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Book review: Amazing Grace: A cultural history of the beloved hymn by James Walvin

22 December 2023

The fame of ‘Amazing Grace’ is very recent, Ian Bradley concludes

“AMAZING GRACE” is arguably the best known and most popular hymn in the world. An internet search certainly suggests as much. Yet, it is only comparatively recently that it has become widely known in Britain. The author of this study recalls that it did not feature among the hymns that he sung as a choirboy in St John’s, Failsworth, in Greater Manchester, in the 1950s. He goes on to note that it continues to be absent from several Church of England hymnals, although it is included in the new Revised English Hymnal, marking, perhaps, its acceptance by the (High) Anglican Establishment.

As its title suggests, his book provides a detailed account of how the verses written by John Newton in Olney in 1772 became an international phenomenon. This happened in the 20th century, first through their adoption by African Americans, ironically the descendants of those whom Newton had ferried across the Atlantic in his days as a slave-ship captain. Sung by Mahalia Jackson, it became an anthem of the civil-rights movement and a protest song at the time of the Vietnam War. Recordings in the early 1970s by Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, and the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards made it a global hit.

James Walvin, best known as a historian of slavery, documents how “Amazing Grace” has taken on the status of a national anthem in the United States. It was memorably sung by President Obama in 2015 after the shooting by a white supremacist of a state senator and pastor along with eight of his parishioners in their church in Charleston, South Carolina. It featured prominently in services and vigils after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and was even sung by some of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol building in Washington in January 2021. It has never attained similar status in this country, although Walvin does describe the considerable impact made in the middle of the Covid lockdown by Pat Allerton, Vicar of St Peter’s, Notting Hill, who cycled around the streets of London playing Judy Collins’s version through speakers.

This meticulously researched study confirms that the worldwide popularity of “Amazing Grace” owes more to the commercialism of the music industry than to the hymn’s intrinsic merit. The great hymnologist John Julian was surely right to describe it as “far from being a good example of Newton’s work”. Its theology is certainly questionable, not least the assertion that grace teaches our hearts to fear. I suspect that much of its appeal is due to the simple, haunting, pentatonic tune from the shape-note tradition of the Appalachian Mountains with which it was first paired in 1835.

Walvin dismisses what he calls “the widespread myth” that it is Scottish. In fact, several musicologists think that it could well be Highland or Hebridean in origin and have crossed the Atlantic states via plantation owners. It certainly goes well on the pipes.

The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Spiritual and Cultural History at the University of St Andrews.

Amazing Grace: A cultural history of the beloved hymn
James Walvin
University of California Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29


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