Dolly Parton’s version of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” written in the 18th century by slave trader-turned-abolitionist John Newton, may soon become an official state hymn of Tennessee.
In February, Tennessee State Rep. Mike Sparks and Sen. Raumesh Akbari introduced HB 0938 and SB 1416. The matching bills would formally amend the “State Symbols” portion of the state code.
Arguing that Tennessee “should recognize songs of historic significance that have influenced the state,” lawmakers reference Newton's Christian faith, his denunciation of slavery and his later efforts to support the abolishment of slavery.
“John Newton struggled against the temptation of profits earned by merchants and slavers and uncertainty as to his religious belief during the first two decades of his life,” the bill notes.
“Mr. Newton's life, rife with ‘dangers, toils and snares,’ frequently made him feel as though he had been miraculously spared, despite his struggles. … [H]e experienced a spiritual conversion after his ship was caught in a severe storm in 1748; he began reading the Bible and other religious literature during the remainder of his return journey to England.”
The bill explains that during Newton’s first year serving in the town of Olney, England, he wrote the hymn, which became one of the “most celebrated songs in modern history.”
The epitaph Newton wrote for his tomb reads, in part: “once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy."
The state acknowledges that though many others with Tennessee connections have performed the song, including Elvis Presley, Garth Brooks and Willie Nelson, they chose Parton's specific rendition.
After being introduced in the House, the bill was assigned to the Naming & Designating Committee. Other designated songs in Tennessee include “Rocky Top” and “Smoky Mountain Rain.”
Throughout her storied career, “Amazing Grace” has been a regular part of Parton’s songbook and was even recontextualized as the track “Shine On,” for her 1998 LP Hungry Again, notes CMT.
Parton, a Tennessee native, recently turned down the state’s offer to erect a statue of her on Nashville’s Capitol Hill.
“Given all that is going on in the world,” she said, “I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time.”
In a 2019 interview with The Christian Post, the country star shared how, as a little girl raised in the Smoky Mountains, an old woman once told her: “You are anointed.”
“We grew up in the Church, and my grandpa was a Pentecostal preacher,” Parton recalled. “So healing and praying and being anointed and all that stuff, that was nothing new to us, ‘cause we survived because of our faith in God to get us through and all that. But when that old lady told me that I was anointed, I didn't know what that was. I was just thinking it was like, olive oil.”
When Parton asked her mother to explain what the old woman meant, she responded, "That means that God has His hand on you; that you may do something special.”
“That,” the award-winning singer added, “triggered a faith in me because I believe that I was supposed to do something good. After she told me that, I thought, ‘Well then this is my responsibility. I'm going to do something good.'”
“So I kinda held that also in the back of my mind, whether that was predestined or not, or whether I just took that little grain of faith and made that so for myself,” the “Jolene” singer continued.
“I never let go of that. I always felt responsible to God that I was supposed to be doing something for God. I still feel like that, and I'm still doing it, trying to. Sinning all the way, but trying my best, and asking forgiveness seventy times seven.”