Note: Part 1 is available here

To begin with, the slaves demonstrated the same faith in God the liberator as the Hebrews did when they left Egypt; they did so by remembering and believing in His Word of promise. The Hebrews had no way of knowing if or how He would save them from Pharaoh and his army, yet they trusted in God. According to Cone, their faith was their “trust in God’s Word of liberation.”[1] Cone cites several spirituals to prove his point. He notes that in their suffering, they sang, “Don’t leave me, Lord / Don’t leave me behin.’”[2] This cry was equivalent to the Hebrews’ complaint of “How long, O Lord.”[3] Yet, they believed that God would always provide for them when they sang, “Children, we shall be free / When the Lord shall appear.”[4] Despite their suffering and humiliation, the slaves rejoiced, “God is a God! / God don’t never change!”[5] Cone highlights here a Black Liberation Theology found within the spirituals, “So far from being songs of passive resignation, the spirituals are black freedom songs which emphasize black liberation as consistent with divine revelation.”[6] “Black slaves were not so naïve as is often supposed…they believed that God would deliver them; and as he locked the lion’s jaw for Daniel, he will paralyze the power of white masters”[7]: “Who lock, who lock de lion, / Who lock, de lion’s jaw? / God, lock, God lock de lion’s jaw.”[8] For the slaves, if God the omnipotent One could close the mouths of the lions so that Daniel could be liberated, He could also do the impossible and liberate them; they were acknowledging that nothing was beyond His capabilities because He is a warrior who fights battles. Not only did they believe in Daniel’s deliverance, they also believed in all the stories of deliverance in the Bible. For Cone, it is recognizable that “God is the liberator, the deliverer of the weak from the injustice of the strong.”[9] The slaves acknowledged this faith in their God the liberator when they sang the next spirituals:

My God delivered Daniel,
Why can’t he deliver me?
When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go;
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go;
Go down, Moses, ‘way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell ole Pharaoh
Let my people go[10]

Moreover, the freedom the slaves envisioned was not simply an earthly physical freedom; the spirituals reveal that theologically they believed too in an eschatological freedom. A sign of the slaves’ belief in the God of justice that will allow them to have eschatological freedom is seen in how they viewed their own freedom as an act of God and not anything else:

Slavery chain done broke at last, broke
            at last, broke at last,
Slavery chain done broke at last,
Going to praise God till I die[11]

Cone specifies that “this is not a ‘spiritual’ freedom; it is an eschatological freedom grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future is inconsistent with the realities of slavery.”[12] By looking closely at the spirituals, it is evident that slaves were more concerned with the freedom that would come when they leave this earth than with freedom from sin. Goatley affirms this when he says, “In spirituals one finds the slave seeking redemption by God and communion with God.”[13] Frazier expands on this thought by saying that “the sacred folk songs or Spirituals were essentially religious in sentiment and…other-worldly in outlook.”[14]

Theologically, the slaves also believed that there is life after death and this life is definitely better than the life they lived in bondage. As Cone exposes, “The resurrection was an eschatological event which permeated both the present and the future history of black slaves”[15] and he adds that Jesus was present as their friend and companion, He was their rock, their shelter, and ever-present, and in the future, He held the keys to Judgment.[16] This belief in the Second Coming of Jesus on Judgment Day is apparent in the following spiritual:

I’m going back with Jesus when he comes, when he comes,  
I’m going back with Jesus when he comes, when he comes,  
O he may not come today,
But he’s coming anyway[17]

Cone explains that because the black slave was confident that God’s eschatological liberation would be fully revealed in Jesus’ Second Coming, he could sing songs of joy and happiness while living in bondage.[18] Thus, not only did the slaves believe in life after death, they also believed in Judgement Day. This theological and eschatological viewpoint of a subjugated people who lived in absolute hopelessness is remarkable, as well as commendable. Hayes comments that “after mourning the loss of all that enables one to survive, they [slaves] were able to sing of a joy that contradicted their sorrow.”[19] The slaves had such a positive view of their future life, that they even provided an affirmative answer in one of their spirituals in response to Jeremiah’s question as to whether there was any balm in Gilead: “There is a balm of Gilead / To make the wounded whole.”[20]

Other spirituals speak of the future life where there will be no more suffering because the slaves knew true eschatological liberation awaits them as God promises rest in heaven after death for those who hold out to the end. This sense of security is illustrated in the following spiritual: “No more rain, not more cowskin on my back!” / “Glory to God that rules on high,”[21] as well as in the following song:

O, my mudder is gone! My mudder is gone!
My mudder is gone into heaven, my lord!
I can’t stay behind”!
Dere’s room in dar, room in dar,
Room in dar, in de heaven, my Lord”[22]

“Almost all their songs were thoroughly religious in their tone, however, quaint their expression…Nothing but patience for this life,–nothing but triumph in the next.”[23] This patience is depicted in another spiritual:

Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burning’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burning’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burning’,
For dis world most done[24]

Higginson makes a remarkable pronouncement regarding the book of the apocalypse, which is ideally eschatological in itself: “This book, with the books of Moses, constituted their Bible; all that lay between, even the narratives of the life of Jesus, they hardly cared to read of to hear.”[25] This is a strong statement on the powerful influence on the slaves of both the Hebrews’ experience of liberation and that of the end times when Jesus will return to offer a different type of liberation. Their feelings towards the apocalypse can be identified in the spirit that included the following: “De lightnin’and de flashin’, / Jesus set poor sinners free / I can’t stand the fire (thrice).”[26] The slaves’ eschatological belief in a new life where they will be made new can be observed in the following spiritual as an indication that “continually, they held out the possibility of imminent rebirth: ‘I look at de worl’ an’ de worl’ look new,…I look at my hands an’ they look so too…I looked at my feet, my feet was too.’”[27] The slaves clearly believed that in the end times God will save them because in spite of their sufferings they never stopped believing in His power to save them or in the power of their prayers, yet, they also believed that those deserving punishment would suffer the consequences.

“Without planning to and without knowing what they were doing, the slaves were expressing in song all that they believed religiously within the social and historical contexts in which they lived.”

The spirituals also reveal the slaves’ theological perspective on whom they believed Jesus to be and why it was important to know about him. Cone has emphasized some of these perspectives: “Statements made about God are not theologically distinct from statements about Jesus Christ,” “Jesus is understood as the King, the deliverer of humanity from unjust suffering. He is the comforter in time of trouble,”[28] “The divinity of Jesus was affirmed unequivocally in the black spirituals.”[29] Cone has also explained that “when black slaves encountered his [Jesus’] presence, they also met the father who sent the Son to give his people liberty”[30]as is seen in the following spiritual: “I’m a chile of God wid my soul set free, / For Christ hab bought my liberty.” [31] Cone further details that based on the spirituals one can interpret the meaning of Jesus’ birth, life, and resurrection, which is found in his identity with the poor, the blind, and the sick, who He has come to set free and to restore their wholeness.[32] In all of this, the slaves saw Jesus and God as one. They never questioned the difference between God and Jesus; they simply believed “blindly,” which indicated the simplicity, yet power of their faith.

Furthermore, the focus of several spirituals reveals that as part of the slaves’ theological view, they identified greatly with the suffering Jesus.  One can infer that the slaves were strongly influenced by the passion of Jesus because of their own experience of being wrongly labelled, rejected, and mistreated. As such, as Cone says, “In Jesus’ death black slaves saw themselves.”[33] This is noticeable in the following spiritual where they appear to be making the point that Jesus’ silence while being beaten during His passion was like their own silence throughout their own whippings and their own “passion”/life sufferings:

Oh, dey whupped him up de hill, up de hill
Oh, dey whupped hi, up de hill, an’ he never said a mumbalin’ word,
Oh, dey whupped hi, up de hill, an’ he never said a mumbalin’ word,
He jes’ hung down his head an’ he cried[34]

According to Cone, “The death of Jesus meant that he died on the cross for black slaves. His death was a symbol of their sufferings,”[35] indicating that they saw Jesus as their personal savior. The following spirituals make this belief manifest with the use of the pronoun “my”: “They nail my Jesus down, / They put him on the crown of thorns, O see my Jesus hangin’ high!” and   “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”[36] Cone added that “through the experience of being slaves, they encountered the theological significance of being of Jesus’ death…they were not alone in their slavery. Jesus was with them!…the cross was not the end of God’s drama of salvation. Death does not have the last word. Through Jesus’ death, God has conquered death’s power over his people.”[37] Levine also notes that “descriptions of the Crucifixion communicate a sense of the actual presence of the singer: ‘Dey pierced Him in the side…Dey nail him to de cross…Dey rivet His feet…Dey hanged him high…Dey stretched Him high…”[38] Here, by the details used and the way in which they are presented in a vivid fashion make it appear as if the slaves themselves had directly witnessed these events; therefore, a deep connection between the slaves and the crucified Christ is felt.

The spirituals can as well be perceived as portraying the theological perspective of the slaves regarding the Holy Spirit. Costen describes how singing has the power to free the human spirit so that the Spirit of God can penetrate, and the slaves were conscious of this, as well as of the Spirit’s power to move at will, so they were aware that singing as a form of prayer or in response to prayers and other aspects of worship, so this helped to “create a mood of freedom, an openness to quicken an awareness of God’s presence, and for the hearing and receiving of God’s grace.”[39] The slaves understood their situation, but they attempted to practice a spiritual life that allowed them to go on as opposed to giving up. Hayes develops this point saying the following: They “got over the dehumanization, the depravity, the deprivation” of their lives because of their “fathomless faith in a God of action who sent his Son with a promise of salvation for all…they ‘got over’ because of their belief in a ‘wonderworking God’ who…[would] bring about their liberation, not solely in death, but in their physical life as well.., they ‘got over’ because they knew that the Holy Spirit could undo anything that humanity attempted to do.”[40] Cone added that “through the song, black people were able to affirm that Spirit who was continuous with their existence as free beings; and they created a new style of religious worship. They shouted, and they prayed, they preached and they sang, because they had found something.”[41]

Finally, the spirituals, though reflective mainly of Protestant Orthodoxy, also rarely reflected Catholic theological beliefs. Goatley confirms that “the theology of spirituals is not simplistic. It is consistent with the heart of Protestant Christian theology of the era.”[42] Proctor also identifies the theology of slave spirituals through “conspicuous absence.”[43] He noted that ‘nonessential elements of Christology are nonexistent.”[44] “Even when slaves were exposed to Roman Catholicism, as in Louisiana, they omitted inclinations toward Mariology, despite their Roman Catholic indoctrination.”[45] Proctor says that as far as he can “discover by research and experience,” he can “find no melody of the slave singing divine praises to the Virgin.”[46] However, when Higginson encountered the Black soldiers in the Union militia, he heard them singing spirituals about the Virgin Mary, indicating that they believed in Her and Her role as Jesus’ Mother who intercedes for Her children here on earth as She was commanded to all at the foot of the Cross. Higginson concluded that the “Hail Mary” might denote a Roman Catholic origin, as some of the men [Black] came from St. Augustine [Florida] who held that faith.[47] It is evident that they had developed this understanding of and faith in the Virgin Mary on the Spanish plantations where they were enslaved during slavery. The spirituals that Higginson heard included the following:

O hail, Mary, hail!
Hail, Mary, hail!
Hail, Mary hail!
To help me bear de cross[48]

As well:

O, Mary was a woman, and he [sic] had a one Son,
Say, look at, & c.
And de Jews and de Romans had hum hung,
Says, look at, & c.
Cry, holy, holy!
And I tell you, sinner, you had better had pray,
Says, look at, & c.
For hell is a dark and dismal place,
Says, look at, & c.
And I tell you, sinner, and I wouldn’t do dar!”[49]

This spiritual shows belief in Mary, her virgin birth, of Her Son Jesus, of the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus at the hands of the Jews and Romans; also, it shows belief in prayer, in free will, in hell.

“The spiritual then, is the spirit of the people struggling to be free; it is their religion, their source of strength in a time of trouble.”[50] It’s important to note that what the slaves sang in their spirituals was a reflection of their surroundings. Without planning to and without knowing what they were doing, the slaves were expressing in song all that they believed religiously within the social and historical contexts in which they lived. The result was a music that became a valuable source for understanding the theology of the slaves. Costen explains that the gatherings in the “invisible institution” were the foundation for the subsequent African American “visible institutions” of congregations, denominations, schools, burial associations, fraternal orders, and so on.[51] Costen also shows the development of the Black religion and theology as one wrought out of circumstances and survival. She says that “in an effort to find freedom and understanding, traditional beliefs and practices, Christian beliefs and practices, and the reality of existence merged.”[52]


     [1] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 37

     [2] Ibid., 37

     [3] Ibid., 38

     [4] Ibid., 36

     [5] Ibid., 38

     [6] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 38

     [7]Ibid., 41.

     [8] Ibid., 41

     [9] Ibid., 41

     [10] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 44

     [11]Ibid., 44.

     [12] Ibid. 44

     [13] Emmanuel Goatley, Were You There? (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 49.

     [14] Franklin E. Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), 12.

     [15] James  C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 54-55.

     [16] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 55.

     [17] Ibid., 56

     [18] Ibid., 56-57

     [19] Diana L. Hayes, Forged In the Fiery Furnace (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 82.

     [20] Diana L. Hayes, Forged In the Fiery Furnace (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 82., 72.

     [21] Peter Randolph, “Plantation Churches: Visible and Invisible,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 68.

     [22] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 114.

     [23] Ibid., 117

     [24] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 117

     [25]Ibid., 119

     [26] Ibid., 119

     [27] 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), 75.

      [28] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 47.

     [29]Ibid., 47.

     [30] Ibid.,48.

     [31]Ibid., 48.

     [32] Ibid., 52

     [33] Ibid., 52

     [34] James C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 52

     [35] Ibid., 53

     [36] Ibid., 53.

     [37] Ibid., 54

     [38] 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), 74.

     [39] Melva Wilson Costen, African American Christian Worship, 2nd ed (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 33.

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

     [41] James, C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 31.

     [42] Emmanuel Goatley, Were You There? (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 45.

     [43] 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.

     [44] Ibid., 46

     [45] 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.

     [46] Ibid., 46

     [47] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 115.

     [48] Ibid., 115

     [49] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” African American Religious History: Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernet (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 120.

     [50] James, C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 32.

     [51] James, C. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1972), 25

     [52] Ibid. 26

Photo: “Aunt Phillis’s cabin: or, Southern life as it is” (1852) Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aunt_Phillis%27s_cabin,1852-_Frontispiece.png

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