There are many books on the story of the perennially favourite hymn, ‘Amazing grace’, but few are as wide-ranging as this one. 

Most focus exclusively on the life of John Newton, a former slave trader turned priest who wrote the words back in 1772, but James Walvin explores the song’s epic journey since then. He brings a wealth of expertise to this history, unpacking American slave plantations, the rise of hymn books and radio, the Black Civil Rights Movement and Covid lockdowns. He shows why the song was a powerful way for President Obama to speak to the victims of race crimes in 2015 and how white supremacist insurrectionists tried to appropriate it for themselves on 6 January 2021. 

The book is, at times, repetitive and Walvin relies heavily on broad generalisations. But he refuses to endorse simplistic myths, such as that “abolition was the triumphant work of a few godly white men” like John Newton, or that the song has always enjoyed the widespread appeal it does today. 

Even for those who know something of the hymn’s origins, the book contains some surprises: Newton continued to work as a slave trader long after his conversion; the song was originally a flop in Britain but popular in America; it took 63 years before the words were connected with the tune we know today, and it wasn’t until 1970 that the hymn became a major hit. 

Amazing Grace is easy to read and will delight anyone who has a soft spot in their hearts for this beautiful hymn.

star three