lead Me Home: Jon Bickley, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyn * Angeline Morrison
Amazing Grace Orchard, Olney
Amazing Grace 250 Voices @ The Community Choirs Festival
Seeing Together: St Vincent's School, Liverpool, Olney Scouts, Amazing Grace Orchard
Amazing Grace Community Orchard
Angeline Cohen and Jon
Grace Will Lead Me Home: Angeline Morrison, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne
The Amazing Grace sermon on 1st Jan 2023 Rt Rev'd Bishop Rose

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