Spirituals – Hymns of the Slaves

Scripture: Psalm 119:5 - Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free.

Four hundred and two years ago, in 1619, the first Africans were brought to America as slaves. By 1790, one hundred and seventy-one years later, slaves made up about 1/3 of the population of Georgia. The economy became more and more dependent on slave labor. As a result, slaves were forced to work from sunup to sundown. It was during this time that the slaves turned to music to cope. These songs became a way for the slave to assuage their feelings and deal with their everyday situations. Eventually, the songs also became a means to communicate because they were punished for speaking.  Spirituals often had hidden meanings. Similar to traditional Christian hymns, spirituals were often birthed out of pain and designed to bring the singers together in song for a common purpose and to promote unity.

One of my favorite Negro Spirituals is Steal Away. The phrase to Steal away means to exit or escape from a person, place, or thing in a hurried pace. Although, this song is a song of worship expressing longing to be with Jesus in heaven, it also had a double meaning.

Steal away
Steal away
Steal away to Jesus
Steal away
Steal away home
I ain’t got long to stay here

My Lord, He calls me
He calls me by the thunder
The trumpet sounds within’ my soul
I ain’t got long to stay here

Green trees a bendin’
Poor sinner stands a tremblin’
The trumpet sounds within’ my soul
I ain’t got long to stay here

This was a song often sung before slaves were going to try escape to freedom. The song told the slave to quickly get to safety; quickly get home because there isn’t much time left. Verse 1 tells that the leader is giving the signal to leave and the freedom bell is ringing within their soul. As a result, they can’t stay in bondage much longer. Verse 2 tells that the miracle of escape is manifesting and that the Master has no control. It won’t be long before he’s repenting. Freedom is ringing in my soul. I won’t be in bondage much longer. This song showed that the slaves believed that death brought solace in heaven. They were taught their master’s religion and believed the simple yet powerful message of salvation. Despite their circumstance, despite the language barrier, the slave understood the message of salvation and embraced it. Four hundred and two years later, many African-Americans still embrace what many believe is a slave religion but in reality, it is the catalyst in which their freedom began. The message of Jesus is all about freedom; freedom from sin, freedom from pain, freedom from hate, freedom from whatever ails you. Galatians 5:1, says, that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Psalms 119:45, says, I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts. Many wonder how the slaves endured, how they persevered, and how they thrived despite their adverse and egregious situation. The slave did it with Jesus. The slave had a relationship with Jesus, they worshipped and praised God despite their situation. The religion that many throw away today provided the slave with the power needed to survive inhumane conditions and the harshest of treatment. As they waded in the water and sang songs about Moses going down to Egypt land and made it clear that they weren’t going to let anyone turn them around. The slaves ultimately knew that they had been changed and the angels in heaven had signed their name. The slaves knew whether they made it to physical freedom or lived out their days in physical bondage. Their belief in Jesus had set them free already.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for the history of a resilient people who worshipped and praised You in the midst of their storm. Lord, help me to remember that You have already set me free from the bondage of sin, from the anger within about situations that haven’t changed much. I’m thankful that the same power that sustained the slaves is the same power that sustains me. I pray for clear understanding of Your Word so that I am not guilty of misusing it but instead using it so that my life can bring You glory. I am ever so grateful that Jesus was obedient even unto the cross so I can be free. Forgive me Lord for the hate that sometimes builds up inside of me because of the mistreatment of people of color, yesterday and today. Continue, Lord, to lead and guide me so I can represent You well. Moreover, thank you for Your grace and mercy when I fail. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.

(by Patricia Towns)






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