The Timeless Message of African American Spirituals

By Lisa L. McGloiry

In many churches across America today, worship music consists of contemporary praise and worship music, Gospel, or Christian hymns — sacred religious songs and poems dating back to the 16th century.

And yet, there is another genre of worship music that often does not get much recognition or worship time in congregations today, but its roots are embedded in both the fabric of American history and the Church. 

African American Spirituals, formerly known as “Negro Spirituals,” are Christian folk songs created by African men, women, and children during their enslavement here in America. These songs reflect the oral stories and melodies of an oppressed people that spoke of their faith, trials, suffering, and hope for freedom during one of the darkest times in our nation’s history.

The songs were a salve to get them through cruel treatment and unbearably long days and nights. Spirituals also served as a way to document their history and communicate through an internal messaging system to garner their freedom through the Underground Railroad.

These spirituals made their way off the plantation into black churches, camp meetings, and Christian gatherings nationwide from generation to generation. These songs greatly influenced Gospel music that appeals to a wide range of listeners from various denominational affiliations and age groups. While African American spirituals are not often heard in the church, they are sung by choirs in concerts, recitals, and symphony and Broadway performances worldwide.

Some of the most famous spirituals of all time include: Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, Every Time I Feel the Spirit, He’s Got the Whole World In His HandsLet Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees, Soon Ah Will Be Done, and Go Down Moses.

There’s so much that we can learn from studying these sacred songs. These melodies are literal prayers of a people crying out to God to deliver them from the physical and emotional chains that bound them.

Even though the enslaved were introduced to Christianity by people who oppressed them, they still believed that the God they came to know was loving, good, merciful, and a deliverer. Their faith did not waver, and they remained strong and resilient in the face of persecution.

This wonderful God that the enslaved believed in years ago, is the same God who we serve today. He’s still the same God who sees, hears, and sets us free. While we may not be bound in physical chains, Jesus is our deliverer from any sin or addiction that binds us. He is still the hope of all those who are in desperate need of a Savior. When we worship, His name continues to be the balm that heals every hurt.

As we recognize Black History Month, let’s reflect on the legacy of African American Spirituals. Let’s pause and remember the courage and resilience of enslaved people whose faith in God remained unshaken. These spirituals will forever remind us that we, too, can look to God for strength and know He will deliver us, no matter what dire circumstances come our way.