Aretha Franklin, c1972 © Getty Images
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If you want to summon the soul of black America, invite Aretha Franklin to a solemn occasion and ask her to bring “Amazing Grace” with her. She performed it at the funeral of the soul singer Luther Vandross in 2005, and at the White House in 2014 for President Obama, who sang it himself a year later at the eulogy for Senator Clementa Pinckney, a member of the South Carolina Senate who was killed in a mass shooting at his church. In 1972, the song marked Franklin’s return to gospel music when it gave a title to her live album recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles. Bearing witness that day were Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, and gospel legend Clara Ward. Franklin would deliver the song again in seven months, at Ward’s memorial service. She even sang it for Pope Francis last year.

“Amazing Grace” is touching and beautiful, an apparent hymn of emancipation woven into the fabric of African-American life. But its roots lie in one of the biggest crimes committed against humanity: slavery. This is not a freedom song written by a former slave; it’s a redemption hymn composed by a slaver.

“Amazing Grace” began life as a poem. John Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, east London, going to sea aged 11. In 1744 he was pressed into joining the Royal Navy, and was flogged after trying to desert. He transferred to a slave ship, Pegasus, but the crew disliked him and Newton was abandoned with a slave trader in West Africa, who handed him to his wife, Princess Peye of the Sherbro people, in what is now Sierra Leone. Peye treated Newton like a slave, too. He later declared himself to have been an “infidel”, “libertine”, and a “servant of slaves”.

In 1747 he was rescued and sailed to Britain. But the ship was holed in a storm off Donegal, and, facing death, Newton prayed to be spared. When he was, he adopted evangelical Christianity, renouncing his profane ways. However, this did not stop him captaining several slave ships until ill health forced him on to dry land in 1754; he continued to invest in the trade. A decade later he was ordained as a priest in Olney, Buckinghamshire. In 1788 he published a pamphlet condemning his former occupation, supporting William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery.

Newton had plenty to repent. His 1779 poem “Faith’s Review and Expectation” was an attempt to do exactly that: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” The poem was set to music more than 20 times before it settled on the melody of the folk song “New Britain” in 1835, 10 years after Newton’s death. His lyric was not popular in England, but in 19th-century America it gained traction, with added verses that were popular in African-American communities.

The first recording of the song was by the Original Sacred Harp Choir in 1922. Gospel giant Mahalia Jackson released it in 1947, and sang it at civil rights marches in the 1960s. It was adopted by the folk movement: Pete Seeger performed it. Judy Collins’ celebrated 1970 version sprang from her battle with alcohol abuse: she said the song helped her “pull through”. Her rendition spent more than a year in the UK chart, where it was joined, in 1972, by a cover from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Others saying “Grace” include Elvis Presley (in 1971), Willie Nelson (1976), and even alt-rock band The Lemonheads (1987).

There are thousands of versions of “Amazing Grace”; it is a one-size-fits-all spiritual. When she first performed it, Joan Baez did not know it was a hymn, and surely few of those who enjoy it are aware of the appalling sins its lyric was intended to atone for.

Photograph: Getty Images

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