5 Spirituals

In this chapter you will

  • learn about the music that was created by African slaves and their descendants
  • discover the Bible’s potential to inspire hope and efforts for freedom (and what measures slave owners took to try to avoid this)
  • explore the ongoing influence of this musical tradition

The genre of spirituals (sometimes referred to in the past as “negro spirituals”) had a profound influence on American music and the world, as musical traditions from Africa merged with biblical texts and other elements acquired in and from the place where Africans were brought as slaves, creating a style of music that influenced blues and jazz and, from there, rock and many other genres. Biblical elements are featured frequently, sometimes subtly and through allusions and at other times as many details of a story are explored and retold. For an example of a specific story given significant attention, listen to “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go).” It stays very close to the story in Exodus throughout, yet it speaks at the very same time to and out of the experience of slavery in another time and place. It is hard to imagine a clearer example than this of the way an ancient text, modern experience, and musical expression can converge in powerful and meaningful ways.

One of the oldest documented spirituals, “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” focused on John the Baptist, and we know quite a bit about its history. It is an adaptation of a hymn by famous hymnwriter Isaac Watts. The song is featured in the 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave, and in this video clip from the film, it is performed by Topsy Chapman with Chiwetel Ejiofor and other cast members.

The River Jordan is one of many motifs related to water that appears frequently in spirituals, often echoing multiple different texts pertaining to the exodus, baptism, and more. “Wade in the Water” is a good example, echoing not only the crossing of the Red Sea but also the troubling of the waters in John 5:7, while at the same time providing instructions for how to use water as a means of evading recapture when escaping slavery.[1] This 2019 recording of “Wade in the Water” by Cynthia Liggins Thomas incorporates a 1925 recording of a performance by the Sunset Four Jubilee Singers.

This excerpt from an episode of History Detectives, “Slave Songbook: Origin of the Negro Spiritual,” will delve more into their history.[2]

Whole websites are dedicated to documenting and studying this important musical genre, such as the Spirituals Database. Don’t forget as well that we started the book with an example of a spiritual, “Dry Bones.”[3] Let us conclude this chapter by mentioning another famous spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The chariot that is in mind appears to be the divine chariot that carried the prophet Elijah away to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). The song is widely familiar, and in the UK it has become customary for the crowds to sing it at sporting events. Here is the reggae group UB40 performing it with that specific focus.

Spirituals continue to be performed and interpreted today. Historically, they brought together musical traditions that enslaved Africans brought with them and music they encountered in the lands to which they were brought. The spirituals influenced many new genres that emerged out of this fusion of musical influences in the Americas, including the blues, jazz, and rock ’n’ roll. Spirituals also drew on and engaged with texts that were in most cases new to the slaves. The Bible was used by slave owners to justify the practice of slavery, but the slaves found in it a resource that could foster their longing for freedom and hope for liberation. The Bible’s potential to have this impact was something the European American slave owners were aware of, and thus they printed Bibles for slaves that omitted key passages about liberation from slavery.

For Further Reading and Listening

African-American Spirituals of the Civil War: Concert. Library of Congress. March 30, 2013. YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQviOAz5584.

Darden, Robert F. “The Bible in Black Gospel Music.” Bible Odyssey, September 4, 2022. https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/bible-in-black-gospel-music.

Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl. “Sacred and Secular in African-American Music.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts, edited by Frank Burch Brown, 498–522. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Kynes, Will. “Wrestle On, Jacob: Antebellum Spirituals and the Defiant Faith of the Hebrew Bible.” Journal of Biblical Literature 140, no. 2 (2021): 291–307.

Simms, David McD. “The Negro Spiritual: Origins and Themes.” Journal of Negro Education 35, no. 1 (1966): 35–41.

Southern, Eileen. “An Origin for the Negro Spiritual.” Black Scholar 3, no. 10 (1972): 8–13.


  1. See further Henry Carrigan, Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life (Brewster: Paraclete, 2019), 25–31.
  2. History Detectives, season 6, episode 11, “Slave Songbook: Origin of the Negro Spiritual,” aired February 3, 2009, on PBS.
  3. For another version of “Dry Bones,” listen to the arrangement by Margaret Bonds as part of her 1946 work “Five Creek-Freedmen Spirituals.”


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book