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    Feb 16, 2020

    The Power of Spirituals

    The Power of Spirituals

    Passage: Joshua 6:1-5

    Speaker: Barbara Parnell

    Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things.

    Today we begin a 2 week series on African American spirituals (also called Negro Spirituals). A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that’s associated with the enslavement of African people in the American south. The songs were largely written in the last few decades of the 18th century on up to the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860’s. Spirituals make up one of the largest, most significant forms of American folksong. The term "spiritual" is derived from the King James Bible translation of Ephesians 5:19: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The form has its roots in the informal gatherings of African slaves in "praise houses" and outdoor meetings called "brush arbor meetings," "bush meetings," or "camp meetings" in the eighteenth century. At the meetings, participants would sing, chant, and dance. In Africa, music had been central to people’s lives. Christianity was introduced to the African population in the American colonies in the 17th century, but it was slow to take hold. The slave population was fascinated by Biblical stories about Biblical figures like Daniel and Moses. They could draw a parallel to their own lives from these characters who faced similar circumstances. And so they created spirituals that retold these stories. As Christianity took hold in the slave population, spirituals served as a way to express the community’s new faith, it’s hopes and it’s sorrows.

    Spirituals are usually sung in a call and response form, with a leader who often improvises a line of text and singers who provide a solid refrain in unison. The vocal style abounded in freeform slides, turns and rhythms that were challenging for early publishers of spirituals to document accurately. Many spirituals, known as "sorrow songs," are intense, slow and melancholic. Some describe the slaves' struggles and identification with the suffering of Jesus.

    Other spirituals are more joyful. Known as "jubilees," or "camp meeting songs," they are fast, rhythmic and often syncopated.1 So many spirituals have been written and there are many that are well loved. We could never cover them all in these 2 weeks, but hopefully we will sing some of your favorites and maybe introduce you to some new ones. This morning we will be focusing more on spirituals that often have more of a narrative, telling a particular story. Spirituals that mention one or more Biblical figures.

    Our opening song at 8:30, “In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning,” was a coded message based on Revelation. It reflected the slaves’ conviction that they would be delivered on the Day of Judgment, while their masters would need all the good fortune that they could get to escape eternal damnation. It was also a song that motivated the slaves to work harder to avoid punishment. This is an example of that call and response song, where the leader usually carries the story and the people respond with “Fare you well, Fare you well.” As we did today, it is often paired with another spiritual, “Good news, Chariot’s Comin’.” It’s reported that there are 60 extra verses to this particular song. Obviously we didn’t sing them all.

    Many spirituals deal with events in the Old Testament. Events that range from the creation story to Noah’s Ark, Jacob wrestling with an angel, Moses freeing the Israelites from Egypt, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah in the whale, Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho, and our first song, Ezekiel saw the wheel. Many of these songs also focus on freedom.

    One of these songs our bell choir will be playing, but I’d like to read you the words:

    Joshua fit the battle of Jericho Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
    The walls came tumblin' down, Hallelujah Joshua fit the battle of Jericho Jericho, Jericho
    Joshua fit the battle of Jericho And the walls came tumblin' down.
    You may talk about the men of Gideon
    You may talk about the men of Saul
    But there're none like good old Joshua At the battle of Jericho, Hallelujah.
    Up to the walls of Jericho
    With sword drawn in his hand
    Go blow them horns, cried Joshua The battle is in my hands Joshua fit the battle of Jericho Jericho, Jericho
    Joshua fit the battle of Jericho And the walls come tumblin' down, that mornin' Joshua fit the battle of Jericho Jericho, Jericho Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
    And the walls come tumblin' down, Hallelujah.

    This song is in a minor key. Many people think a minor key in music is symbolic with sadness. Not true with many of the spirituals. This one is a case in point, It’s an upbeat song in a minor key dealing with events in the Old Testament. 

    “Go Down Moses” was a spiritual that was used as a code for escape to freedom. A former slave and "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman said that she used spirituals such as "Go Down Moses" to signal slaves that she was in the area, and would help any who wanted to escape. This is a very important spiritual to the slaves. It was the first spiritual to be published and gain national (ie - white) popularity. Dr. Eileen Guenther writes, ‘The Contrabands, slaves fighting for the Union, sang this song at Union-held Fort Monroe in Virginia. President Lincoln visited Contraband camps frequently and on one documented visit, joined a prayer meeting where, overcome with emotion, he sang along with this song and others. This song held such meaning to the slaves that they composed new texts for the melody. There are 25 total verses. We have 11 in our hymnal, but will only be singing 6 of them. Let’s sing it.

    Our next spiritual, "Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel", also focuses on freedom. It isn’t the only song celebrating Daniel, but the one referenced most frequently. The heroic delivery of the Hebrews from a lion’s den, the belly of a whale, or the fiery furnace not only gave the Africans who were enslaved in America hope, but also the confidence that if the Hebrews could be delivered, “why not every man?” The impact of that kind of assurance can’t be overstated. Octavia Albert said, “O you ought to hear Richard sing that hymn! I never can forget Aunt Jane, for when old marster used to be so hard on me it seemed I’d have to give up sometimes and die. But then the Spirit of God would come to me and fill my heart with joy. It seemed the more trials I had the more I could pray.” Harriet Tubman, in response to a question about an escape and the perils it involved, including the danger of frostbite, said, “I just asked Jesus to take keer of me, an’ He never let me get frostbitten one bit.” The overall power of Jesus, like His resurrection, comforted the enslaved. 

    Although the celebration of Jesus’ birth held some importance to the slaves, it wasn’t a major religious focus. Christmas was a secular holiday in the South and so mostly an opportunity for drinking, singing and dancing. The narratives and interviews show Christmas as a big deal on plantations because of the cessation of work, gifts from the master, and visits to and from family and friends. James Weldon Johnson had the view that there are fewer spirituals devoted to Christmas than any other topics because the slaves didn’t want to think about Jesus as an infant, but a powerful King. Let’s sing two of these favorites: "Amen" and "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

    While the birth of Jesus wasn’t particularly important to the slaves, other aspects of His life are dealt with more frequently. They especially identified with His suffering, because they were also ill-treated. Because of His death and resurrection, they believed they could also be delivered. Death wouldn’t be the end to those who followed Christ. Jesus was a guarantee against all hurt, harm or danger. "Since the heavenly Jesus had been to earth and had died in the place of man,” said Miles Mark Fisher, “poor sinners would not have to die at all.”

    Religion became important. One slave said, “I jined de church ‘cause I go ‘ligion and I known de good Lord done forgive my sins. Everybody ought to git ‘ligion and hold it and jine de church.” (Carrie Hudson) Thomas H. Jones said, “A good many of us were (after a Sunday class meeting) to a brother’s cabin, where we began to express our joy in happy songs. The palace of General Dudley was only a little way off, and he soon sent over a slave with orders to stop our noise, or he would send the patrollers upon us. We then stopped our singing, and spent the remainder of the night in talking, rejoicing and praying……” The spirituals show that prayer was a critical and normal part of daily life of the Christian slave. They coveted prayer, a song of the heart, a personal conversation with their Lord.2

    African American Spirituals. [Online Text] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

    Information and Quotes taken from “In Their Own Words, Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals,” Eileen Guenther