Rethinking Lyrics in Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is a well-known and beautiful hymn from the 1770s. Many of us can quote the lyrics to it. However, not all of us have the same reaction to the lyrics. Many disabled people hesitate to sing the line, “I was blind but now I see.” Why? First and foremost, it communicates that having sight is superior to being blind, which is eugenics. Eugenics was used to justify genocide during the early 20th century. Or one could see the above lyric as spiritual blindness, which still equates blindness as inferior to sight. Furthermore, if one sees it as spiritual blindness it may motivate them to try and heal blind people. Blind people bear the image of God as they are and do not need healing imposed on them.


When Amazing Grace was written, it was not uncommon to use disability as a metaphor like the one above. Disability being used as a metaphor still exists to this day, using words like “crazy, insane, blind, deaf, lame” etc. to describe something is an example. There are several problems with this metaphorical language. These words were used to institutionalize, kill, and further harm disabled people for centuries. Using these words metaphorically is ableist language.


A lot of people do not know the history behind these ableist words. Now that we know some of the history behind the language, we can change it to be more inclusive.


Here these words from Disability Theologian Stephanie Tait about how she feels about the line and her suggestion to change it:


“A polite heads up that there are a lot of ableist metaphors used in worship songs/hymns. The most common tend to use blindness as a representation of ignorance, sin, aimlessness, hopelessness etc and gaining sight as a marker of wisdom, wholeness, faith, and being “saved.”


If you’re abled (meaning if you are nondisabled), you may feel like that’s being “nitpicky” or “just looking for something to complain about.” But when you’re disabled, you hear *yourself* being used as a metaphor for everything we’re hoping not to be, and everything we’re saying Jesus came to correct and undo.


I’ve seen some progressive churches/conferences change lyrics to songs to remove harmful theologies or to be more gender inclusive. I’ve never seen one change a lyric to remove ableism though. Whenever I sing [Amazing Grace], I change the ableist lyrics “was blind but now I see” to “was bound but now I’m free.” Communicates the same message but without using anyone’s disability as a way to communicate being ignorant, broken, or less than whole.”


Her suggestion of changing the language to “was bound but now I’m free” is not the only option. Personally, when I sing Amazing Grace, I omit the line altogether. I think Stephanie Tait is on the right track with her critique of ableist language in hymns and songs. Changing ableist lyrics would go a long way in making disabled people feel more welcome in church spaces.