Free Talk & Discussion : Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn with Professor James Walvin

In the 250th anniversary year of the hymn, Amazing Grace, historian James Walvin, Professor Emeritus in History at the University of York will present a talk at the museum, based on his new book, newly published in November 2023, followed by a book signing.

Sung in moments of personal isolation or on state occasions watched by millions, ‘Amazing Grace’ has become an unparalleled anthem for humankind. How did a simple Christian hymn, written in a remote English vicarage and first sung in St Peter and St Paul Church in Olney in 1773, come to hold such sway over millions all over the world? In this short, engaging cultural history, James Walvin tells the extraordinary story. The author of the hymn, John Newton, was a former Liverpool slave captain who became a vicar and fervent abolitionist in his later years. As ‘Amazing Grace’ travels across the Atlantic, gaining popularity as it moves from small churches to giant revivalist gatherings, from homes to plantation fields, Walvin tracks its transition from simple church hymn to an integral part of the cause for abolition. He shows how it galvanized decades of movements and trends in American history and pop culture. Its popularity has grown during turbulent periods, from the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights movement to 9/11 to the COVID-19 pandemic and it is one of the most recorded songs by musical stars from Aretha Franklin and Judy Collins to Elvis Presley and Mahalia Jackson.

An enthralling and at times surprising history, AMAZING GRACE explains the enduring appeal of a hymn that’s been sung from Soweto to Vanuatu, by American presidents and Chinese political dissidents, and by gospel choirs, folk singers, and artists from Kenya to New Zealand.

There is no admission fee and it is free to attend the event.  The talk and discussion will be held in the Three Hares Gallery at the Museum.  Booking is advised by emailing

James Walvin has written and published extensively.



Dec 14, 2023


11:00 am - 12:00 pm

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