Amazing Grace might be the ultimate song of redemption, steeped in two centuries of black history, but its writer had also been a slave ship captain.
There is no shortage of versions of Amazing Grace. The Library of Congress has catalogued 3,049 recordings up to the year 2000 alone. One writer has estimated that it is performed 10 million times around the world every year. But the most famous rendition in recent years is the one that President Barack Obama gave on 26 June 2015 in in Charleston, South Carolina at the televised funeral of Clementa Pinckney, one of nine black church-goers gunned down by a white supremacist nine days earlier. Joan Baez recorded a song about the massacre called The President Sang Amazing Grace. “It’s electrifying,” says James Walvin, author of the new book Amazing Grace: The Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn. “It’s hard to think of such a bad singing voice having such a powerful effect.”
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Amazing Grace was the perfect choice. It is easy to sing and as universally well-known as any song can be. Authors have called it “America’s most beloved song” and “our spiritual national anthem”. “Spending a lot of time in the States, you cannot escape the hymn,” says Walvin. “It’s a kind of musical background to American life.”
It is most closely associated with a particular strand of American life. The first black president commemorated a black tragedy before a black congregation with a song steeped in two centuries of black history. Slaves sang Amazing Grace on the plantations; liberated slaves sang it in black churches; Martin Luther King sang it on civil rights marches. Amazing Grace promises redemption from sin and suffering and the possibility of spiritual progress. “We don’t deserve grace,” Obama told Bruce Springsteen in a 2021 podcast, “but we get it sometimes.”
But by singing it in Charleston, Obama was inadvertently connecting to a much more troubling chapter in the hymn’s history. John Newton, the English clergyman who wrote the words in 1772, had been to Charleston himself in 1749, in his capacity as the first mate of the slave ship Brownlow. It had been a gruesome crossing. Of the cargo of 218 African men, 62 had either perished from illness or been killed for rebelling. Newton later became an opponent of slavery and mentor to the abolitionist William Wilberforce but before that, he was a willing participant.
Seeing the light
This historical irony inspired Walvin, a seasoned historian of slavery, to write a book covering the 300-year tale of the man and his hymn. “What modern observers find very hard to get their heads around is the fact that huge numbers of men involved in the slave trade were devout Christians,” says Walvin. “God-fearing people doing godless work. Newton is very unusual in the sense that he’s had this grotesque experience and then sees the light.”
John Newton was born in Wapping, London in 1725, the son of a mariner, and had made six voyages with his father by the age of 17. His mother had taught him scripture but died when he was six, and he fell away from religion. As a young man, he had a reputation for disobedience, debauchery and outrageous profanity. In 1743, he was pressganged into the Royal Navy and spent five miserable, violent years abroad before he was rescued by a friend of his father’s, the captain of the Greyhound. During that time, he worked on a slave ship and was himself effectively enslaved in Sierra Leone.
After a ferocious storm almost sank the Greyhound in 1748, Newton attributed his survival to the power of prayer and converted to evangelical Christianity, eschewing drinking, gambling and profanity. “Surely no one could be a greater libertine in principle or practice, more abandoned or more daring than I,” he wrote to a friend 28 years later. “But I obtained mercy.” He hailed “the Amazing Grace that snatched me from ruin”.
It was as a born-again Christian that Newton joined the slave trade in earnest
But it was as a born-again Christian that Newton joined the slave trade in earnest. He saw no contradiction in that. After working on the Brownlow, he captained two slave ships: the Duke of Argyle and the African. Like any slaver, he used violence to ensure obedience, yet he downplayed this brutality in his abolitionist writings.
“He says this was a great wickedness that he regrets and then he moves on,” says Walvin. “He doesn’t dwell too much on the details. He says he knew people who put Africans into thumbscrews. What he doesn’t say is he himself had done it.”
In 1754, Newton left seafaring behind to preach the gospel, yet he continued to invest in the slave trade for another decade. In 1764, he was ordained by the Church of England and established a curacy in the Buckinghamshire village of Olney. The poet William Cowper was a parishioner, and the pair collaborated on 1779’s Olney Hymns. One of Newton’s scores of contributions, Faith’s Review and Expectation, had been written in 1772 and first sung in his church on New Year’s Day 1773. It opens with the words, “Amazing grace!”
The hymn is an attention-grabber: accessible and urgent, using mostly one-syllable words. Its opening phrase combines drama, serenity and confession, giving the parable of the prodigal son the first-person immediacy of a “wretch like me”. So it is tempting to read the hymn’s message of redemption (“I once was lost, but now I’m found/ Was blind, but now I see”) as a personal expression of guilt and repentance. Indeed, that is the implication of the 2006 Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace, in which Albert Finney plays a guilt-haunted Newton. But Newton did not become an active abolitionist until 1788, after he had left Olney. According to Walvin, Amazing Grace was “just another hymn to support a particular sermon”.
For almost 200 years, the song was not particularly popular in Newton’s home country. As late as 1907, the leading hymnologist John Julian pronounced it “far from being a good example of Newton’s work”. “The Anglican criticism was rather snotty,” says Walvin. “I think they didn’t like the enthusiasm that singers bring to it.”
In the US, however, that same quality made it popular during the Second Great Awakening, the Protestant religious revival that swept the former colonies between the 1790s and the 1830s. It was first published there in 1789, the same year as the Constitution, and spoke to the new nation’s obsession with spiritual rebirth. Simple, soaring and consoling, the hymn was ideal for evangelising: the foulest sins can be forgiven, the cruellest trials overcome, as long as you embrace the Lord.
Yet the tune sung by those worshippers was not the one we know today. The current melody, known as New Britain, was first attached to Newton’s words in William Walker’s bestselling 1835 songbook The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. Older melodies clung to Amazing Grace for another century – the song collectors John and Alan Lomax recorded several different versions in the 1920s and 1930s – but New Britain, rising and falling like the ocean, slowly prevailed.
Amazing Grace’s third verse speaks to “people who have been oppressed and hope for something better” – James Walvin
Amazing Grace was so popular with slaves that some verses appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, merged with one from another English hymn, Jerusalem, My Happy Home. Yet it also appeared in The Army Hymn-Book for Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War.
Entirely different audiences believed it spoke to them. The hymn carried over into the black churches that sprang up after abolition, where it suited the ecstatic singing style of the Baptist and Methodist traditions. The third verse’s reference to “dangers, toils and snares”, says Walvin, speaks especially strongly to “people who have been oppressed and hope for something better”.
Amazing Grace finally obtained its modern form in 1909, when the evangelical composer and publisher Edwin Othello Excell wrote a new arrangement that owed less to the rural folk tradition and trimmed its six stanzas to three, bolting on the interloper from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Newton’s final verse was more apocalyptic: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow/ The sun forebear to shine.”)
Excell’s hymnbooks sold by the million, so his version soon became the version. At every step of the music industry’s evolution, from songbooks to sheet music to radio to vinyl, Amazing Grace benefitted. “There’s an element of serendipity at every point,” says Walvin. “The people who promoted a new version of it were very often surprised by how successful it was.”
Amazing Grace was first recorded, under the name New Britain, by the Original Sacred Harp Choir in 1922. The blues pioneer Bessie Smith sang it as a young woman. The country singer Herman Crook sang it on the Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1925. The gospel star Mahalia Jackson recorded a classic rendition in 1947. Paul Robeson included it on an album of spirituals in 1954. The folk group the Weavers sang it at Carnegie Hall in 1960. Amazing Grace advanced on all fronts.
Most potently, it was adopted by the civil rights movement to raise spirits and stiffen spines in the face of police violence and incarceration. Martin Luther King would telephone Mahalia Jackson and ask her to sing it down the line when he needed reassurance. It was performed as a de facto protest song by Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock, and by Joan Baez, who didn’t initially realise that it was a hymn rather than a folk song.
Extraordinary though it seems, Amazing Grace did not become truly ubiquitous until the 1970s. As an implicit protest against the Vietnam War, the activist folksinger Judy Collins recorded a crystalline a cappella version in 1970, which became a worldwide hit. “The song was a talisman against death, against the raging war,” she wrote in her memoir Singing Lessons.
In the UK, a bagpipe version by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards became the biggest-selling single of 1972. Strictly speaking, this instrumental was New Britain but the ghost of the words of Amazing Grace hovered in listeners’ minds. During the same period, it was covered by the Byrds, Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin, who made it the epic, roof-raising title track of her 1972 live album – the most successful gospel album of all time.
However it was performed, Amazing Grace was a spiritual tonic in troubled times: a song of limitless emotional utility. But the editor of one hymnal complained that the pop deluge “cast a sentimental shadow over this hymn, presumably because those performers do not understand the experience of salvation that so amazed Newton”.
A song of salvation?
Amazing Grace has since been recorded by artists as diverse as Susan Boyle and Sufjan Stevens, and has figured in ceremonies of national grief, from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to 9/11. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a London vicar’s deployment of Judy Collins’ version as he cycled around empty streets moved Collins to record it again with a virtual choir of 1000 singers from 30 countries.
“It’s words that have tremendous meaning for huge numbers of people set against a musical background that is simple yet memorable,” says Walvin. “An extraordinary mix.”
As for its author, the UK’s anguished reckoning with its slave-trading history has made the white-saviour story told in 2006’s Amazing Grace harder to swallow. “No serious historian thinks of it like that now,” says Walvin. “One of the problems that Brits face is that our relationship with slavery is the way we ended it. Abolition is a smokescreen between us and slavery itself.”
As the names of slave traders are removed from buildings, and their statues replaced, it might seem as if John Newton’s active complicity would taint his greatest hymn. But Walvin believes that Amazing Grace is simply too beloved to be tarnished.
“I can’t think of another song that has such universal appeal,” he says. “It touches so many people. An Englishman wrote a hymn in the late 18th Century that now is hugely popular with the descendants of the people he shipped across the Atlantic. The work transcends the man who did it.”
Amazing Grace: The Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn by James Walvin (University of California Press) is out now.
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