November 30, 2020

A Hymn for Ordinary Time (4): A Favorite Spiritual

Edwin McSwinephoto © 2011 Steve Snodgrass | more info (via: Wylio)By Chaplain Mike

We have talked a bit about discouragement this week. For some of us, music that points to Jesus and the Gospel can bring us refreshment. Among the great historical examples of this are the spirituals that grew out of the unjust and tragic experiences of African-Americans in the U.S. during and after the days of slavery.

On “Negro Spirituals”
Here are two good resources to learn about the history of Negro Spirituals:

Also, see this article from the Atlantic Monthly by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which gives an eyewitness account of the lyrics and performances of spirituals shortly after the Civil War.

Negro spirituals were the first uniquely American music to come out of this country. European classics, Anglo ballads, hymns, and Irish jigs and reels dominated American music until the slaves created their songs of sorrow and hope to sustain them while the institution of slavery lasted. Spirituals were created over a 200-year period, but not until after the Civil War were most Americans aware of their existence. This music, so rich and varied, so deeply emotional and expressive, is a testament to the strength and tenacity of the African people who adapted to and enriched all of American culture.

• Tom Faigin, “Negro Spirituals: Songs of Survival”

One of the great spiritual influences on Dietrich Bonhoeffer that he experienced during his time in America (1930) was his involvement with African-American religious life at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, especially through a black student who befriended him, Franklin Fisher. He collected records of spirituals and was profoundly affected by these songs.

The most influential contribution made by the Negro to American Christianity lies in the “Negro Spirituals,” in which the distress and delivery of the people of Israel (“Go down, Moses . . .”), the misery and consolation of the human heart (“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”), and the love of the Redeemer and longing for the kingdom of heaven (“Swing low, sweet chariot . . .”) find moving expression. Every white American knows, sings and loves these songs. It is barely understandable that great Negro singers can sing these songs before packed concert audiences of whites, to tumultuous applause, while at the same time these same men and women are still denied access to the white community through social discrimination.

• Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Negro Church”

Perhaps the following well known spiritual that has been published in many hymnals over the years and sung by congregations of people all over the world needing encouragement, can bring a bit of comfort and strength to our hearts today.

There Is a Balm in Gilead
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul

Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again

Don’t ever feel discouraged
For Jesus is your friend
And if you lack of knowledge
He’ll ne’er refuse to lend

If you cannot preach like Peter
If you cannot pray like Paul
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say, “He died for all”


  1. We sing this one (There is a balm in Gilead) about every few months, and some of the kids wonder why we are singing of ‘bombs’?

    Truth be known, He is pretty explosive.

  2. I remember getting into an argument with some White Christians once – in the last five years – over whether or not Negro Spiritual and/or Black Gospel were “proper” songs to be sung in church as part of worship….

  3. These are beautiful, beautiful songs. Thanks for the links.

  4. Jonathan says

    Thanks for this.
    Somewhere I heard a sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he noted that our African American ancestors were of such faith that they could, despite their horrific slave circumstances, take Jeremiah’s question mark (“Is there a balm in Gilead?”) and straighten it into an exclamation point, “There is a balm in Gilead!”

    If you get a chance to listen to King’s week-in-week-out Sunday sermons, do so. Great Bible preaching.

  5. You know what I like about black churches? They typically have a REAL drum kit, not some wimpy electronic thing processed to ensure that nothing dynamic comes out of it.

    • And in the Caribbean, the brass. Lots of trumpets and trombones.

      I think brass went out of style in American popular music when we ditched Cuba.