Amazing Grace, The Cherokee Nation and The Trail of Tears
©2009 Robert Burnham
I wrote my first remembered poem when I was six years old. About that same time in my life I began attending Sunday school and singing hymns with my fellow students. The hymn that was sung most repetitiously and most reverently was, of course, John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’. Hymns and poetry, I was writing one and singing the other but still, until many years later, I never saw the connection. The simple truth that hymns were nothing more than poems put to music had evaded me. Poetry, blended with music, to satisfy both the ears of man and the heart of God.
At that early age I was so proud to have the first and last verses down pact. I felt so righteous being able to look upwards away from the hymnal whenever those two verses were sung. I literally shouted the words into the ethereal and could no doubt see the obsidian eyes of our Lord looking straight down upon me. I was quite flabbergasted to learn many years later that the final verse that I knew from childhood was not, and is not, the same as when Mr. Newton originally wrote it. I, and perhaps you, have always sung: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing his praise as when we first begun“. I have never sung: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine; But God who called me here below, will be forever mine“.
It was such a grand revelation coming from the most common of all earthly hymns. Never in my wildest imagination did I consider; that once again, many years later, that hymn would afford me another fabulous revelation, but it has!
I have just learned that ‘Amazing Grace’ is such a powerful hymn that it has crossed cultures, well beyond that of Christianity. The Cherokee nation translated and sang it repeatedly along the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’. That long, arduous and forced march of the surrendering Cherokee claimed the lives of so many, young and old alike. The survivors were not allowed competent time to bury or even properly mourn the fallen. They were simply forced to march on. The Cherokees marched on singing the hymn, its poetry providing them the only comfort available under such cruel and inhumane circumstances.
In Robert McDowell’s 2008 book Poetry as Spiritual Practice, I have discovered a wonder so beautiful, I feel compelled to share it here on Gather®. Here is the Cherokee translation of ‘Amazing Grace’ as sung by the last remnant of a nation commonly referred to in the day, as ‘savages’. In parenthesis, I am providing the actual corresponding English to the Cherokee tongue. I regret that I cannot instruct you in the pronunciation.
u ne la nv i u we tsi (God’s Son)
i ga go yv he i (paid for us)
hna quo tso sv wi yu lo se (now to Heaven went)
i gag u yv ho nv (after paying for us)
a se no I u ne tse i (then He spoke)
iI yu no du le nv (when He rose)
ta li ne dv tsi lu tsi le (I’ll come a second time)
u dv ne u ne tsv (He said when He spoke)
e lo nig v ni li squa di (all the world will end)
ga luv tsv he i yu (when He returns)
ni ga did a yi di go i (we will all see Him)
a ni e lo hi gv (here the world over)
u na ya nv ti a ne hv (the righteous who live)
do day a nv hi li (He will come after)
tsa sv hna quo ni go hi lv (in Heaven now always)
do hi wan e he sdi (in peace they will live)
Here we have a significant poem, set to music, labeled a hymn, cross-cultured by translation and intended for, and applied to, spiritual practice. I am awed by the shear power of poetry.
Thanks to Mr. John Newton and Mr. Robert McDowell.
“Morning Tears”, Guthrie Studios.
Poetry As Spiritual Practice by Robert McDowell, Free Press, New York, NY, 2008.
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