In some courses and books that bring two things together, the scope is narrowed and made more manageable. Bring together religion and science fiction and some aspects of both are excluded, leaving us with a point of intersection that is somewhat more manageable to study and discuss. Bringing together the Bible and music, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. The texts that have received little or no musical exploration are relatively few, while others have been and continue to be set to music countless times. One could try in vain to cover all settings of Psalm 23 (the one that starts with “The Lord is my shepherd” in many English translations) in a semester. One could spend yet another semester attempting to do the same with the Magnificat (found in Luke 1:46–55, often referred to as “Mary’s Song”). It would pose a real challenge merely to attempt listing all relevant musical settings, never mind listening to them all. The latter faces the additional hurdle that some settings of any given biblical text have never been recorded. Moreover, during the course of any given semester, the odds are that at least one composer somewhere in the world will be hard at work on creating yet another musical setting of biblical text.

This book thus makes no claim to provide a comprehensive treatment of its subject matter but rather offers an introduction and survey. Although many books have been written about the Bible and music, few aim for the breadth of this one, seeking to cover the music behind and in the Bible as well as the musical reception and interpretation of the Bible over the centuries and around the globe in the wide array of genres and styles of music through which human beings have explored these texts. Some introductions are aimed at specific religious audiences or those with advanced training in music; while this one presumes neither, it should nevertheless be of interest to people in both categories. Many books focus exclusively on a particular composer or songwriter, a specific time period, or one type of composition. This book seeks to provide an introduction to the vast, extensive array of material that interested readers may then explore in more detail through other books if they so choose. It is nonsectarian and presumes prior knowledge of neither the Bible nor music (although the chances are that anyone choosing to read a book on this topic or take a course about it will have at least some vague familiarity with one or both). It also aims to provide something that other books on this subject do not by incorporating examples of relevant music directly within the text so that you can read and listen simultaneously (or, when appropriate, stop reading in order to listen intently, yet without having to close your book and look elsewhere for the musical excerpt). If you’re used to textbooks, think of this as a text music book.

Another advantage of the open textbook is the ease with which it can be revised and improved. New text and listening material may be added by the author, and any musical examples that vanish from the internet can be replaced. Here, too, readers can help by alerting the author if they notice this happens. That will allow the change to be made almost immediately. Also, readers can suggest additions, and educators who use this resource can adapt it for their purposes. It is hoped that the breadth of coverage and the intended audience with this new and innovative format will result in a truly useful resource. If you find that not to be the case, let the author know.

What does it mean to explore the intersection of the Bible and music? Is it music in the Bible, texts from the Bible set to music, or allusions to the Bible in popular songs? It is all those things and more.

One example I often turn to is the song “Dry Bones” (sometimes called “Dem Bones”), which many people have heard in childhood, perhaps in an anatomy class or at Halloween. They may not, however, know the song’s original form or that it is based on a passage in the book of Ezekiel in the Bible (37:1–15). Indeed, they may have wondered (if the encounter was through an anatomy lesson) why the bones were dry! Here is the original version of the song performed by the Delta Rhythm Boys, who first made it famous.[1]

The words of the song were written by James Weldon Johnson, best known for writing the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes called the “Black National Anthem.” In Ezekiel’s vision, the people of Judah might be considered to be dead, having had their capital and temple destroyed and a significant part of the population carried off in captivity. The vision is interpreted as a divine promise that the nation can live again.

Even students with no biblical or musical background can notice some things the words and music do, just by listening. In the song, Ezekiel himself is involved in the process of reconnecting the bones. The connection takes place step by step, through a slow process of reconnection, rebuilding the body. Why might the songwriters have done this? A comparison may be useful with the way that spirituals (traditional religious songs that emerged out of and reflect the African American experience) tend to treat the language of liberation from slavery and of a promised land found in Exodus. Slavery was not expected to simply end all of a sudden. The struggle for civil rights will not end overnight. Students can hear the music paint the picture as it moves upward step-by-step in small increments. They do not need to know that this is called chromatic movement to hear the effect of the way the music and words reinforce the message.

Sheet music of the melody and lyrics to "When the Chariot Comes."
Sheet music of the melody and lyrics to “When the Chariot Comes,” a precursor of “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain.”. The New England magazine. n.s.v.19 (1898-99), p. 718, by New England Magazine Co., is in the public domain.

That is just one example of the kind of interesting thing that can be explored at the intersection of the Bible and music.[2] Another example is the song “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” which at first glance appears to have nothing to do with the Bible whatsoever—and in its present form, it doesn’t. The familiar folk song originated as a spiritual in the nineteenth century with the title “When the Chariot Comes.”[3] That song first appeared in print in New England Magazine 19, no. 6 (February 1899), which can now be read online. It would be interesting to know (and can be interesting to speculate about) the decisions that led to the secularization of this religious song.[4]

I like to start with these kinds of examples because they illustrate how there can be hidden biblical connections in music you know well. There are plenty more examples that could be provided besides these in which recognizing a biblical connection will breathe new life into music or text that may have become like dry bones to you. Those bones can live again. The potential of music to have an impact of that sort, one that seems to go beyond the realm of ordinary possibility, is something that composers, clergy, and many others have thought about and reflected on. Music can inspire, and music can manipulate—perhaps nowhere more so than when it acts in conjunction with words that hearers consider sacred.

On the other hand, for many today, appreciation of sacred music is despite or irrespective of its religious connections rather than because of them. Music has been turned to in order to draw people in and to help foster belief. Composer Howard Goodall, whose setting of Psalm 23 provides the theme music for the television show The Vicar of Dibley, wrote this about the power of music:

Music’s strange alchemy is a mystery. And it is my personal view that Christianity is also a mystery. The two have formed so compelling a marriage over the last thousand or so years because a person standing in a church, chapel, cathedral, or abbey who hears ethereal or uplifting music has a much stronger sense of something “outside” their normal existence than if they are simply listening to a man discussing a passage from St Paul. Intelligent and perceptive as St Paul’s thinking undoubtedly is, it is not magical. If you are expecting your flock to have faith in a man rising from the dead, a virgin birth, a host of totally implausible miracles, or the bodily transfer of God into an edible wafer, you will need stronger special effects up your sleeve than a man waving around some incense. Music, an abstract and elusive art that disarms one’s emotional defenses and saturates us in feeling and confusion, is almost the only thing we have left that can convey a majestic and disturbing mystery.[5]

Both because of the beautiful and profoundly moving experience we may have listening to such music and because of music’s power to move us on an emotional level that bypasses our normal processes of reasoning, studying the intersection of the Bible and music is extremely important and valuable—and to some extent even necessary. This is true not only for the purpose of fostering spiritual experiences or preventing the abuse of our susceptibility to manipulation through religion but even simply for those wishing to understand human cultures past and present, as this book will explore throughout. Whatever your interest in this topic, you will surely find much here that relates directly to it, and you will also discover aspects of the intersection of the Bible and music that will surprise you.

For Further Reading

Paul Oliver. Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 147–48.


  1. This performance by the Delta Rhythm Boys was recorded on November 9, 1952.  It is shared on YouTube by the Ed Sullivan Show.
  2. Some readers may be familiar with other music inspired by this passage in Ezekiel. Examples from contemporary Christian music include Casting Crowns’ song “Spirit Wind” and Lauren Daigle’s song “Come Alive (Dry Bones).”
  3. I am grateful to Gabi Natalizio for drawing the origin of this folksong to my attention. The image of the divine chariot also appears in the famous spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” mentioned in chapter 5 on spirituals.
  4. Frank C. Brown categorizes it as a parody or secularization of “The Old Ship of Zion,” which has similar words and the same melody. Frank C. Brown, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: The Folklore of North Carolina, Collected by Dr. Frank C. Brown during the Years 1912 to 1943, in Collaboration with the North Carolina Folklore Society, vol. 3, Folk Songs from North Carolina, ed. Henry M. Belden and Arthur Palmer Hudson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1952), 460–61.
  5. Howard Goodall, “Music and Mystery,” in Composing Music for Worship, ed. Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), 29–30.


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

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