About the Book by James Walvin Titled “Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Priscilla M. Jensen headlined “‘Amazing Grace’ Review: A Hymn for the World’s Heart”:

‘Amazing grace,” intoned the eulogist, and repeated it. He began to sing: “how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,” and the congregation, a bit startled, joined in, as the pianist scrambled to accompany them. The singer was President Barack Obama, who had been addressing mourners at a 2015 memorial service for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight parishioners, African-Americans murdered by a white supremacist during Bible study at their Charleston, S.C., church.

This moment introduces James Walvin’s exploration of the past and present of what may be the most widely known Christian hymn in English. Mr. Walvin, an emeritus professor of history at the University of York, encountered the hymn during his study of the Atlantic slave trade, and in “Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn,” he describes its origin, transmission and flourishing survival into the 21st century.

The origins of “Amazing Grace” are themselves well established: “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” as it was originally titled, was written in 1772 by a Church of England clergyman who became prominent in Britain’s abolition movement. But, in an earlier part of his life, John Newton (1725-1807) captained numerous slave-trading voyages between West Africa and the Caribbean and North American colonies. His ports of call included Charleston, where Mr. Obama would sing his hymn more than two centuries later.

Newton “became an active hymn-writer at a time when hymns were relatively new in England,” Mr. Walvin informs us, but before the turn of the century “Amazing Grace” had crossed the Atlantic and appeared in no fewer than three collections of hymns, with more to come as the Second Great Awakening “transformed and reinvigorated” religious life in America.

The importance of communal singing in American Protestantism, and the rise of a popular method of hymn-singing using easy-to-read musical notes known as “shape notes,” meant that Newton’s composition established a footing, among both white and black congregations, that it has never lost. Importantly, the music by which we know it was not always the standard: The words of “Amazing Grace” have been sung to a number of tunes, some peculiar to only one or two localities. But the now-familiar melody is from a tune originally called “New Britain,” associated with the words by the 1830s and appearing with them in the widely used 1844 collection “The Sacred Harp.”

Mr. Walvin follows “Amazing Grace” through the next century, describing its survival as part of the American folk repertoire: He draws on oral histories from former slaves to describe their memories of “shouting” it. In fact, the song was not included in African Methodist Episcopal hymnals until 1890, “not because the hymn was unpopular but because of concerns about how the church would be viewed by outside critics,” that is, as too informal and lacking “choral discipline.”

The development of gospel music—both the white evangelical style of Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey and the slightly later black church music exemplified by Thomas A. Dorsey—carries the narrative forward to the remarkable pop phenomenon that occurred in 1970, when Judy Collins’s a cappella recording became an international hit, selling millions of copies and entering the British hit parade seven times over the next two years.

The hymn’s overwhelming ubiquity after that (don’t forget the bagpipe versions) has intensified a paradoxical secularization of what is, after all, quite an orthodox assertion of the Christian doctrine of unearned grace. Mr. Walvin points out that many who have encountered “Amazing Grace” over the past 50 years or so were “unaware that, in origin, it was a piece of sacred music.” Not everyone, of course—during Covid lockdowns in 2020, a London vicar attached some loudspeakers to his bicycle and cycled through his parish, playing the Collins recording and inviting his hearers to join him in prayer.

Yet for all the secularized impact of “Amazing Grace,” it is firmly established at the heart of American gospel music. Mr. Walvin highlights Aretha Franklin’s “dazzling” 1972 recording as part of a concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, a rendition that would feature at the center of Franklin’s double album of the same name, as well as in a documentary film of the performance released in 2018. “Watching that film,” Mr. Walvin writes, “it is hard to imagine the hymn’s humble origins in a quiet English village.”

Mr. Walvin is compelling in his description of the deep presence of “Amazing Grace” in Anglophone, especially American, culture. He is less persuasive in some of his theological observations: I find it vanishingly unlikely that the famous 19th-century evangelist Dwight Moody “portrayed Christ himself as a sinner . . . with whom armies of ordinary people could identify.” The 18th-century Church of England did not consist of a “Latin-based priesthood” conducting “impenetrable Latin-based worship”—that had been decisively seen off 200 years earlier. And to say that 19th-century American Protestant worship was “suffused with the theme of salvation” seems tautological.

Still, his affection for his subject is contagious and his engagement comprehensive, and his account is full of fascinating detail—not least that there are 3,049 recordings of “Amazing Grace” in a special Library of Congress collection. The list of famous singers who haven’t recorded it might be shorter than the one of those who have—I’m watching for the Taylor Swift version myself.

Priscilla M. Jensen is a writer and editor in Virginia.

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