Coded Spirituals

March 6, 2016

Rev. Dr. David Clark

Senior Minister

John 5:2-9

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John 5:2-9

Today our sermon series brings us to the spirituals. The spirituals, born in slavery are a source from which gospel, jazz, blues, and hip-hop evolved. The foundation for this music is not European melodies, “but the rhythm of Africa.” They convey African spirituality, Hebrew narrative, Christian doctrine, and an extreme experience of human suffering.[1] They model an expression of hopeful faith that can inform and bolster our spirituality.

There are an estimated 5,000 spirituals in existence. They were originally called “sorrow songs.” And many of them were composed spontaneously. One story is of a group of slaves waiting on a shoreline of an island off of South Carolina. They had heard about Emancipation and were told the government promised deeds of land and a mule for each freed family. So the crowd gathered on the shore for a man to come and deliver on these hopes. But they could just tell from the countenance of the man while he was still on the boat crossing the water that their hopes were about to be crushed. And someone began to sing.

Soloist Sings Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

There is something cathartic about naming your pain. It leads to healing. But it must be expressed first. Spirituals do that, but spirituals are not the blues—they only express hurt. Spirituals looked upward. They were always reaching for some level of hope. Somehow in the midst of that pain they imbed a glory hallelujah. Did you hear it? “Oh, and on that glory hallelujah, then we fly.”

So in the midst of the great pain they found a way to fly away to a spiritual freedom in spite of their external circumstances. The spirituals were a vehicle that helped people transcend circumstances and elevate their spirits.

The songs conveyed hope in God and a sense that you cannot use bitter circumstances as an excuse for horrible behavior. Spirituals reflect an aspiration do your best to love, forgive, be generous, and kind—in spite of the circumstances. There is no hint at violence or retribution on the slaveholders. Joe Carter a singer and historian of spirituals says, “There are no mean spirited sentiments in the spirituals at all.” This was a profound theological insight. They understood Jesus who said, “Repay no one evil for evil.” If only our politicians could model the campaign might not be so ugly. We all do well to remember it in our day-to-day lives. In fact, spirituals emphasized a real sense of taking responsibility for one’s own actions and moral behavior. They taught us the key is to work on our own spiritual wellbeing.

Soloist Sings It’s Me, It’s Me O Lord.

Not the preacher, the deacon, the master, but it’s me. My spirit. They were in the midst of the most horrible situation but they said, “I’m taking responsibility for who I am today, and it’s me standing in the need. I’m the one that has the proud heart today. Come and fix me.” Can you do the same? Can you get through your frustrations, the horrible stuff people do to you with a spirit that says, “The most important thing I can do is be true in the midst of this to what God calls me to do, to the ways Jesus taught me to behave.”

The evolution of faith that undergirds the spirituals is remarkable. Generally African cultures believed in supreme beings that they could connect through their ancestors and music. They believed the more fervently they sang and internalized the rhythms the more they could reach their deity and the deity would become part of them, giving them strength to overcome obstacles and do what needed done every day.

When people were kidnapped from their homes, taken from the land of their ancestors, there was a deep sense of desolation. Not only did they face the brutality of slavery, they were disconnected from their ancestors and therefore access to their gods who were associated with particular locations. They lost their sources of strength and consolation.

Let’s just say when they experienced the “Christianity” as expressed by their masters, they were less than impressed. How could a religion condone such brutality, inhumanity?

But something clicked when they heard about the suffering Jesus. They said, “His story sounds like our story. He’s born in terrible circumstances, he’s mistreated. He’s abused and killed. My goodness. Maybe he will carry us to the High God.”

Then they heard about the suffering of the Hebrews and Moses then Daniel shut up with the lions and they discovered a spirituality that connected with their experience. They discovered a God who identifies with suffering, enslaved people and works for their liberation. They reached into scripture for signs of hope, for a reason to say glory halleluiah when trouble came.

Soon there came to be multiple layers of meanings to the song. There was the nice sentiment of comfort in telling the stories of Jesus and Moses and Daniel. There was a yearning for the freedom of heaven, but also for freedom in this world. Imbedded into many of the spirituals was a kind of code language. So Steal Away, also becomes about escape. See if you can hear it.

Soloist sing Steal Away

“I ain’t got long to stay,” everybody knew, “Hey, I’m going to be escaping tonight, and I want you to be supporting me.”

Swing Low Sweet Chariot was a double meaning song. It is a song about death and even dignity. I may be a slave, have a miserable life, but God’s chariot will swing down and take my soul to heaven. But it was also code language. The chariot also referred the Underground Railroad that helped people escape. In some cases they’d pay homage to Harriot Tubman and sing Swing Low Sweet Harriot.

PBS did a wonderful series on the Underground Railroad and looked at code language in spirituals. If you hear about shoes, in a song it means someone is getting ready to run.

Follow the Gourd is a map song where the gourd is the big dipper and following the North Star. If you hear about agents or shepherds, it often referred to helpers on the Underground Railroad. Fredrick Douglas, an escaped slave, wrote in his autobiography about hidden messages in spirituals. Some of the code language in our anthem signifies being ready and the hope for escape. Generally references to the Jordan River were about crossing the Ohio River to freedom in the north. Go Down Moses saying “Let My People Go” is pretty clear. His going “down” may refer to going further south where conditions were notoriously worse. Hence the saying, “He sold me down the river,” means it’s not good.

The slaves would sing these songs and their masters would often encourage it. They liked them singing about Jesus and Moses. Masters would say, “Sing me some of those songs.” But they never knew what they were really singing about.

A song like Wade in the Water has multiple meanings. It’s about baptism and a song about someone about to escape. That song refers to our scripture lesson where Jesus walks by a man who had been waiting by the side of a pool to be healed. At certain times angels or something stirred up the water and the fist people there could find healing. This guy sat around waiting for the healing for 38 years, but never got it. Jesus comes along and asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” He says yes, so Jesus tells him to take up his mat and go home, he’s been healed. It’s a story about self-sufficiency, about taking initiative, about refusing to see yourself as a victim. So the song became a very popular spiritual. And it has the added advantage of reminding escaping slaves to wade in the water to avoid detection by dogs sniffing around for them.

Soloist sing Wade in the Water

The paradox of the spirituals in their context of slavery was they voiced the pain, but there was an “and.” “And I am beloved, I’m graced, I am blessed, I have dignity, I’m alive and what I experience now is not all there is.” You know, there’s, there’s a surrender and there’s an incredible power at the same time in the spirituals.

Perhaps when life is not so filled with suffering we are not as ready to have a sense of surrender and our connection with the Spirit is diluted.

In an interview by NPR’s Krista Tippet of Joe Carter. She asked if it was culturally appropriate for white people to celebrate and sing the spirituals, too.

Carter said, Well, I think it’s a good question. And — and my answer is this, when any music or art becomes this transcendent thing that helps people through, it then becomes a property of the universe. It becomes a property of the world.

So these songs belong to all of us. They encourage us to name our suffering and they connect us to the divine. They teach us to stand on the promises of our God who works for liberation and love. They call us to work on our own spirituality without judging others. Spirituals help us to see ourselves as people of dignity and they call us to treat others with dignity, too. And that’s why we celebrate spirituals Sunday today. Glory Halleluiah. Amen.


[1] See excellent interview on Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet and Joe Carter. Much of the background for the sermon informed by this interview.