negro spiritual
Music Christian Living History

Hardship-Birthed Hymns: What Can We Learn From the Negro Spiritual?

DeAron Washington

For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
Psalm 137:3–4

Imagine being far from home in chains. How would you handle the tearful despair and longing? What would you do if your captor scornfully says, “Sing us one of ya’ll songs about your God”? And with sorrow in your heart, you respond: “How can I sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?”

Sorrow and trials often hinder our praise. Trouble makes us whine, not worship. Suffering makes us sulk, not sing. Hardship often makes us complain, not carol. How can we worship the Lord when sin, the world, and Satan oppress us? Who can we turn to for examples?

The answer hit me one day like a linebacker with a clear path to the quarterback. The slaves created and sung the Negro Spirituals. Oppression was their unwanted companion. Suffering was their unwelcome roommate. Yet, their hardship birthed hymns. James Cone argues that the spirituals cannot be understood outside the context of trouble.[1] I will use this blog to point out three characteristics of the Negro Spiritual and what we can learn from them.

Acquainted With Grief

Characters like Daniel, Abraham, and David are often exalted in songs. For example, many hymnals contain the song “Dare to Be A Daniel.” “Father Abraham” is known by many Christians. We idolize them and forget they were human, just like us. The people mentioned in the Bible experienced suffering.

The spirituals presented them as people that were familiar with grief but held on to their faith. They mentioned “Weeping Mary,” “Sinking Peter,” “Doubting Thomas,” and “Mourning Martha.” One of the spirituals asks “Who’s on de Lord’s side?” The spirituals answered with “Weeping Mary” and “Mourning Martha.” Weeping, doubting, sinking and mourning connects the characters to the slave’s plight. It cues the slaves to hold fast to their faith, even while weeping, mourning, or doubting.[2]

Beloved, we need the Negro Spirituals. They remind us that tears, lament, and doubts will come but we can still cling to the God of our forefathers.

Called for Response

Robust theology in song is good for the soul. I love songs like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” “The Power of The Cross,” and “Tis So Sweet.” They remind us of the truths of the gospel, yet they lack instruction. Our songs on Sunday morning can be tools for evangelism. The slaves used their songs as evangelistic tools and made the spirituals instructive.

The spirituals plead with sinners to respond. The spirituals mention judgment day and call sinners to repentance. The most explicit song is “Turn sinner, Turn O.” It proclaims that sinners should “turn today.” It warns sinners “wait not for tomorrow’s sun” for “the sun may shine but on your grave.” “Michael Row the boat ashore” calls unbelievers to “row to save your soul.” The spirituals gave sinners commands.[3]

The spirituals prompt us to evangelize. They contain the gospel message and implore unbelievers to repent.

What A Friend

It happens more than I would like to admit while driving down the highway. I cannot find a song to listen to. In those moments, I turn the radio to a local contemporary Christian station but soon regret it. Most of the songs leave me asking the question, “Who are they singing about?” It doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.

In the spirituals, Jesus is high and lifted up. They display Jesus as a co-suffering, immanent, and powerful friend. One spiritual speaks of Jesus as being a “bosom friend,” which is a dated term. So allow me to explain. A bosom friend is someone you know intimately and entrust with everything.[4] Our forefathers sung about Jesus, who is the bosom friend who has the power to remove the enemy’s obstacles.

“Ole Satan is a busy ole man,

He roll stones in my way;

Mass’ Jesus is my bosom friend,

He roll’ed out o my way “[5]

In “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” Jesus is the one who understands trouble. It proclaims Jesus is able to sympathize with us in our troubles (Hebrew 4:15).

“Nobody knows de trouble I’ve had, Nobody knows but Jesus”[6]

In “Jehovah, Hallelujah,” Jesus is homeless in a foreign land.

“De Foxes have-a hole an’ de birdies have-a nest

De Sone fo Man he dunno where to lay de weary head”[7]

The slaves identified with the suffering of Jesus so closely they sung about it as if they could hear the nails tearing through the Savior’s hands. The product was songs like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble[8]

Christology runs through the veins of the Negro Spirituals. I have not begun to scratch the surface of the depth of rich theology that is within them. I could write much more, but I give you room to search for yourself. Researching the Negro Spirituals resulted in me pondering two questions: 1) Who are our songs lifting up? 2) What are they calling people to do?

We must pay attention to the songs we sing. If we are not careful, we will sing lies that exalt ourselves. We will sing about an idol and disguise it as Jesus. If we are not careful, we will sing songs that call people to trust in themselves.

The spirituals are oozing with pungent biblical truths. They are not perfect, but we can learn much from their content. Beloved, read and sing them. Drink from the well of spirituals that is overflowing with sapid theology.

May the Lord use them to encourage and challenge us in what we sing!

[1] Cone, James. The Spirituals & the Blues. New York: The Seabury Press, 1972.

[2] Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[3] Williams Allen, Charles Ware, and Lucy Garrison, Slave Songs in the United States (New York: A. Simpson &Co., 1867).


[5] Williams Allen, Charles Ware, and Lucy Garrison, Slave Songs in the United States (New York: A. Simpson &Co., 1867)

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] “Were You There.” History Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music. Accessed November 28, 2018.

3 thoughts on “Hardship-Birthed Hymns: What Can We Learn From the Negro Spiritual?

  1. Leck Heflin

    Amen! I was raised with a familiarity with many of these Spirituals. They have always moved me. They are even more profound to me today than then. Last week I sat in the audience of a youth choir is Midland, TX that is directed by our daughter. We heard dozen or so of these great songs sung by students up through the 7th grade. Of the choir of about 50 there were probably 6 – 8 black youth. It was profoundly moving to hear them sing songs born of suffering yet filled with hope. When there was no hope in anything or anyone else, the slave who had received the light of the gospel could hope in Jesus and the God who will set things right in the end.

  2. Sphamandla Luthuli

    Brothers this is much needed, thank you for writing this. There is so much need for Christ exalting content that black people can identify in the midst of the lies that following Jesus is for white people.

    Being from South Africa. I appreciate this post, it’s super encouraging man.

  3. Tre M

    Having been part of a church that valued the Negro spiritual not just in theory, but in practice on Sunday mornings; I can witness to the fact that they kept me seeking Jesus in the years leading up to Him opening my eyes to the Gospel. Good word brother, thank you for putting the time in.

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