African American spirituals were part of a religious expression that enslaved people used to transcend the narrow limits and dehumanizing effects of slavery. It was through the singing of the spirituals that the individual and the community experienced their God, a God who affirmed their humanity in ways whites did not, and a God who could set them free both spiritually and physically.
The primary function of the spirituals was as communal songs sung in a religious gathering, in a call-response pattern reminiscent of West African traditional religions. One person would begin to create a song by singing about his or her own sorrow or joy. That individual experience was brought to the community and it was through the call-response structure of the singing, that that individual's sorrow or joy became the community's sorrow or joy. In this way, the spiritual became truly affirming, for it provided communal support for individual experiences.
(demonstrate using call and response)
Go down Moses,
way down in Egypt’s land.
Tell old pharaoh,
let my people go.
The very first Spirituals were inspired by African music. Some called “Shouts” were accompanied with typical dancing, including hand clapping and foot tapping, like we saw in the film this morning.
After a regular worship service, congregations used to stay for a “ring shout”, a primitive African dance. The men and women arranged themselves in a ring. The music started, perhaps with a Spiritual, and the ring began to move, at first slowly, then with quickening pace. The same musical phrase was repeated over and over for hours. This produced an ecstatic state. Women screamed and fell. Men, exhausted, dropped out of the ring. You notice I’m not asking you to do this.
Slaves used the characters of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, to tell their stories. Jesus was called upon to help the individual find God who would set them free "on the inside." It was while the person had been "touched on the inside" that slaves believed they came in intimate contact with God and the heroes of the Bible.
That intimate, immediate relationship is present throughout the spirituals, with Jesus and the characters of the Old Testament presented not as some far off deities, but as friends and family members who helped the individual in his or her struggle. The spirituals, then, tell the story of a spiritual journey toward spiritual freedom, while encouraging those who had not yet found that freedom to "go on through to the promised land.”
HYMN: “When Israel Was In Egypt’s Land” Chalice #663 vs.1
(Siu Wai will continue to underscore softly while the scripture is read, then we will come in with vs. 2,3,5)
Exodus 3: 1-12
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
HYMN: “When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land” Chalice #663 vs. 2,3,5
That spiritual journey toward freedom dominates these songs, but the concern for physical freedom is there as well. The most pervasive image in the spirituals is that of the chosen people, for the slaves believed they had been chosen by God just as the Israelites had. They also believed they understood better than anyone what freedom truly meant in both a spiritual and a physical sense.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave, claimed that the line "I am bound for Canaan" in one of the songs he frequently sang meant he was going to the North, not just that he would experience the freedom of the promised land in a spiritual sense. For many African Americans, particularly as the Civil War drew closer to an end and physical freedom became more likely, songs about the promised land took on a more literal meaning, even though the more spiritual meaning remained.
(Siu Wai underscores softly with “Steal Away to Jesus)
That flexibility and multiplicity of meanings also allowed for slaves to use the sacred songs as secret communication. Some, such as "Steal Away to Jesus," were used to call a secret meeting where the people could worship without the supervision of whites.
Sometimes they contained coded messages about impending escape attempts, directions for how to head north on the Underground Railroad, or which houses were safe havens while traveling. On the surface, a text might be about Moses leading the Hebrews out of exile, but the message applied as well to enslaved Africans who yearned for the “promised land” of the North and the freedom found there.
(Siu Wai ends “Steal Away to Jesus)
“Wade in the water. Wade in the water children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.” This song contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom. Leaving dry land and taking to the water was a common strategy to throw pursuing blood hounds off one’s trail.
HYMN “Wade in the Water” Chalice #370 vs. 1,3,4
They sang, not only in religious gatherings, but at home and while they worked in the fields. “Work songs” were sung in work gangs to keep everybody working at the same speed.
And there were quiet songs, sung by a soloist or several slaves, used for expressing personal feeling and for cheering one another up. One of the most well known examples is “There is a Balm in Gilead.” The “balm in Gilead” is quoted in the Old Testament:
In the book of Jeremiah, several verses speak about Gilead. In chapter 22, v. 6 and 13: The Lord says (about the palace of the king of Judea) “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a desert, like towns inhabited… Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”.
But the lyrics of this spiritual refer to the New Testament (Jesus, Holy Spirit, Peter, and Paul). This difference is interesting. In the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead cannot heal sinners. In the New Testament, Jesus heals everyone who comes to Him.
HYMN “There is a Balm in Gilead” Chalice # 501
Centuries after the slaves in this county were freed, these African American Spirituals still speak to new generations who cry for freedom and equality, and who march for peace. They were sung over and over again in the 60’s during the Civil Rights struggle, and during peace marches - “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” - and - “Down by the Riverside.”
The spirituals functioned in different ways, but most importantly, they anchored the enslaved persons to a reality that allowed them to transcend the harsh limits of slavery. They helped the slaves to carve out a space in which they could live as human beings, loved and affirmed by a God and a host of Biblical heroes, a space that allowed them to be human in dehumanizing circumstances.