'Amazing Grace is an anthem for mankind' - York professor's book on the hymn's enduring appeal
Now, Walvin, a Professor of History Emeritus at the University of York, has written a book about the tune, a song recorded by musical stars ranging from Aretha Franklin and Judy Collins to Elvis Presley and Mahalia Jackson.
In Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn, Walvin seeks to tell the story of how a simple Christian hymn, written in a remote English vicarage, now holds sway over millions all over the world.
In its 250th anniversary year, he explores the enduring appeal of a song that’s been sung from Soweto to Vanuatu, by American presidents and Chinese political dissidents, and by gospel choirs, folk singers, and artists from Kenya to New Zealand.
“It is a hymn that speaks of hope and redemptions, of peace and happiness despite life’s woes and turmoil,” Walvin muses.
The author of the hymn, John Newton, was a former Liverpool slave captain who became a vicar and fervent abolitionist in his later years. “Amazing Grace speaks to the life of a sinner who finds salvation through God’s grace,” Walvin says.
“John Newton the slaver found grace and, he hoped, salvation when he turned to God. It is a hymn anchored in, and shaped by, the grotesque realities of Atlantic slavery.”
Recognised for his pioneering research and writing about the history of Britain’s black community, Walvin’s published work has been largely in the field of slavery and modern British Social History. He first wrote about Newton 30 years ago.
“Throughout the intervening years he and his work have haunted my research and writing about slavery. But seeing [then US] President Obama sing the hymn at a Charleston memorial service for the Rev. Pinckney (in 2015) galvanised me...How could the words of a slave ship captain be so important, to so many people, in the 21st century?”
Walvin tracks Amazing Grace’s transition from church hymn to an integral part of the cause for abolition. He shows how it travelled across the Atlantic and galvanised decades of movements and trends in American history and pop culture. He looks at how versions by Judy Collins and Aretha Franklin in the 1970s boosted the song’s reach and how its popularity has grown during turbulent periods, from the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights movement to 9/11 and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Walvin says: “It is, at one and the same time, a hymn which captures a profound religious sensibility and a simple humanity which transcends religious divisions. It is an anthem for mankind.”
Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn is published today by University of California Press. A launch event is taking place at Waterstones in York tomorrow. For tickets, visit waterstones.com/events/search/shop/york