Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn (James Walvin)

The song Amazing Grace was written in the 18th Century by John Newton, at the time an Anglican minister in a small town. This song has become a staple of American music over the past 200 years, iconic for its message of redemption and forgiveness, sung by audiences of all sorts at various occasions. James Walvin shares its background in Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn.

Walvin’s story is a brisk read - less than 200 pages - all very detailed and powerful. The song is a reflection of Newton's personal experiences. He wasn’t particularly religious as a child and went into the Royal Navy as a young man. After, he captained slave ships and survived a particularly bad storm off the coast of Ireland. He subsequently became religious and eventually ended his seafaring to become a minister. Newton over time became an abolitionist and in his latter years was an advocate for the end of slavery in England, which finally occurred in the year of his death in 1807. The song was written in 1772 and eventually became a staple of American music, particularly in Black and rural churches throughout the South and Midwest, gradually working its way into commercial prominence thanks to several influential musicians. While the hymn didn’t capture the initial and lasting popularity in England that it has in America, recent years have shown a fresh appreciation in the UK.

The author’s research and writing are powerful and compelling. If you’re interested in musical history, religion, and both the human and American experience, Amazing Grace sums up much of our complex, ever-evolving story.