Amazing Grace: The history of an anti slavery hymn and civil rights anthem

In this episode of Explaining History, we delve deep into the origins and enduring impact of one of the world's most powerful hymns: "Amazing Grace." A song that has transcended boundaries of religion, race, and nation, it has served as an anthem for both the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement in the United States.

Joining us for this exploration is the esteemed Professor Emeritus James Walvin, an expert in the history of slavery and abolition. Professor Walvin traces the hymn's beginnings with John Newton, a former slave trader turned abolitionist. We uncover the layers of meaning the song acquired as it traveled through history, especially during tumultuous periods of societal upheaval and transformation during the civil rights struggles of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Hear stories of how "Amazing Grace" provided hope to enslaved Africans, galvanized abolitionists, and later inspired civil rights leaders. Learn how a simple hymn could evoke such powerful emotions, bridging the gap between generations, cultures, and political movements. 

Whether you're a history enthusiast, a music lover, or someone curious about the intertwining of art and social change, this episode promises a harmonious blend of historical insight and emotional resonance.



- The transformative journey of John Newton from a slave trader to a clergyman and abolitionist.

- The early influences and iterations of "Amazing Grace."

- The hymn's role in the American abolitionist movement.

- The resurgence of "Amazing Grace" during the Civil Rights Movement.

- Personal anecdotes from Professor Walvin on the hymn's influence in contemporary times.


James Walvin’s published work has been largely in the field of slavery and modern British Social History. In 2019-20 he held the position of Distinguished Fellow in the History and Culture of the Americas, at the Huntington Library. He previously held fellowships at Yale University, The University of the West Indies, the Australian National University and the University of Edinburgh.

For twenty years he co-edited the journal Slavery and Abolition.