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Sober but Serene Themes of Judgment in the Spirituals

November 7, 2018 1 Comment

I’ve often been impressed by the ability of old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of weighty matters like sin and judgment. During early November we are focused on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell) and November is also Black Catholic History Month. So, this seems like a good time to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate these topics.

It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent in recovering an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.

In a certain sense, the spirituals are unimpeachable, even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame preachers for announcing sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs that helped accompany both their work and their worship.

The spirituals were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it was surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it was they. Yet the spirituals are almost entirely devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and the need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.

If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?

Here are some lines from a few of the many spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:

  • I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.
  • Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
  • Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
  • Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds? Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? Oh where shall I be when it sounds? How will it be with my poor soul, Oh where shall I be?
  • Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
  • God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
  • Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
  • Noah, Noah let me come in!
    The doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fastened an’ de winders pinned
    Noah said, “Ya lost your track
    Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
  • Knock at the window knock at the door
    Callin’ brother Noah
    Can’t you take more?
    No said Noah cause you’re full of sin!
    God has the key you can’t get in!
  • Well I went to the rock to hide my face
    The rock cried out, no hiding place
    There’s no hiding place down here
    Oh the rock cried I’m burnin’ too!
    I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
  • Oh sinner man better repent!
    Oh you’d better repent
    for God’s gonna call you to judgment
    There’s no hiding place down there!
  • No signal for another train
    To follow in this line
    Oh sinner you’re forever lost
    When once you’re left behind.
    She’s nearing now the station
    Oh, sinner don’t be vain
    But come and get your ticket
    Be ready for that train!
  • Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass
    And die and lose your soul at last.
  • My Lord, what a morning
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake the nations underground
    Looking to my God’s right hand,
    When the stars begin to fall
    You’ll hear the sinner moan,
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the Christian shout,
    Oh, when the stars begin to fall!

Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.

Given all the reluctance to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.

I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the last judgment. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish.

In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ Fare You Well

I’m gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Dere’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Chorus:
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,

Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem coffins burstin’,
do you see dem folks is risin’
Do you see dat fork of lightnin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder?
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire?
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh! Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

Here are renditions of a few other spirituals:

Filed in: Eschatology • Tags: ,

Comments (1)

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  1. Penelope Wolfe says:

    Father/Msgr.–Thank you so much for your article and for the songs (my only guilty regret is that it may be confessable that I just spent 20 minutes at work listening to them–even if I work for a church!?) 🙂 My personal favorite, which I possibly may have gotten from one of your blog post quite a few years back, is We are United in Jesus Christ — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQRCnhoFOCY. Thank you, again!

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