While within the “invisible institutions” of the hush/brush arbors (the equivalent to a modern-day Black Christian church) preaching, dance, and prayer were common forms used as expressions of religion and the Black Theology of the slaves, the unique art form of Black music that the slaves developed, the Spirituals, was noticeably the most expressive form of their religion and theology. Haskell defined the Spirituals as follows: “Spirituals are the religious songs composed by the negroes themselves, never written or printed, but passing from one generation to another with such addition and variations as circumstances may suggest.”[1] Interestingly, the term “spiritual” was not used for the genre until after the Civil War.[2] It has been noted that traditional African music is different from European music in that it is inclined to be more directly connected with function, to accompany worship or courtship, to make work go more smoothly, or simply to give pleasure; overall, in Africa, “it is more closely bound up with the details of daily living than in Europe.”[3] This is clearly evident when investigating the content of the spirituals that developed out of this African background and influence. Though the early history of the spirituals is ambiguous, the slaves were described as having “an ecstatic delight in psalmody” that was a delight to the ear, which Roberts says is the best description for the “superlative religious music of African-Americans.”[4] John W. Work divided spirituals into three groups: “the call-and-response chant; the slow, sustained, long-phrase melody; and the syncopated, segmented melody.”[5] Historically, the spirituals were considered “sorrow songs,” which were “compensatory plaints that enabled the slaves to sustain themselves in their despicable situations.”[6] Black leaders and scholars of the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois and Benjamin Mays were proponents of this description. However, historian and theologian Gayraud Wilmore believes that the spirituals were like the people who created them, holistic; as such, the spirituals were “both compensatory and revolutionary.”[7] Indeed, Black liberation theologian, James Cone, was one of the first Black theologians to recognize the revolutionary meaning of the spirituals.[8] All in all, “the spirituals reveal a…rechristened Christianity, for they are the essence of Black religion and Black spirituality.”[9]

Before delving into a deeper analysis of the spirituals as reflections of and perpetuators of slave religion and theology, it is necessary to get a deeper understanding of the nature of the spirituals. Levine mentions that “spirituals both during and after slavery were the product of an improvisational communal consciousness.”[10] He explains that the spirituals were not new creations, but were “forged out of many preexisting bits of old songs mixed together with snatches of new tunes and lyrics to fit into a fairly traditional but never wholly static metrical pattern.”[11] He further explains that they were “simultaneously the result of individual and mass creativity,” part of a folk process called “communal re-creation” whereby older songs were constantly recreated into new entities.[12]  Levine further noted that “slave songs, then, were never static; at no time did Negroes create a ‘final’ version of any spiritual.”[13] Levine surmises that as slave music, regardless of its religion, was a cultural form and that it was created and re-created through a communal process, the songs were thus vital to slave consciousness.[14] Levine attempts to show that the power and richness of the slave songs need to be acknowledged. He gives acknowledgment to special aspects of the songs. First, the call and response pattern brought with the slaves from Africa allowed them to stay in continual dialogue with their community.[15] Second, the songs “presented the slave with a potential outlet for his [her] individual feelings.”[16] Third, the use of imagery is also important in the slave songs, such as the imagery of the slaves as a chosen people; the majority of spirituals identify the singers as people born of God who are heading to heaven.[17] Levine also cites James McKim, who noted that the songs of the Sea Island freedmen “are all religious.”[18] Costen also looked specifically at the power of singing in the “invisible institution” and in the everyday lives of the slaves. She says that the response to God in song was rooted in traditional African religions,[19] so it is clear that the slaves brought this type of worship with them, and then used it to enhance their worship in the “invisible institution” leading to a distinctively created Black religion and theology. Costen added that the use of personal pronouns in spirituals can be attributed to several factors. “The African understanding of one’s personal interrelationship with others as all of the community experiences struggle in one factor. The ‘I’ technically communicates that ‘we’—‘all of us’—share in the struggle.”[20] As a community, the slaves struggled together, and they also released their frustrations and found solace together in their spirituals. Militant New England abolitionist Higginson, writing based on the observance of Black soldiers serving with him as Union militia, described the spirituals as the “choked up voice of a race at last unloosed,”[21] and so they undoubtedly were. While his observations were made post-slavery, the spirituals that he heard on a regular basis were composed during slavery and sung then by the same men he observed and served with, and they reflected the beliefs held by the slaves’ during slavery.

“Songs of communities are a vast reservoir of potentiality for theological reflection, discourse, and construction…songs born out of the experiences of antebellum and postbellum African Americans are rich sources of religious questions, conviction, and insight. This is the case of various genres of African-American music, including…spirituals.”[22] Goatley has made a claim that will be proven to be true in more ways than one in terms of the spirituals. Goatley has quoted Blassingame, who has furthermore added that “the God of the spirituals was visible in nature, present in the consciousness of man, omnipotent and omnipresent …[God] was no abstraction, but a Being who took interest in the lowly slave and interceded in his [her] behalf…[God] was the great Comforter.”[23] Indeed, the spirituals do reflect the theology of the slaves as revealed through their interaction with nature, their personal and social experiences, their encounter with God as the supreme and ever-present God who is always close to them, as well as through their belief that God was real, that He took an interest in their well-being and in their deliverance and salvation. Also, Proctor offered the possible first theological analysis of black spirituals by a credentialed African-American theologian. As part of the slaves’ theology, Proctor identifies “theological conceptualizations of the doctrine of God, Christology, pneumatology, angels, the Christian life, Satan, and eschatology.”[24] Notably, some of these will be discussed in later analyses to prove that the slaves’ faith in these doctrines is unmistakable.

Other theologians have also contributed to the understanding of the spirituals as evidence of the slaves’ theology in general. For example, Hayes suggests that “these songs [sorrow songs], better than anything else, reveal to us the spirituality of the slaves, their self-understanding, their understanding of God, their belief in Jesus, and their hope in the action of the Holy Spirit to help them stay in the race until freedom came.”[25] Mays has offered a comprehensive description of “the spiritual and theological thought of those slaved,” which encompasses, expands on, and confirms what the other theologians mentioned so far have said: “God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; God is sovereign, on heaven and on earth; God is just, sinners will be punished; God is revengeful; God is a warrior and fights the battles of his chosen people; God promises rest in heaven after death for those who hold out to the end; God is near and ever-present; God answers prayer.”[26] Hayes provides a simple definition taken from St. Anselm to explain the theological insights of the enslaved, which is provable by reviewing an assortment of spirituals from during slavery: According to St. Anselm, “They were a people of faith seeking understanding of that faith.”[27] The slaves were surely a people who were trying to make sense of their seemingly hopeless life circumstances at the hands of Whites who were indifferent to their needs and feelings. As such, the fact that they established any religious beliefs or articulated a theology in their spirituals is incredible. It must be noted that the religion for the slaves was not that of a set of established beliefs that they learned and practiced as rote behavior; rather, it was a “religion wrought out of the experience of people who encounter the divine in the midst of historical realities.”[28]

One of the first aspects of theology that is reflected in the spirituals is the slaves’ unrelenting trust in an omnipotent warrior God who will never abandon them, despite the imminent threat of death they faced daily. “The slave was a tool, a thing, a utility, a commodity, but he was not a person. He [she] was faced constantly with the imminent threat of death….their concern with death is shown in the following words of a Spiritual: ‘Come down, come down, my Lord, / An’ take me up to wear de crown.’”[29] In this spiritual the slaves express their trust—despite the fact that death could come at any time, they trusted in God’s power and love that after all their suffering in this world, a crown of glory awaited them in the other world. Yet again, though death can be a terrible experience because God holds one accountable for his or her actions in the world, there is a sense of trust in God’s goodness and power to answer prayers because at some point in one’s life, maybe even at the point of death, there is forgiveness and freedom as is indicated in the following spiritual:

Death is gwinter lay his cold icy hands on me, Lord,
Death is gwinter lay his cold icy hands on me,
One mornin’ I was walkin’ along
I heard a voice and saw no man;
Said go in peace and sin no more,
Yo’ sins fo-given an’yp’ soul set free[30]

“The concern with death is connected with the predominantly other-worldly outlook in the Negro’s religion. In many Spirituals, death appears as a means of escape from the woes and weariness of this world.”[31]  This is indicated in the words of another frequently sung spiritual: “By and by, I’m goin’ to lay down this heavy load.”[32]

The slaves’ trust is highlighted even more in several of the spirituals. The following was a marching song sung when the men in Higginson’s Union militia marched; it helped the soldiers lift their feet. It shows the slaves’ belief in going into the wilderness, apart from everyone else and delving into prayer, then waiting with trust for the God who has the power to answer prayer:

Jesus call you. Go in de wilderness,
Go in de wilderness, go in de wilderness,
Jesus call you. Go in de wilderness
To wait upon de Lord[33]

The following spiritual shows the slaves’ understanding of what trust is based on what they read in the Bible. Here they sing about Peter the Apostle who trusted Jesus to the point of giving up his profession and way of life to follow Him, without obviously knowing what this type of commitment would entail: “O Sam and Peter was fishin’ in de dea, / And dey drop de net and follow my Lord, / Don’t you hear de trumpet sound?”[34]  Likewise, the slaves knew that because of Jesus Peter walked in on water, that Jesus healed the lame, and gave sight to the blind, so they sang with trust in an omnipotent Jesus who has the power to do anything:

O Lord, I’m hungry
I want to be fed,

O Lord, I’m naked
I want to be clothed,

O Lord, I’m sinful
I want to be saved,[35]

Another aspect of theology that is reflected in the spirituals is the slaves’, which is closely connected with their trust in God, was their belief in God’s justice. Levine writes, “The religious music of the slaves is almost devoid of feelings of depravity or unworthiness, but is rather…pervaded by a sense of change, transcendence, ultimate justice, and personal worth.”[36] Levine added the following:

The spirituals have been referred to as ‘sorrow songs,’ and in some respects they were….but these feelings were rarely pervasive or permanent….For all their inevitable sadness, slave songs were characterized more by a feeling of confidence than of despair. There was confidence that contemporary power relationships were not immutable: ‘Did not old Pharaoh get lost, get lost, get lost,…get lost in the Red Sea?’[37]

“The reason why God’s justice was important to the slaves was because they lived as oppressed people in a land belonging to and controlled by people of another color, who saw their “blackness” as permission to oppress them as inferior peoples, people deserving no more than any common animal does; this meant that they needed to be liberated.”

Cone also recognizes the faith of the slaves in God’s justice. He offers Mays’ summarized concept of God to the slaves in the songs/spirituals as “God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, and he is sovereign in heaven and on earth.[38] He is just—‘just to the point of cruelty’[39]—destroying the wicked in hell and vindicating the righteous by offering a reward in heaven.”[40] Higginson also identifies the next song as sung as the singers (Black militia) were marching, rowing, or embarking. The allusion provided, clearly depicts the slaves’ belief in God’s justice. Just as God had the power to destroy Pharaoh’s army so the Egyptian could cross over to safety, He has the power to, and will also, lead their soldiers to safety: “My army cross over, / O, Pharaoh’s army drownded! / My army cross over.”[41] This can also be seen in the Black soldiers’ hope that God has to power to allow the Union Army to win the war thereby securing the long-awaited freedom of the slaves. 

Additionally, Cone shows the slaves’ strong faith in God’s justice as He is the one who would deliver them from the horrors of slavery, which they did not deserve; God is omnipresent, that is, with them in their suffering, so He will not forget them: “The slave’s view of God embraced the whole of life—his joys and hopes, his sorrows and disappointments, and his basic belief that God had not left him alone, and that his God would set him free from human bondage.”[42] Cone also provides other spirituals that clearly prove the slaves’ belief in the justice of their sovereign God who will not let them suffer forever, but will send them a Savior who will deliver them. The first spiritual announces Jesus’ birth.

Go tell it on de mountains,
Over de hills and everywhere,
Go tell it on de mountains,
That Jesus Christ is born[43]

 “The birth of Jesus meant that ‘de Savior’s born; that was why the ‘Three Wise Men to Jerusalem Came’ and why the shepherds were asked to ‘rise up…an’ foller”[44]: “Leave yo’ sheep an’ leave yo’ lambs, / Rise up, shepherd, an’ foller.”[45] For Cone, “to follow meant accepting the significance of his [her] birth and what it meant for the unimportant people in society. Through him the poor have the good news preached to them, but the rich and the rulers will be condemned to everlasting punishment.”

The reason why God’s justice was important to the slaves was because they lived as oppressed people in a land belonging to and controlled by people of another color, who saw their “blackness” as permission to oppress them as inferior peoples, people deserving no more than any common animal does; this meant that they needed to be liberated. Bridges states, “In the church of the enslaved, music had an observable effect in the struggle for personal and collective liberation.”[46] Hayes adds, “In the spirituals, Black slaves combined the memory of their fathers [and mothers] with the Christian gospel and created a style of existence that participated in their liberation from earthly bondage.”[47] This was necessary because, as Goatley explains, slavery took away the slaves’ “freedom of movement, relationships, and self-actualization.”[48] “Music was one avenue expressive of a liberated consciousness amid an oppressed community” because they retained one freedom, their freedom of thought.[49] Importantly, according to Cone, “The basic idea of the spirituals is that slavery contradicts God….that is why the spirituals focus on biblical passages that stress God’s involvement in the liberation of oppressed people.”[50] As such, “The message of liberation in the spirituals is based on the biblical contention that God’s righteousness is revealed in his deliverance of the oppressed from the shackles of human bondage.”[51] Cone surmises, “The faith of black people was thus grounded in the authenticity of God’s word revealed through the scriptures.”[52] This faith of the slaves in the authenticity of God as a liberator revealed through scripture is evident in several of their spirituals.


      [1] Marion Alexander Haskell, “Negro Spirituals,’” The Century Magazine 36 (1899), 577, quoted in David Emmanuel Goatley, Were You There? (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 43.

     [2] David Emmanuel Goatley, Were You There? (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 43.

     [3]  John Storm Roberts, Black Music of Two Worlds, Second Revised Edition (New York: Schimer Books, 1998), 192.

     [4]Ibid., 176.

     [5] Roberts, John Storm, Black Music of Two Worlds, Second Revised Edition (New York: Schimer Books, 1998), 176.

     [6] Diana L. Hayes,  Forged In the Fiery Furnace (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 72.

     [7] Ibid., 77.

     [8] Ibid., 78.

     [9] Ibid., 84.

     [10] Lawrence W. Levine, “Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness: An Exploration in Neglected Sources,” African-American Religion, eds. Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau  (New York: Routledge, 1997), 66.

     [11] Lawrence W. Levine, “Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness: An Exploration in Neglected Sources,” African-American Religion, eds. Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau (New York: Routledge, 1997), 66.

     [12] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 112.

    [13] Lawrence W. Levine, “Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness: An Exploration in Neglected Sources,” African-American Religion, eds. Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau (New York: Routledge, 1997), 66.

    [14] Ibid., 66

     [15] Ibid., 68

     [16] Ibid., 68

     [17] Ibid., 69

     [18] Ibid., 69

     [19] Melva Wilson Costen, African American Christian Worship, 2nd ed (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 25.

    [20] Ibid., 84

     [21] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed.Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 112.

     [22] Emmanuel Goatley, Were You There? (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 40.

     [23] John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York Oxford University Press, 1972), 146, quoted in David Emmanuel Goatley, Were You There? (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 49.

     [24] Henry Hugh Proctor, “The Theology of the Songs of the Southern Slaves,” The Journal of Black Sacred Music 2 (1988): 50-63, quoted in David Emmanuel Goatley, Were You There? (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 46.

     [25] Diana L. Hayes, Forged In the Fiery Furnace (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 71.

     [26] Benjamin E. Mays, The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (Boston: Chapman and Grimes, 1938), vii, quoted in Diana L. Hayes, Forged I the Fiery Furnace (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 76-77.

     [27] Diana L. Hayes, Forged In the Fiery Furnace (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 83.

     [28] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 29.

     [29] Franklin E. Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), 14.

     [30] Franklin E. Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), 14.

     [31] Ibid., 14-15

     [32] Ibid., 15

     [33] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 126.

     [34]Ibid., 127.

     [35] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 51.

     [36] Lawrence W. Levine, “Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness: An Exploration in Neglected Sources,” African-American Religion, eds. Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau (New York: Routledge, 1997), 76.

     [37] Ibid., 76.

     [38] Benjamin Mays, The Negro’s God (New York: Atheneum, 1968), 168, quoted in James, C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 17.

     [39] Ibid., 17

     [40] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 17.

     [41] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 116.

     [42] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 46.

     [43] Ibid., 49

     [44]Ibid., 49.

     [45] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 49.

     [46] Flora Wilson Bridges, Resurrection Song: African-American Spirituality (New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 75.

     [47] Diana L. Hayes, Forged In the Fiery Furnace (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 84.

     [48] Emmanuel Goatley, Were You There? (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 42.

     [49] Ibid., 42

     [50] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 35.

     [51] Ibid., 35

     [52] Ibid., 36.

Photo: “Slave Quarters, Louisiana, 1861-65 “, Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed February 9, 2021, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/1397

2 thoughts on “The Negro Spirituals as a Form of Theology in the “Invisible Institution” (Part 1)

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