The Spirituals: More Than Spiritual

Excerpts from a sermon, interspersed
with spirituals
By Raymond G. Manker, Minister
Unitarian Church of Phoenix


To understand the traditional Spirituals we need to look at the history of the cultures in which they arose.… It wasn't a single uniform culture, but the frequent transfer and sale of slave, and even more important, the influence of religion, allowed slaves in the South to develop and share ideas and values. When we look at spirituals, it helps to keep in mind that it was was common for slaves to think of the "future life" as here on earth, and heaven not some other-worldly place, but wherever they would be free from the bonds of slavery. When slaves sang of heaven they probably had in mind the homelands of their immediate ancestors. In 1820, the American Colonization Society founded settlements on the Pepper Coast of West Africa as a place where slaves would be repatriated. (By this time, both the US and Britain forbade importation of new slaves from Africa. When slave ships were captured (and this was a frequent occurance), it was often difficult to return the captives to their original homes. They ended up in Liberia, as the A.C.S called their new African colony. The A.C.S also assisted freed black slaves to emigrate to Liberia.) After 1820, references to heaven may also include ideas of Liberia. Of course, relatively few slaves were ever manumitted, so for many in the American South, heaven became situated to the north, in the northern states or in Canada, to which, if they were lucky, they might someday escape.

Frederick Douglass, who famously escaped slavery and who later was U.S. Minister to Haiti, in his autobiography, mentions that the spirituals often had double meanings which escaped the notice of the slave masters because of the religious terminology used. He also wrote that they 'told a take of woe which was ... beyond' our feeble comprehension; and that 'every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverence from chains.' We can imagine that subtle changes in works could be a means of spreading word of a secret meeting, sometimes even a revolt. Of course the slaves had to be careful that while the message got to those for whom it was intended, that it did not get to the slave masters. They had the advantage that they were regarded as inferior. Experienced overseers must have known that the slave population was as intelligent as their exploiters, but human nature, and perhaps a sense of guilt, kept many of them from giving the slaves credit. If the words of songs could bear two meanings, the white tendency seems to have been to assume the most naive interpretation.

The spirituals, virtually without exception, tell of the slaves' desire for freedom.


Few of the spirituals are so open in their true meaning as in "Follow the Drinking Gourd". The drinking gourd was the dipper from which the slaves in the fields got their water. But the drinking gourd was also seen at night—the big dipper which pointed to the North Star. "Follow the drinking gourd." (Follow the North Star.) "For the Old Man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd." ... the verse was virtually a road map to freedom:

"When the sun comes back and first quail calls," (at dawn)
    "Follow the drinking gourd." (go north)

"Now the river bank'll make a might good road,
    The dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, travelin' on,
    Follow the drinkin' gourd.

Now the river ends between two hills,
    Follow the drinkin' gourd.
There's another river on the other side,
    Follow the drinkin' gourd."

Take careful note of the line "left foot, peg foot, travelin' on." When escaped slaves were captured, some of them were given exemplary punishment: amputation of the right leg.



Go Down, Moses also illustrates the driving force that freedom plays in spirituals. Some slave-owners were aware enough to forbid its singing, because it was so obvious in its message. Originally sung about 1790, it expressed the local slaves's appreciation of Bishop Francis Asbury of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Moses) who fought for an anti-slavery ruling for the ME Church and who travelled through the south urging slave owners to free their slaves. Later is was used to refer to Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave, the best-known conductor of the "Underground Railroad" which brought a trickle of slaves to freedom in the north. "Ol' Pharoah", of course, was a common designation for "Ol' Massa". If you have ever fallen for the old "the darkies happily singing in the fields" narrative, this should help dispel it — "Ol' Pharoah!"



Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, is a good example of slaves' desire for reincarnation in Africa. "Chariot" was a French sled-like vehicle used to transport tobacco in the Carolinas, and "home", of course, was Africa. That a band of angels were coming is an expression of frustration and desparation and a prayer for deliverance. "If you get there before I do" poignantly expresses that prayer, which was only a vain hope as the singers followed along behind the sled.



Deep River originated in 1825 in Guilford County, North Carolina, during the height of the efforts to get slave owners to free their slaves and send them back to Africa. It is recorded in the records of the Quaker Meeting there that a slave told one of the Quakers working on the project, that he wanted to "cross over" to Africa, the home of the Camp Meetings. "Deep River", in this interpretation, the Atlantic Ocean which separated them from "home".



Many of us remember singing Steal Away in church. We were all being exhorted to "Steal Away to Jesus.". You may have a different take on the hymn when you know that its author was none other than Nat Turner, who led the great slave rebellion of 1831.… Steal Away was Nat Turner's call to rebellion.… it means to steal away "to freedom". Turner felt that God had called him to lead this revolt: "My Lord, he calls me..." "I hain't got long to stay here" shows his confidence that he would succeed, or die trying.

Singing of this song seems to have been a signal for the plotters to meet and discuss plans for resistance and rebellion. But to sing "Pharoah's army got drowned," or "Steal Away... I ain't got long to stay here" must have been very satisfying in its own right.



A joyful song, "I got shoes", which all like to hear and sing, also carries a delayed punch. "I got a shoe, you got a shoe, all God's chilluns got shoes." Most slaves did not have shoes! Shoes were symbols of freedom! "All God's chillun got shoes." "When I get to heaven, I'm going to put on my shoes and tromp all over God's heaven." (When I am free in the the north I will have shoes.) Notice it said "when" I get to leave, not "if", but "when". Slave owners able to interpret the message would have been very worried.



Some white settlers on the frontiers allowed their slaves to attend church with them, and sometimes even allowed them to have their own services in the church. But the older Eastern areas usually would not tolerate what they saw as excessive emotionalism in church. And in many places whites would not allow people of color even to enter the church, except to clean it. O Mary, Don't You Weep came out of a reaction to this unkind and unjust exclusion God would punish the slave owners for this—"Pharoah's army got drowned." The refusal to allow non-whites to use the church was just one more impetus for slave to escape north to "heaven". One verse states "When I get to Heaven" (that's up north), "Goin' to sing and shout (just as they did in their praise meetings), "nobody there for to turn me out". Another verse hints at a possible rebellion, or hope for one, because of this exclusion. "Some dark night, 'bout 12 o'clock, this old world's gonna reel and rock!"



The Spirituals, when seen in this light, become exciting, and the authors and those who sang them no longer are passive slaves, but proud men, eager for freedom, consistently hoping, planning to gain their freedom. And while they rightly feared their masters, their contempt for the masters shows through their songs.. No longer are the spirituals "mere spirituals". They are the record of the slaves' cry for freedom, of their consuming passion for freedom. They are a heritage which should stir the heart of every person who loves freedom.

Notes: Other music used in this service included: