Revisiting the Theology of the Negro Spiritual
June is African-American Music Appreciation Month. We pay tribute to the legacy and contributions African-Americans have made over the centuries. As I reflected on this history, I was taken back to arguably the most influential musical genre in the African-American narrative: The Negro Spiritual.
Touching on the meaning of the Negro Spiritual, Howard Thurman, an African-American scholar and educator, gave a lecture in 1947: The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death. Many during that time, and even today, argued the Spirituals were too otherworldly and made the slaves detach from their present suffering thus making them hopelessly submit under the yoke of bondage. Thurman powerfully countered:
What greater tribute could be paid to religious faith in general and to their [slaves] religious faith in particular than this: It taught a people how to ride high to life, to look squarely in the face of those facts that argue most dramatically against all hope and to use those facts as raw material out of which they fashioned hope that the environment, with all its cruelty, could not crush.
What evoked so much joy in suffering, triumph in pain, endurance in darkness, and a “hope that the environment…could not crush”? Thurman argues it was a “sung faith” which “enabled them to reject annihilation and to affirm a terrible right to live.” Though rightfully celebrated as a musical genre that has been instrumental historically and literarily, I believe the greatest contribution is what the Spirituals have given us theologically.
The Negro Spiritual and a Theology of God
In the spirituals, you hear a people who know their God. God was not seen as distant or separated from their reality, but he was the Almighty God, Heavenly Father. He was a God, as Thurman shares, “who was a companion to them in their miseries even as He enabled them to transcend their miseries.” God was seen as sovereign over all of creation, yet working in the lives of his people. Significantly, given the deplorable conditions of slavery, the slaves sung “sometimes I feel like a motherless child” but could affirm with complete assurance that God keeps his promises. As one song shared, “The whole creation all His own/His love an’ power will prevail/promises will never fail/sayin’ God is a God! God don’t never change!”
God was also seen as a God whose promises were most clearly seen and fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus in the spirituals was the suffering servant, reigning King, and close friend. He was the one who had “no where to lay his head” and was the crucified Savior of his people.
One spiritual would rhetorically ask, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?/Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?/Were you there when they laid him in the tomb/Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?”– knowing they had a personal union to Christ because of these gospel truths.
Jesus’ saving power was not only seen as bringing the slaves’ souls to God, but he is seen as a present friend who cared for the conditions of their bodies. They knew they could always find that “Jesus is our friend/He’ll keep us to the end/and a little talk with Jesus makes it right.” Out this theology of God, Thurman concluded, the slaves knew “God would make it right.”
The Negro Spiritual and a Theology of the Christian Life
The writers of these spirituals loved those good doctrines of God and his gospel. Out of their love of these truths came the understanding that the Christian life was to be lived in the context of suffering with a hope that rises above and goes through affliction. Suffering was a fact of life and this fact came through the lyrics of the song. Everyone would have trouble in the body and “trouble in de mind.” Though often shaken by the trials and despairs of slavery, these songs depict the truth: it had “been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).
To sing “sometimes I feel like a motherless child” and “nobody knows the trouble I been through” was to affirm the depressing reality of loneliness and the tribulations that left not only emotional and psychological scars but scars from the whip, the noose, and relational separation. The Psalms allows us to listen in on the soul’s anguish; the spirituals do the same.
Yet, they also show us a hope that rises above and endures affliction. This was not a “pie-in-the sky” hope. These truths did not make the slaves docile, but they were rooted in a duel reality: one in which suffering was felt for what it was and another in which God’s promises gave life and purpose, even in bondage.
Of course the spirituals contained other-worldly themes but these themes were centered on a definite place and definite person, Heaven and God. They had a definite implication, a hope rooted in the power of God. Heaven was a place of eternal rest, and was entered by the road of suffering. It was this place where the rough journey would be over and all the redeemed knew that: “When I get to Heav’n/goin’ to put on my robe/Goin to shout all over God’s Heav’n”.
Where there was once alienation, separation, and discrimination, it would be replaced with joy, unity, and love. In light of this reality, Thurman shared, “The conviction grew that this is the kind of universe that cannot deny ultimately the demands of love and longing…God would make it right”, either now or later. God was not through with them and this conviction shaped and impacted them.
The Negro Spiritual and a Theology of the Story
Rev. Charles A. Tindley, pastor and hymn writer, penned these powerful lyrics, “By and by, when the morning comes/when the saints of God are gathered home/we will tell the story of how we’ve overcome/we will understand it better by and by.”
In these lyrics, we see a profound theological paradigm. We see what Tindley calls the “story of how we’ve overcome.” The slaves’ theology of the story showed them God’s story gave significance to their story. The writers and singers of the spirituals found themselves very closely associated with characters and the narratives of Scripture. Though creation, fall, redemption, and consummation may not have been presented systematically as today, the writers and singers clearly wove God’s story of redemption in lyrical form from the narratives of Israel, Daniel, Joseph, and Jesus.
They believed there was a real continuity in the way God worked in the Scriptures and in their lives. The biblical characters lived in light of who God is, and what God prioritizes so the slaves sung of biblical justice and righteousness. They knew that God delivered the children of Israel by his mighty power that they could sing: “Go down, Moses/’Way down in Egypt’s land/Tell old Pharaoh/let my people go.” Because their identity was in God’s story, they knew the imposed identity may have power, but not permanence. As Karen Ellis shares, “The nastiness of the here and now only makes sense in light of a greater hope than what we can see and feel.”
Though slavery was a reality, it was not how the story ended. They sung with conviction and resistance, “Oh, freedom, oh, freedom, oh freedom over me/and before I’d be a slave/I’d be buried in my grave/and go home to my Lord and be free.” Oh, freedom. Freedom now and freedom forever.
West, Cornel, and Eddie S. Glaude. African American Religious Thought: An Anthology. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.
Faithful, George. “Recovering the Theology of the Negro Spirituals.” Saint Louis University Credo ut Intelligam 1.1, 2008, https://www.slu.edu/Documents/arts_sciences/theology/final_george2.pdf. Accessed 5 June 2017.
Smith, Yolanda. “The Bible in Song: Reclaiming African American Spirituals.” Yale University, http://reflections.yale.edu/article/between-babel-and-beatitude/bible-song-reclaiming-african-american-spirituals. Accessed 20 June 2017.