Celebrating the Spirituals: Sober but Serene on Themes of Judgment

“Soweto Gospel Choir” by www.sowetogospelchoir.com/History.html Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikipedia

I’ve often been impressed at the ability of the old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of very weighty matters like sin and judgment.  And while we are here in the opening weeks of Advent, quite focused on the Second Coming of Jesus to judge the world by fire, we do well to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate this theme.

It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent to help recover 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 the preacher for announcing the sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs, songs that helped accompany their work as well as their worship.

As such, they 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 is surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it is those enslaved in the South. And yet the spirituals are almost wholly devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them to 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?

So let’s sample some of these lines from numerous spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:

1. 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.

2. Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out! 

3. Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven aint a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!

4. 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 be when it sounds. How will it be with my poor soul, Oh Where Shall I be?

5. Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!

6. God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!

7. Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you! 

8. Noah, Noah let me come in!
The Doors are fastened and the windows pinned!  fast’ned an’ de winders pinned
Noah said, “Ya lost your track
Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!

9. 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!

10. 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!

11. 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!

12. 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!

13. Sinner please don’t let this harvest Pass
And die and lose your soul at last.

14. 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 reticence 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 have attached to this post a brief treatment of the some of the scriptural roots of these spirituals. You can read that hereEschatological Spirituals

I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the Last Judgment that is featured in the video below. 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 Gettin’ Up Mornin Fare You Well!” First, the text (with phonetic spelling), and then the video:

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

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 lightenin’,
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 po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

There are many good version of this out on YouTube. I picked this particular one because the lyrics are easier to make out than in some other renditions. Enjoy!

Here are a few more spirituals. Listen especially to the verses.

5 Replies to “Celebrating the Spirituals: Sober but Serene on Themes of Judgment”

  1. Could it be that real hardship in life is what teaches us how much we need God? As we “recline on our couches” it’s easy to think that we have it made. I don’t know about you, but I pray most passionately when I sense trouble coming. Which makes it a blessing, doesn’t it? I read a book some years ago, “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon VanAuken. It’s a very good read, and its theme is just that: everyting is God’s mercy, but some of it is a little hard to take.

  2. We have been discussing these things at home. My son (15) doesn’t believe that we can be perfected before we die. We are too inclined to sin. My understanding from reading the catechism is that we can be perfected before death and that Saints achieved this through working with God’s grace before they died.We are called to perfection while still here.

    Is this correct?

    Thank you and God Bless you Msgr for your blog. I have learned much from it.

  3. Blacks might also get something out of Gregorian chant during mass, don’t you think?

    1. Yes indeed, we have numerous Latin masses at my parish, along with Chant used in other settings. Also interesting is the fact that the spirituals are sung in the same pentatonic scale of most of the Dorian church Modes. Shape note singing employs the same scale. A lot of bridges here really.

      However, I sense something of a tone in your remarks. I do hope that you are not among those Who, when something they don’t particularly care for is being praised, somehow think what they do like is being ignored or disrespected.I have written extensively enough on chant here, and use it enough in my liturgies that I should not have to apologize to anyone about praising other forms of music. I happen to like a wider range of music,and the church permits a wide range, whatever individual preferences might be.

      A second problem with your remarks, is in your specific reference to “blacks” frankly, plenty of white folks esteem the spirituals as well. They are a fundamental feature of almost every college choir. Look at YouTube, and put in any title of the spiritual, and most of the hits will be featuring college choirs, as well as high school choirs. The spirituals are an American treasure.they are creative, and very biblical.

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