Did you know that there are 27 African-American spirituals in The United Methodist Hymnal, and that there are 13 in The Faith We Sing? Many African-American spirituals are familiar to us, as we have sung them in school, church and Sunday school and have listened as they were sung by famous musicians. Sometimes one inexplicably keeps repeating itself over and over in our minds as we go about our daily routines. They are melodic, rhythmic and each one tells a story, a story that we once heard in Sunday school or one that came to us from the Bible, or, in some cases, one with hidden meaning.
These spirituals go back to a rather dark time in American history, a time during which several hundred thousand human beings were captured in their native Africa, separated from their family members, crammed into the bowels of sailing ships and forced to suffer long sea voyages terminating in the United States where they were sold as slaves. They were forced to live under poor conditions, work long hours, receive no wages and were subjected to cruel treatment if they failed to please their owners or attempted to escape.
Forbidden to pursue their own religious beliefs, they were exposed to Christianity in the hopes of their owners that by following the teachings of the Bible, they would be less likely to attempt escape. Many of the slaves accepted these Christian teachings and expressed them in styles and rhythms that were familiar to them from their African heritage. Often the spirituals followed a format that reflected an African tradition of responses to a leader’s sung phrases, e.g. (TFWS: Rise Up Shepherd and Follow #2096; Over My Head #2148; Oh Freedom #2194; and several others as well as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – UMH #703).
But African-American spirituals express more than Christian messages. Some, such as Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (UMH #520) tell of the misery of lives torn from native homes only to be spent in slavery. Others, e.g. My Lord What a Mornin’ (UMH #719) and I’m Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says Sing (UMH #333) express joy and hope for a better life, and All Of God’s Chillun Got Shoes tells of the hope that shoes, which in many cases slaves didn’t have, would be available in Heaven (or freedom) as well as robes and harps.
In lamenting that the people of Israel were rejecting the word of God, the prophet Jeremiah referred to a resinous substance found in Gilead that was rubbed into wounds to promote healing and asked, “is there no balm in Gilead?” As the African slaves were exposed to and began to accept the teachings of Christianity, they saw Jesus as the answer to Jeremiah’s question, and they sang, There Is a Balm in Gilead.
In addition to Christian lessons, some of these songs are believed to have hidden messages. The words of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (UMH #703) are believed to refer to escape to freedom, or if not escape, freedom from the miseries of slavery through death and Heaven. “A band of angels comin’ after me, comin’ for to carry me home” in which the word home may refer to freedom or Heaven; “If you get there before I do … tell all my friends I’m comin’ too.” Other songs that are believed to have encouraged escape attempts are Go Down Moses (UMH #448) and Steal Away to Jesus (UMH #704). Wade in the Water (TFWS #2107) was sung as a reminder that when attempting an escape, one should walk in water so that the dogs that were used to track fleeing slaves would not be able to follow the scent of the escapees.
Today as we listen to these songs or, better yet as we sing them ourselves, we can learn from the stories they tell, we can enjoy their rich melodies and rhythms, we can be thankful for the progress and understanding that has evolved, and we can anticipate enlightenment yet to come as we celebrate the music and culture of African-American History.
Jack and Marj Fry are First UMC Church members. This article first appeared in the February 2018 Sentinel.