How a Slave Trader’s Hymn Became a Global Anthem

It may seem odd for a historian of slavery to write a history of a popular hymn. In fact, the link between “Amazing Grace” and slavery is clear and fairly obvious: the author of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton,  had been an Atlantic slave trader in early life. On one voyage, Newton delivered enslaved Africans to Charleston. Two and half centuries later, President Obama sang the hymn in Charleston, at the funeral of a local cleric and his parishioners (who had been killed by a racist).

No one could claim that Obama has a good singing voice, but that event at the College of Charleston in 2015 remains an electrifying moment. The congregation of 5,000 rose to join the President and everyone present seemed to know the hymn by heart. That astonishing moment persuaded me to write this book.

I had circled round John Newton for many years. Indeed, some of my earlier books concentrated on John Newton as a slave trader. But the more I read about his famous hymn, and the more I listened to the innumerable recorded versions of it in the Library of Congress, the clearer it became that here was a remarkable historical story.

How did a hymn that was written by a slave trader-turned-English cleric, and directed initially at his humble parishioners in a remote rural English parish, become such a global anthem for humankind? Equally, how did a hymn written by a man who had doled out violence and misery to Africans on his ships, become so beloved of African Americans? “Amazing Grace” presents us with a series of overlapping historical curiosities, all of which demand explanation. How and why did Newton abandon the slave trade for a clerical career? And what importance should we attach to his subsequent role as an advocate of abolition? What precisely did Newton’s words in “Amazing Grace” mean? And why did they resonate so powerfully first among enslaved people, then among their freed descendants? Did Newton write it with enslaved people in mind? No less puzzling, what fuelled the rise of the hymn to commercial and global success in the late decades of the 20th century – and into the present day? What exactly is its appeal today to millions of people in all corners of the globe?

I set out to answer these and other questions about that simple hymn. It soon became clear that “Amazing Grace” not only offers an interesting story in itself, but provides a remarkable insight into wider issues in the history of the enslaved Atlantic.

 James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of York. He has published widely on slavery and modern social history. He is the author of A World Transformed: Slavery in the Americas and the Origins of Global Power.