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Despite the nearly three millennia that separate them, the psalms of the ancient Israelites and the spirituals of the African American slaves are remarkably similar, reflecting their communities’ similar milieus, emotions, and convictions. In this article, Elizabeth Backfish compares these musical manifestations of the heart, arguing that Israel’s subjugation in exile produced similar musical effects as did the African Americans’ oppression under slavery. Both communities found hope in corporately recounting God’s faithfulness throughout history, creating a solidarity that extends beyond the bounds of ancient Israel and antebellum America to all of God’s suffering people everywhere. Ms. Backfish is a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.


The songs that arose out of American slavery have preserved a poignant portrait of the hearts, sufferings, and hopes of their anonymous composers. Frederick Douglass, whose writings and orations were some of the most eloquent and persuasive attacks against slavery, claimed that witnessing the enslaved communities sing these spirituals was actually one of the most powerful arguments for the abolition of slavery: “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.”1

The portrait painted by these spirituals, as well as the contexts from which the songs arose, is similar to that of ancient Israel, particularly as she sang and prayed the Psalms to the Lord in the bondage of exile, hoping for deliverance and restoration. Although much research has been done on the songs and settings of both the exilic psalmists and the African American slaves, a comparison of these songs has yet to be undertaken. This paper seeks to fill this gap by exploring the similarities in Sitz im Leben, worldview, style, and theme between the slave spiri-tuals and the Psalms, arguing that the cries and hopes of the African American slaves were in fact very akin to those of their captive brothers and sisters over two millennia ago.

“O sing to the Lord a new song,” Psalms 33:32

In the Psalter, a “new song” was often elicited by a new saving act of the Lord, or in anticipation of such an act.3 Psalm 40, for example, opens by recounting the Lord’s rescue of the psalmist:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
Out of the miry bog,
And set my feet upon a rock,making my steps secure (vv.1-2).

This new act of deliverance elicited a new song:

He put a new song in my mouth,
A song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
And put their trust in the Lord (v. 3).

The slaves used the term “new song” in a similar way, often to refer to the songs they would sing upon their final redemption in heaven or upon their earthly deliverance from slavery. The spirituals themselves were also new, and these new songs were not warranted by new acts of deliverance, but by a new context in a foreign land with foreign oppressors.4 And yet this new context also, paradoxically, offered a new hope of deliverance. Even among the Israelites, songs of lament, praise, and hope were sung not only by those who had witnessed God’s deliverance, but also, and perhaps especially, by those who anticipated and trusted in God’s deliverance.

Scholars disagree how much of their African heritage the first generations of slaves were able to retain. Because individuals were usually torn apart from their communities and families, and because most of the men taken were young and less steeped in their own traditions, it is possible that they lost much of their religious and social heritage relatively quickly.5 According to sociologist Franklin Frazier, writing in the mid-twentieth century, this loss of social cohesion created a vacuum that was easily filled by Christianity.6 However, most scholars today believe that the slaves were converted slowly, and that the distinctive theological tenants – or at least the distinctive worship style – of the slave communities were derived from their African roots, and that theirs was a religion of syncretism.7

The primary point of continuity between the slaves’ African spirituality and their new practice of Christianity was in their style of worship. The many spirituals that have been preserved are fairly consistent with orthodox Christianity, focusing on biblical narratives of deliverance and faithful heroes, but unlike their white counterparts, whose worship was very reserved, the slaves’ worship involved shouting, dancing, and unique intonation around what was known as the “ring shout.”8 They would stomp their feet, slap their thighs, and clap their hands in rhythm with the music, and they even used tones, sounds, and meter completely unknown to white Americans.9 These features were almost certainly carried over from African ritual, and because whites considered them “barbarous” and “idolatrous,” slaves often had to worship in hiding.10

In fact, many pastors, and even some black pastors, vehemently opposed the African American style of worship, particularly its extemporaneous nature. The African Methodist Episcopal Church issued statements forbidding slaves to sing “hymns of your own composing,” claiming that the “common practice for members of our churches to sing songs which are without meaning and sense” must cease because the spirituals were “detrimental to true, intelligent worship.”11 Of course, as history would reveal, the greatest offense to both intellect and worship was not the spirituals, but the oppression of African Americans and the suppression of their songs.

The origins of most spirituals, especially the oldest ones, are as mysterious as the provenance of many of the psalms. Those spirituals whose origins are not shrouded by history were often extemporaneous creations of worshippers. An anonymous former slave recounted in an 1899 issue of Christian Science Monthlyhow she herself would compose a spiritual during the pastor’s sermon:

And, honey, de Lord would com a’shinin’ thoo dem pages and revive dis ole nigger’s heart, and I’d jump up dar and den and holler and shout and sing and pat, and dey would all cotch de words and I’d sing it to some ole shout song I’d heard ‘em sing from Africa, and dey’d all take it up and keep at it, and keep a’ addin’ to it, and den it would be a spiritual.12

This woman’s account illustrates how spirituals were often both extemporaneous expressions of worship and also heavily influenced by African tradition.

In the northern states, African Americans were influenced by the Dutch Reformed (and Scottish) practice of “lining out” the Psalms, in which the leader would sing a verset or line and the congregation would echo it back.13 This form of psalmody was relatively simple, utilizing a stock of only a few set melodies. African Americans were often given religious instruction, which included the singing of psalms. Of course, this instruction was far more limited in the South, where slave owners feared educating their slaves in any way, especially in religious matters, lest their conversion potentially nullify their bondage.14 Virginia and Maryland, however, issued laws in the mid-seventeenth century assuring slave owners that conversion did not threaten their status as slaves and that conversion should be encouraged,and after the Second Great Awakening at the beginning of the nineteenth century, many slaves were converted to Christianity and even ordained as pastors.15

“My heart and flesh sing for joy!,” Psalms 84:2

African Americans loved the Psalms and used them to express their own sufferings and hopes. Reverend Samuel Davies, who served as President of what is now Princeton University from 1759 to his death in 1761, and who worked to bring literacy and the Bible to slaves in Virginia, described this love, saying, “The negroes, above all the human species that I ever knew, have an ear for music, and a kind of ecstatic delight in Psalmody; and there are no books they learn so soon or take such pleasure in, as those in that heavenly part of divine worship.”16 Davies also recounted that he sent slave communities books such as Isaac Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, from which the slaves would sing sometimes all night long.17 As we noted above, their style of singing and worship was usually transformed into a livelier, African style, but their love for the words of the Psalms is clear, and psalmody seems to have been a safe form of worship while slaves were under supervision. Factory slaves in Richmond, Virginia, for example, were known for their skillful and joyous singing, as they would have their books of psalmody open next to them on the workbenches while they diligently worked and sang.18

The Psalms also functioned as therapeutic and cathartic salves to the broken bodies and spirits of the southern slaves. They provided hope that their lives were ultimately ruled not by their human masters, but by the Lord, who would rescue them from their bondage and pain. The hope and transformative power of the Psalms provided a means of voicing and working through their suffering, thereby restoring their inner health.19

Despite their love for the Psalms, the anonymous composers of black spirituals rarely cited or adapted the Psalms into their own songs. Instead, they focused on the stories of deliverance and healing in the Bible. However, the style of the spirituals often seems to be modeled after the Psalms, and at the very least their styles exhibit clear parallels. Like most poetry, both psalms and spirituals are marked by their economy of language, or terseness, and both forms of worship exploit ambiguities.20 The Psalms used ambiguity and disambiguation largely to draw worshippers into worship, peak their curiosities, and engage their minds, “My God is a Rock in a Weary Land”15Southern, The Music of Black Americans while the spirituals often used ambiguity to hide meaning from eavesdropping masters. Psalms and spirituals also share similar structures, including refrains, call and response formats, patterning, and stock phrases used in multiple songs.21 Many spirituals, like psalms, move from praise to historical warrant for praise back to praise, as in this spiritual:

Ev’ry time I feel the Spirit,
Moving in my heart,
I will pray.

Up-on the mountain my Lord spoke,
Out His mouth came fire and smoke.
All around me looks so shine,
Ask my Lord if all was mine.

Ev’ry time I feel the Spirit,
Moving in my heart,I will pray!22

Thus, the African American slaves had a love for the Psalms themselves, so it is not surprising that the style of their own songs resembled that of the Psalms.

“Give me understanding,” Psalms 119:34

The psalmists and spiritualists also shared a similar, holistic worldview. The slaves, like ancient Israel, did not interpret a harsh dichotomy between the physical salvation of the body in this world and the spiritual salvation of the soul in the world to come, nor did they distinguish between the sacred and the secular. Former slave John Thompson, who escaped slavery in Maryland by God’s providence, describes this holistic understanding of salvation well, saying, “For freedom, like eternal life, is precious, and a true man will risk every power of body or mind to escape the snares of satan, and secure an everlasting rest at the right hand of God.”23 Raboteau echoes this sentiment over a century later, saying,

Categorizing sacred and secular elements is of limited usefulness in discussing the spirituals because slaves, following African and biblical tradition, believed that divine action constantly took place within the lives of men, in the past, present, and future.24

Sometimes spirituals illustrate this blend of the sacred and secular:

De ship is in the harbor, harbor, harbor,
De ship is in the harbor,
To wait upon the Lord.25

Similarly, neither the Psalms nor the spirituals assumed a harsh dichotomy between death at the end of one’s life and death within one’s life. According to John Goldingay, the psalmists’ view of death often overflowed into life:

The Psalms also assume that you may not wait until the end of your life to experience “death.” They do not distinguish life and death as sharply as we do. People saw, or felt, experiences such as illness, depression, separation from God, oppression, and loneliness as a loss of fullness of life: it was as if death had seized them while the experience lasted.26

For the African American slave, the death that seeped into this life was of course the bondage of slavery. John Lovell does not exaggerate when he says, “No literal death could have been worse to them than slavery.”27 More prominent than the similar styles and worldviews of the Psalms and the African American spirituals, however, are their common themes, to which the remainder of this paper will now turn.

“In whose heart are the highways to Zion,” Psalms 84:5

The psalmists longed for an earthly Zion, which was identified primarily with Jerusalem but also the entire world for which Zion was a microcosm. For the psalmist, Zion represented God’s presence and protection, as Psalms 46, 48, 76, and 87 highlight. Imagery of the land is depicted with imagery of the secure fortitude of the city:

Walk about Zion, go around her,
Number her towers,
Consider well her ramparts,
Go through her citadels,
That you may tell the next generation (Ps 48:12-13).

And out of this refuge flows a nourishing river:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy habitation of the Most High (Ps 46:4).

Yahweh, or his anointed representative, is also depicted as king (2:6), who restores order to chaos, not least of all by delivering the poor and oppressed from injustice.28

Also integral to Zion theology is the portrayal of a pilgrimage of the nations to Zion, in which the Abrahamic promises in Genesis 12:3 of the inclusion of the Gentiles are fulfilled. After mentioning several Gentile nations, the psalmist in Ps. 87:5 foretells, “And of Zion it shall be said, `This one and that one were born in her’; For the Most High himself will establish her.” Ironically, many of the Christians who brought the gospel and the love for the Psalms to the slaves misunderstood the true unity to which these psalms of Zion point. Although they themselves were also foreigners to the Abrahamic people of God, and grafted in only by God’s grace, most whites in the South excluded blacks from the same status within the covenant, even preaching about a segregated heaven.29

The psalmists had a readily identified home, either to cling to in times of domestic turmoil or to long for in times of exile. Psalm 137 paints the picture of a dejected people who cannot even sing their beloved songs on the road to captivity because of their heartbreak:

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows
there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth,
saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Ps 137:1-4)30

The African American spiritualists, on the other hand, had been so far removed from their homelands that they often no longer had a mental image of a “home” for which to long and therefore longed for a heavenly Zion, which was far removed from their present suffering in time and space.31 Spirituals also appropriated the biblical imagery of the Promised Land and other motifs in songs like “The Other World is Not Like This,” “The Pilgrim Song,” and “Making Heaven My Home.”32 The very popular song “Ole Ship of Zion” in its many various versions also illustrates this common interpretation of Zion as heaven:

Come along, come along,
And let us go home,
O, glory, hallelujah!
Dis de ole ship o’ Zion,
Halleloo! Halleloo!…

She has landed many a thousand,
She can land as many more.
O, glory, hallelujah!
Do you tink she will be able
For to take us all home?
O, glory, hallelujah!33

Moreover, unlike the psalmist, who wanted to live so that he could keep praising God (for example, Ps 6:5 and 30:9), the singers of the spirituals embraced death as a means to freedom and true fellowship with the Lord in a heavenly Zion, as the following stanza illustrates:

Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom!
Oh Freedom, I love thee!
And before I’ll be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free.34

This “other worldly” focus in the spirituals, however, was not entirely devoid of earthly hope, but according to James Cone, it enabled African-American slaves to endure their current suffering.35 This is reflected in part in the double, cryptic meaning of many of the spirituals focusing on heaven and the Promised Land. Douglass wrote the following in an autobiography:

A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of “O Canaan, sweet Canaan,I am bound for the land of Canaan,” something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North—and the North was our Canaan.35

Thus, the earthly reality of the Promised Land was the land of freedom, north of the Mason Dixon line. Booker T. Washington also recalled how the picture of a future, heavenly salvation in the spirituals was disambiguated after the Civil War saying, “Now they gradually threw off the mask; and were not afraid to let it be known that the ‘freedom’ in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”36

Yet the same ambiguity that enabled spirituals to hide illicit referents also enabled different communities at different times to interpret and appropriate the songs differently, so that Douglass and Washington’s interpretations were not necessarily shared by all communities at all times.37 This re-appropriation for different communities is also evident in Israel’s use of the Psalms. Long after David sang what is now Psalm 18, following his deliverance from Saul, Israel continued to sing this and other historically-contextualized songs, interpreting them afresh in their own situations, which of course did not involve the threats of King Saul.38 Approaching the Psalms from a sociological perspective, Walter Brueggemann explains how the exodus was the paradigm of hope for exilic Israel, several hundred years after the Israelites triumphed through the Red Sea: “The exodus memory, then, is not simply an old memory, but is news from there told here, news from then announced now.”39 The exodus served as the historical warrant for Israel’s hope for liberation and enabled Israelites to “remake” their world through liturgy.40 Thus, both the spirituals and the Psalms contain an ambiguity and fluidity in meaning and referent that enable them to be applied directly to the lives and needs of individual communities.

In addition to the hope of freedom, heavenly imagery also provided hope for those slaves who died before Christ’s return and who did not live to see God’s vindicating righteousness and glorious defeat of oppression.41 The imagery of the River Jordan was employed as a symbol of the barrier to freedom, but also as the final threshold to be crossed before entering the heavenly Promised Land.42 Even in the midst of suffering, the slaves would catch a fleeting glimpse of their heavenly home, which would motivate them, like the psalmists, to sing a “new song,” as in the following spiritual:

Sometimes I get a heavenly view,
Then we’ll sing a new song.43

Such language is reminiscent of Israel’s posture toward her homeland during the exile. She also enjoyed momentary “views” of Zion, particularly as she reflected upon and sang the psalms that celebrate Zion and offer hope that Zion is bigger than the land of Palestine, encompassing the entire cosmos and people from every nation (as was noted in Psalm 87). The psalmist of Psalm 84 longs for the “courts of the Lord” (v. 2), but can only pilgrimage on the “highways to Zion” in his heart (v. 5), and not in reality.

“I am afflicted and in pain,” Psalm 69:29

Suffering is a prominent theme in both the Psalms and the African American spirituals. In the Psalms, suffering is usually expressed through the genre of lament, or a petition for deliverance from some kind of distress based on God’s faithfulness and power to save in history. Scholars disagree whether these psalms depict a movement from suffering to hope and joy, or if they hold suffering and hope in tension, affirming the need for and possibility of joy in the midst of suffering.44 The spirituals also seem simultaneously to affirm both suffering and joyous hope.45 Christa Tippet explains this dynamic well, describing the spiritualists’ theology of suffering as one that “leans into suffering – and, in surrender, transforms and rises above it, if only in moments.”46 Cone agrees that the spiritualists held suffering and joy in a necessary balance, arguing that the suffering in the spirituals is not an entirely depressing matter, but was actually the “departure for faith” for the slaves.47 He cites the juxtaposition of suffering and praise in the following spiritual as an example not of a denial of suffering, but as an affirmation of faith:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrow.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
Glory, Hallelujah!49

Notice the psalm-like imagery of God sitting in heaven, listening to prayer, and using his right hand for deliverance and justice, all of which speak to a resolute confidence in the Lord.50 Thus, African American Christians never questioned God’s righteousness or justice, for they knew that God was not only just, but that He also voluntarily suffered with his people and promised to deliver them.51

In addition to suffering with the psalmists, the spiritualists also sensed the imminence of death with their biblical prototypes. One image of death in the Psalms that is mirrored in the spirituals is that of destructive waters. In the Psalms water is used in various ways, sometimes to denote blessing, as we saw in Ps. 46 above, but often to denote chaos and death. For example, David expresses his distress in Ps. 69:1-2 saying, “the waters have come up to my neck… I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”52 The spiritualists also juxtaposed descriptions of watery death, such as “the river of death” and “I know that the water is chilly and cold” with praises, such as “Hallelujah to the Lamb.”53

“But as for me,” Psalm 69:29

Particularly in the psalms of lament, the focus of the distress is often on the individual, rather than the community. According to Philip S. Johnston, this suffering is often associated with feelings of isolation: “The distressed psalmist feels beleaguered, cut off from family and friends, distant from temple and community, and often far removed from God himself.”54 African American spirituals are also dominated by an individual, first-person perspective, using the pronouns “I” and “me” extensively, rather than collective references of the whole worshipping community, as one might expect from such a communal activity as singing and worshiping. Just as in the Psalms, this focus on the individual highlights the spiritualists’ feelings of isolation, which began when the first generation of slaves were taken away from their communities and families, surrounded by people from different tribes and then forced into a culture of oppression and injustice.55 And although Christianity offered those broken, fragmented individuals a solidarity and community that bound them into a new, cohesive community, grievous feelings of isolation persisted, as this moving song demonstrates:

I’ve got to walk my lonesome valley,
I’ve got to walk it for myself.
Nobody else can walk it for me,
I’ve got to walk it for myself!56

More positively, the individualist perspective also highlights the slaves’ feelings and expressions of selfhood, which were repressed under slavery. In the spirituals, and in secret worship services all over the South, slaves could affirm that they did in fact have identities as individuals.57

However, the individual of the spirituals was also representative of the community, just as the individual in the Psalms often refers collectively to the entire group. As John Lovell explains, “The ‘I’ of the spiritual, however, is not a single person. It is every person who sings, everyone who has been oppressed and, therefore, every slave everywhere.”58 The community assumes the suffering and praise of the individual and sings and worships as individuals and as a whole.59 The very format of slave worship reinforced this interplay between the individual and the community. The interactive call and response, the ring shout, and the easy adaptability and interpretation of meaning from community to community made it nearly impossible for individuals not to identify with one another as a community. Raboteau explains, “The flexible, improvisational structure of the spirituals gave them the capacity to fit an individual slave’s specific experience into the consciousness of the group. One person’s sorrow or joy became everyone’s through song.”60

The importance of this communal solidarity is reflected in lines such as “I’m gwine to jine de great ‘sociation…” that is, the invisible black church.61 Likewise, just as the individuals were granted solidarity and strength within the community, the community as a whole was enriched by its members, so that the faithfulness and transformation of each individual was necessary for the transformation of the whole.62

The spirituals not only bound individuals to members of their immediate worshiping community, but they also bound them to all of God’s people, in the past as well as the future. Slaves sang songs about biblical characters and events with a timelessness and immediacy that made the saints of antiquity feel contem-poraneous with their own communities. Through their sense of “sacred time,” they suffered right alongside Israel in Egypt, they awaited God’s deliverance down in the lions’ den with Daniel, and they rejoiced in God’s heavenly kingdom along with the Apostle John.63 Not surprisingly, the spiritualists often identified themselves with Israel during her bondage in Egypt. Indeed, the spirituals are replete with references and allusions to the exodus, to freedom from Pharaoh, and to Moses, the great deliverer.64 Slaves looked to this period of Israel’s suffering in much the same way that God’s people did during the Babylonian exile, identifying themselves with the oppressed people of God who would soon be delivered from bondage and brought into their own land of freedom through a second exodus.65 This communion offered African Americans transcendence from their earthly bondage as they communed with saints who knew firsthand of God’s power of salvation, for if they were worshipping the same God as the saints before them, they knew that this God heard their cries and could rescue them as well.66

“But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge,” Psalm 94:22

In addition to having self-worth and identities as individuals within the church, slaves also had a refuge in the church and, more importantly, in the Lord.67 Throughout the Psalter, God is portrayed as a “refuge,” “shelter,” “rock,” and “hiding place” in storms and trials. Psalm 55 is replete with such imagery:

Be to me a rock of refuge,
to which I may continually come;
you have given the command to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress (v. 3).

Just as the psalmist finds safety, assurance, and hope in the Lord’s protection and in Zion, so also the African American slave sought refuge in the Lord and in the church. Notice how the imagery of the following spiritual is steeped in imagery similar to the Psalter:

My God is a rock in a weary land, weary land,
In a weary land.
My God is a rock in a weary land,
And a shelter in the time of storm!68

Another spiritual places “the Rock” in parallel construction with “a home where sinners don’t go,” both of which are claimed as the singer’s “home,”again high-lighting the slaves’ heavenward perspective.69

“King Jesus”

The first spiritual cited in this paper was noted for its stylistic resemblance in form and imagery to a biblical psalm. It contained the lines, “Up-on the mountain my Lord spoke, Out of His mouth came fire and smoke.”70 This and similar imagery that was usually attributed to “God” or “the Lord” was also applied to Jesus in African American spirituals, thus showing a clear understanding that the Lord of the Psalms, their “Rock” and “King” was none other than Jesus Christ: “Upon de mountain King Jesus spoke, um-u; out of his mouth come fier an’ smoke, um-u.”71Jesus is also referred to as “the Rock” numerous times: “King Jesus is the Rock… Lead me to the Rock… King Jesus is the Rock… standing on the Rock.”72 Jesus even assumes the shepherd role in the following song, which uses the familiar language of Psalm 23:

We shall walk through the valley an the shadow of death,
We shall walk through the valley in peace,
If Jesus himself shall be our leader,
We shall walk through the valley in peace.73

The spiritual singer also asks Jesus directly for healing, saying, “Heal me, Jesus,” just as the psalmist so often asked the Lord for healing.74 Finally, spirituals are full of the assurance that Jesus will come to them and judge the world, much like the psalmists’ pleas to the Lord millennia ago.75

These examples show that the African American slaves not only considered Jesus to be the fulfillment of the images of God found in the Psalms, but that they also identified Jesus with the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Psalms. This orthodox understanding of monotheism and the Trinity precludes the accusation that slave religion retained a polytheistic worldview and simply added another deity to their repertoire.76


Throughout this essay, we have seen how both the exilic community of ancient Israel and the American slave community of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries identified with Israel’s bondage in Egypt, longing for their own exodus. Perhaps more fascinating is that both communities continued to sing songs longing for salvation even after their apparent deliverance. After their emancipation, blacks realized that their freedom from slavery was incomplete, for their continued oppression and mistreatment reminded them that they had not yet experienced the fullness of deliverance and that they were in many ways still virtual slaves. Likewise, when the Israelites were given their freedom under Persian rule, they realized that they were still in virtual exile, for the Davidic dynasty was not restored and the second Temple paled in comparison to the glory of the first. However, both the postexilic Israelites and the emancipated slaves continued to sing their songs of freedom and hope, with confidence that full redemption would eventually come.

These windows into African American spirituals reveal the faith and theology of a great people who clung to the promises and righteousness of the Lord in spite of the reality that seemed to suggest otherwise, not unlike the righteous psalmists who lamented their suffering amidst the prosperity of the wicked and all the while maintained their faith in the goodness of God. What I have found most striking in this study is the divine grace and power that must have been required for the slaves to accept the professed religion of their oppressors, for the same-colored hand that beat, sold, and degraded them was the same-colored hand that (often reluctantly) fed them the gospel. In Douglass’s first autobiography, he spared no gruesome detail as to the horror and injustice of slavery. In fact, since his feelings toward the hypocrites who professed Christianity were so strong throughout his narrative, he wrote an appendix, professing his own view of true Christianity, as opposed to that of the “scribes and Pharisees” of his day:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”77

Another former slave, J. W. C. Pennington, who escaped from a plantation in Maryland and later earned a PhD in theology at the University of Heidelberg, wrote to his former master the following words, which encapsulate the strength and grace that characterized so many African American slaves:

I wish that I could address you… as an older brother in Christ, but I cannot; mockery is a sin. I can only say then, dear sir, farewell, till I meet you at the bar of God, where Jesus, who died for us, will judge between us. Now his blood can wash out our stain, break down the middle wall of partition, and reconcile us not only to God but to each other, then the word of his mouth, the sentence will set us at one (emphasis original).78

In conclusion, the similarities between the cries of the psalmist and the cries of the spiritual singer are not surprising. Both were well acquainted with suffer-ing and both had faith to move mountains, even Mount Zion, upon which the true Master and Savior of everyone who suffers and trusts in Him will return in glory and with salvation.


  1. Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself,” in I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Yuval Taylor, vol. 1 (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 542-543. This first autobiography of Douglass is particularly important because it was the first slave narrative to address the interpretative dimension of the spirituals at length. See also Jon Cruz, Culture on the Margins: The Black Spirituals and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 13.
  2. All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
  3. John Goldingay, Psalms, vol. 1, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 465-466. See also Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; and 149:1.
  4. Howard Thurman, “The Negro Spiritual Speaks Life and Death,” in African American Religious Thought: An Anthology, eds. Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 40.
  5. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), 1.
  6. Ibid., 3-6. Gayraud S. Wilmore adds that missionaries had already evangelized much of West Africa, so that some first-generation slaves may have already been exposed to Chris-tianity. See his Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans, 3rd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 27. He adds, however, that slaves were slowly converted to Christianity and cites estimations that there were only 1,000 baptized slaves in Virginia in 1750. See Ibid., 257.
  7. Arthur Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 24-25. For an excellent discussion of the residual influence of native African spiritual-ity within slave religion, see Wilmore’s Black Religion and Black Radicalism mentioned in the previous note, esp. 48-49.
  8. Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 65-74; 243-245; Robert Darden, People Get Ready! A New His-tory of Black Gospel Music (New York: Continuum, 2006), 19.

  9. Lucy McKim Garrison was a nineteenth-century music expert who wrote the first book describing African spiritual music in 1862. She describes the Africans’ “odd turns of the throat” and “voices chiming in at irregular intervals” as unknown musical phenomena in Western music tradition. See Raboteau, Slave Religion, 74. William T. Dargan suggests that this unique speech pattern may have been derived from the African Bantu language. See his Lining Out the Word: Dr. Watts Hymn Singing in the Music of Black Americans (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 106. Eileen Southern relates the experience of an Eastern Orthodox minister, Paul Svinin, observing an African American church in Pennsylvania in 1811. He was surprised to find the entire congregation singing the Psalms in a “loud, shrill monotone” for 30 minutes. They then turned toward the door, knelt and bowed their heads, letting out an “agonizing, heart-rending moaning,” which was followed by more chanting of the Psalms, lasting an additional 20 minutes. Thus, about an hour of the service was devoted to singing and responding to the Psalms. See her The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: Norton and Company Inc., 1971), 91.

  10. For example, in 1739, South Carolina officially outlawed anything that appeared like Afri-can ritual, including the slaves’ style of worship. Ministers and evangelists tried to replace the African style with the hymns and psalmody of Isaac Watts, but the slaves rejected such Western styles of singing, right along with the distorted gospel message of salvation that involved a segregated heavenly realm by virtue of slaves’ submission to their masters in this world. See Dargan, 104; Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 217; and Darden, 68. Later, in some of the unsegregated tent revivals of the nineteenth century, slaves’ livelier worship began to influence some of the whites, which elicited further concern and condemnation. See Roboteau, 67.
  11. Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005), 59.
  12. White and White, 58.
  13. Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 31.

  14. Former slave William Craft cites a mid-nineteenth-century indictment of a woman for teaching a slave to read the Bible, accusing her of “being an evil disposed person…. insti-gated by the devil” who acted in “great displeasure of Almighty God.” See his “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft From Slavery,” in Great Slave Narratives, ed. Arna Bontemps (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 288.
  15. Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 31
  16. Cited in Ibid., 59; and Epstein, 104.

  17. Epstein, 104.
  18. Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 147.
  19. Arthur Jones critiques the contemporary African American culture for failing to continue to process their feelings through spirituals and claims that the community is suffering as a result, 34-35. One also wonders if Christians in general have lost sight of their need for the holistic nurturing of the Psalms, or if they too often interpret them as outmoded and irrelevant sentiments, which are thus neglected much like the spirituals.
  20. Harold Courlander, Negro Folk Music U.S.A. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 39.
  21. Examples of stock expressions in the Psalms include “his steadfast love endures forever,” and “How long, O Lord?” The line “Swing low, sweet chariot” is a common phrase used in several spirituals. See White and White, 60.
  22. Jones, 72.

  23. John Thompson, “The Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave,” in I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Yuval Taylor, vol. 2 (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 479. Similarly, a black preacher was recorded in 1860 as proclaiming to his congrega-tion, “And what has he [Jesus] done? Why, he nailed our paper of freedom on his cross,” in White and White, 123.
  24. Raboteau, 250.
  25. White and White, 65. Former slave William Wells Brown recorded the lyrics of a former slave woman with this holistic worldview selling strawberries and singing,
    I live fore miles out of town,
    I am gwine to glory.
    My strawberries are sweet an’ soun’,
    I am gwine to glory… (White and White, 183).
  26. Goldingay, Psalms, 74.
  27. John Lovell, Black Song: The Forge and the Flame, The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 112.
  28. For a fuller exposition of Zion theology, see Susan Gillingham, “The Zion Tradition and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter,” in Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, ed. John Day (London: T & T Clark International, 2005), 308-341; Corinna Körting, “Zion in den Psalmen,“ Forschungen zum Alten Testament 48 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006); Ben C. Ollenburger, “Zion, the City of the Great King: A Theological Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 41 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987); and John T. Strong, “Zion: Theology of,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 1314-1321.

  29. Dargan, 104.
  30. Interestingly, James Towne testified before the British House of Commons in 1791 that African slaves were also forced to sing and dance on the slave ships (Cruz, 45). Not surprisingly, Frederick Douglass identified the parallel situation between Hebrew and African captives and read Psalm 137 during an address to a white audience in Rochester, NY, on Independence Day, 1852 (Cruz, 91).
  31. Frazier, 1.
  32. Howard Odum and Guy Johnson, The Negro and His Songs (New York: The New American Library, 1925), 100-138; see also Dwight Hopkins, Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 248-249.
  33. Southern, ed. Readings in Black American Music (New York: Norton and Company Inc., 1971), 186.
  34. In Howard Thurman, “Deep River,” in For the Inward Journey: The Writings of Howard Thur-man, ed. Anne Spencer Thurman (Richmond: Friends United Press, 1991), 203.
  35. Douglass also cited songs with lyrics such as “Run to Jesus – shun the danger – I don’t expect to stay much longer,” Autobiographies (New York: Library Classics of the United States, 1994), 308; see also Life and Times of Fredrick Douglas, same volume, 607. Joe Carter, a contemporary expert in African American spirituals, recounts a similar sentiment of an anonymous slave: “The master loves our singing. But he doesn’t listen to the words we say. He doesn’t have a clue. We can say anything we want. So let’s give the master a good old song!” Christa Tippet, “Joe Carter and the Legacy of the African American Spiritual,” Speak-ing of Faith. American Public Media. Radio program. Transcript at; emphasis in original.
  36. Raboteau, 249.
  37. Ibid., 247-248; Courlander, 42-43.
  38. The Psalms also lent themselves to re-appropriation through their generalization of refer-ents, rarely naming enemies or even time periods. This vagueness is reinforced by the poets’ varied use of verbal tenses. See Philip S. Johnston, “The Psalms and Distress,” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, eds. David Firth and Philip S. Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 73.
  39. Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 40; emphasis in original.
  40. Ibid., 44.
  41. Dwight Hopkins notes the eschatological earthly hope of Christ’s return to recreate a world devoid of oppression and injustice. In the well-known spiritual whose refrain declares, “My God is a rock in a weary land…,” the spiritualist heralds hope in the Lord’s return to “visit ‘mong the po’,” promising that “He’s comin’ in the world again”; see Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 232.
  42. Raboteau, 262; Thurman, “Deep River,” 233.
  43. Thurman, “The Negro Spiritual Speaks Life and Death,”40.
  44. James H. Hutchinson believes that laments generally move from complaint to hope in “The Psalms and Praise,” Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, ed. by David Firth and Philip S. Johnston (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 7; on the other hand, James Mays represents those scholars who believe that the psalmist holds lament and hope in tension; see The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 58.
  45. Douglass explained the positive, cathartic nature of spiritual laments thus: “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 543).
  46. Tippet, “Joe Carter.”
  47. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 57.
  48. Ibid., 58. Another example of combining joy and lament is cited by Howard Thurman:
    I feel like a motherless child;
    I feel like a motherless child;
    Glory Hallelujah!
    Sometimes my way is sad and lone,
    When far away and lost from home;
    Glory Hallelujah! (“Deep River,” 209)

    This trust and hope in God’s goodness and care is also expressed in the following stanza:

    God sits in Heaven an’ answers prayer.
    I gwine tell God how you sarved me.
    Look in my God’s right hand.48Odum and Johnson, 47.

  49. See, for example, Psalms 9:7; 20:6; 48:10; 61:5; 65:2.
  50. Ibid., 58. Cone likens this faithful suffering to that of Job and Habakkuk, who suffered as believers in covenant with God, not as philosophers nitpicking over abstract quandaries in The Spirituals and the Blues, 54.
  51. See also Psalms 18:16; 32:6; 66:12; 69:14; 77:16-17.
  52. Thurman, “The Negro Spiritual Speaks Life and Death,”33.
  53. Johnston, 66. Psalms 25:16, 42-43, and 102:6-7 highlight the individual suffering in isolation with lines such as “for I am lonely and afflicted” and “I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.”
  54. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 61-62.
  55. Thurman, “Deep River,” 209.
  56. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 62.
  57. Cited in Jones, 106.
  58. See Hopkins for an excellent discussion of the psychologically healing power of the com-munity absorbing the suffering of individuals, 122-123.
  59. Raboteau, 246.
  60. Frazier, 15.
  61. Jones, 106.
  62. Darden, 90; Raboteau, 250.
  63. Lovell, 259.

  64. Raboteau, 250. The very structure of the Psalter invites a comparison between David and Moses. Its division into five books, for example, parallels the five books of Moses, and Moses plays a prominent role in the fourth book (Ps 90-106), which is generally considered to be exilic or postexilic in origin, suggesting that even Moses, the great deliverer, was not able to deliver Israel fully, and that they now longed for one greater than Moses—and even greater than David—to deliver them from bondage. The expectation of a second exodus in the exilic community is clear from passages such Hos 2:14-15; 11:11; Isa 43:16-21; 48:20-21; and 52:11-12; see Craig C. Broyles, “Traditions, Intertextuality, and Canon,” Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis, ed. Craig C. Broyles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 166.
  65. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 775.
  66. 8Frazier, 46.
  67. Jones, 80.
  68. Odum and Johnson, 96.
  69. Jones, 72.
  70. Odum and Johnson, 73.

  71. Ibid., 92. The aforementioned song “My God is a Rock in a Weary Land” is another ex-ample in which “Jesus” was interchanged with, or replaced, the more common referent (My God); see “Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land,” Moses Hogan, ed., The Oxford Book of Spirituals(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 25-36.
  72. Lovell, 309.
  73. Ibid., 139.

  74. Ibid., 74.
  75. Thurman, for example, states, “There seems to be little place in their reckoning for the distinction between God and Jesus” (“The Negro Spiritual Speaks Life and Death,”41). Cone qualifies this by saying that there is no “theological distinction” between the two, “Black Spirituals: A Theological Interpretation,” in African American Religious Thought: An Anthology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 782.
  76. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 592. Joe Carter describes the merciful hearts of the slaves well, in a way that should inspire every generation of sufferers: “The ancestors knew that the worst kind of bondage is that which takes place on the inside. And when we look back to the slavery days we were bound, but it was the master who was re-ally the slave. And I think some of us understand that now,” Christa Tippet, “Joe Carter.”
  77. Pennington, “The Fugitive Blacksmith, or Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington,” in Great Slave Narratives, 266; emphasis in the original.

Elizabeth H. P. Backfish

William Jessup University
Elizabeth Backfish is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at William Jessup University in Rocklin, CA.