Now in its 250th anniversary year, the hymn Amazing Grace was written by a Liverpool slave trader, John Newton, who repented during a storm at sea and became a vicar and an abolitionist. Alumni Voices speaks to author and University of York History Professor Emeritus, James Walvin about the history of this iconic hymn.
“When I watched the Obama moment in 2015 – when he sung Amazing Grace – that’s the moment that sparked my interest in the hymn. If you listen to that clip, it’s an electrifying moment. It was at that moment when I thought, ‘Here we are in the College of Charleston (which was built by slave owners and resisted integration until the 1960s), the first African American president singing to a largely African American audience a hymn written by a slave trader who had actually delivered slaves to Charleston. It’s full of history and this hymn takes a slap right bang into the heart of it all. Now there’s a story.
John Newton was an English cleric who wrote many hymns in the late 18th century, Amazing Grace was just one of them. First sung in his small parish in Olney, Buckinghamshire on 1 January 1773, he wrote hymns to accompany his sermons and each hymn had a point that was reinforced in his sermon. The interesting thing about Amazing Grace, not merely that it has become this global anthem, is that it was written by a man who wasn’t merely a cleric, but he had this quite extraordinary history as a slave trader. I don’t know of any other hymn written by an ex-slave trader that has become a global hit. It’s unique in that sense, but it’s also unique in that it gives us some insight into John Newton’s theology.
I’d circled Amazing Grace for many years because I’ve been researching and writing about slavery since the late 1960s. At the heart of it increasingly I was interested in John Newton – partly because of his work as a slave trader, but also because of this apparent incongruity between being a God fearing man, a cleric, who was also a slave trader.
I was born and raised in Manchester in 1942. When I was about six I joined the local Anglican choir at St. John’s Church and I stayed in that choir until I lost my faith in 1960 and went off to university. Throughout all the services I attended as a choir boy – I worked out it was about a thousand services – I don’t recall ever singing Amazing Grace. Not once. It wasn’t in the hymn book. It’s a hymn that’s never been very popular in the Anglican Church. That’s not the case amongst nonconformist dissenters, Baptists, Methodists – they love it.
I became a historian at the University of York when I came to do my PhD in 1965, under the extraordinary charismatic, brilliant leadership of Professor Gwyn Williams, this tiny Welshman, anyone who was around at the 1960s at York will remember him – one of the great public speakers of our time. I worked with him on my PhD which was about the origins of working class politics. I got into slavery by serendipity when I was at graduate school in Canada with an old mate who became a Caribbean historian. He asked me to join him in a research project on a sugar plantation in Jamaica in 1967 and that became a book in 1970. Thereafter, I took off and became a historian of slavery.
At the time very few people were working on slavery as very few people were interested in it in Britain. It was of interest to a large number of American historians, but in Britain, it was marginal and wasn’t even regarded as a serious topic. I increasingly started flying back and forth to Jamaica, most of my colleagues thought this was an extraordinary kind of boondoggle; there they were heading off in winter to the archives channels for research and I was on a plane to the Caribbean. It was very hard persuading them it actually was quite hard, serious work. But gradually of course, slavery became center stage and now you can’t open a popular newspaper without seeing something about slavery. Slavery is now regarded as a central issue in the shaping of the modern Western world – now our time has come.
York was a Quaker town, Quakers were influential out of all proportion to their numbers. I actually wrote a book about this some years ago, called The Quakers: Money and Morals. They were anti-slavery, but they were also great manufacturers of chocolates, but what made the chocolate acceptable to British consumers? It was sugar. And where did that sugar come from? It came initially from slaves in the Caribbean. Despite some recent efforts, York doesn’t have a very powerful economic or social link to slavery, except in the way that the whole of Britain did – and that is as consumers of slave grown goods. People dressed in cotton that was grown by American slaves, they ate goods that were mixed with sugar, and the sugar was consumed and produced until the 1830s by slaves in the British Caribbean. They smoked tobacco in great volumes that was produced in Virginia by African slaves. The story of York is actually the story of Britain as a whole. I think Amazing Grace provides a reminder, if you get behind the words in the song, of the presence of slavery in the world that we live in.
Researching Amazing Grace was the most unusual research experience I’ve ever done. Of all the years I’ve been working in libraries all over the world I have never sat down for a couple of weeks in a library and simply listened. I spent a couple of weeks in the Library of Congress in Washington, where they have 3,040 versions of Amazing Grace. I sat in a little corner with my earphones on listening to a huge number. Some of them I didn’t like one little bit; some I loved. It was listening, jotting down notes and having ideas. That was a really strange experience. In most of my research life I’ve been poring over documents with gloved hands, moving old decaying documents, or reading old books in libraries, but not simply listening to someone singing or playing a piece of music. I enjoyed that unusual and new experience.
John Newton would have been amazed, when he wrote the hymn in the 1770s, to know that his hymn was a global hit today. He wrote it for a small group of parishioners in Buckinghamshire, and now it’s known and sung by zillions of people. It is an astonishing story, how Amazing Grace has had this profound cultural resonance all over the world. That’s due to a strange mix of things. It’s the words and the music but the words and the music did not come together in the way we know them today until the late 19th century. The global impact of Amazing Grace didn’t happen until the 1970s onwards – commercial interests made it the hymn that we know today. Before then it was only known as a hymn in African American life. First of all, amongst the enslaved, who took to it via their Methodist and Baptist churches, and it became part of American gospel, that extraordinary musical characteristic survives to this day in most remarkable form. It also survived in America as a folk song. Those two versions thrived throughout the 20th century, but from 1970 it took off as a popular song. Thanks first of all, to the Judy Collins version, which was recorded in the chapel of St. Paul’s, on the campus of Columbia University in New York. Then by the Scottish Regimental Pipers and then absolutely dramatically by Aretha Franklin’s version in 1972, the classic gospel version backed by the Los Angeles choir, which was then filmed and shown on BBC. Those three recordings – Judy Collins, Scottish, Pipers and Aretha Franklin – launched Amazing Grace as a popular commercial song and thereafter it went stratospheric.
The words mean a great deal to people, particularly to people who’ve been oppressed, who’ve had harsh lives, people who come from miserable circumstances and the prospect that the hymn offers them of salvation, of grace – that there’s something better to come. The words mean something really important. The music also has that haunting, lyrical appeal that people find seductive. You put those two together and you have a very potent mix. I can think of any number of occasions where the tune is played without the words, you know exactly what it is. I remember sailing around the southern tip of Manhattan – the first time I’d been back since 911 – and the boat I was on played Amazing Grace. Everyone fell silent and it’s become a piece of music that people use for moments of silence, for moments of reverence, for committals at funerals, the burial of presidents for instance. It’s a poignant moment. Bono thought that the song that he would like to say his farewells with would be Amazing Grace, and he quoted, ‘Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound. That’s a wonderful way of signing off.’ And that’s Bono.
It shifted in popularity from being a simple hymn that people sang as part of their worship to being something that’s the communal expression of aspiration and faith. That was certainly true amongst the slaves and then the freed slaves in North America. It’s become an expression of African American life in a way. It also became very important as a theme tune in the American civil rights campaign in the 1950s and 60s. It was sung by people on the march, when they were bedding down at night. It became a song that crops up in all the great mass crowds of the late 60s and 70s in North America, particularly in the agitation against the Vietnam War. It’s a song for every man, for every woman and comes to express an astonishing range of emotions and aspirations.
I think the surprising thing is the way it’s taken off commercially. It’s become the backdrop for the soundtrack to so many features of Western life. Both good, pious, reverent and also brassily commercial. It’s become an inescapable anthem. It’s played in all kinds of circumstances: in movies, sale for commercial commodities – it is so universal.
You can shape it to a whole host of things. If you want to be quiet and reflective and ponder your own life, its miseries and its prospects, you can listen to it and sing it by yourself. If you want to involve a huge crowd of people and give them an uplift as did Joan Baez at Woodstock and elsewhere, you could get them to engage with Amazing Grace. If you want to have a knees up, have a good country and western fun moment, sing Amazing Grace. It’s a malleable song and a malleable set of words that appeals to so many people in so many different situations.
The sensitivity about Amazing Grace is to remember that it’s a hymn. The words are specifically theological – they’re about people’s faith and their relationship with the Almighty. It’s very easy to lose sight of that if you just want to concentrate on Amazing Grace as a popular song. It’s also important to remember that it finds its bedrock in North America, in the world of American slavery. The irony is although John Newton was a slave trader, he didn’t write it for the slaves or about the slaves; he’s writing about himself and about his own salvation. It’s his form of redemption. The Lord has granted him grace despite his wicked past. But for African Americans, it means here are people who’ve gone through ordeals that people find very hard to understand and yet, there’s hope for them – aspirations can be met if they have the Lord’s grace.”
Amazing Grace by James Walvin, published by the University of California Press, is available to buy from 21 November 2023. James was also featured on Radio 4’s Today programme and Front Row.