2018_05_23_AThere was the blazing colour of it all, reflected in the people, the clothes and the ceremonial; there were the delighted guests, drawn from a whole range of countries, cultures and backgrounds; there was the magnificent music, selected from a kaleidoscope of traditions and periods; and then there was the show-stopping sermon delivered by Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA.

Speaking with passion and power, Bishop Michael referred to an African American spiritual, ‘There is a balm in Gilead’ to highlight the power of love which was the central theme of his sermon. Why did he use this song?  Spirituals are subversive songs of liberation and freedom that speak deep into the soul and psyche of African Americans.  Through words, music and movement they embody the story of struggle, suffering and liberation that was the experience of an enslaved people over 250 years – and some would say remains their experience today, 400 years after their forebears arrived in Virginia, USA.   There can be little doubt that Michael Curry used the spiritual because it speaks to him about the liberating power of love.  But how did the spiritual, the grandparent of jazz and provider of the anthem for England’s national rugby team, come into being?  How does it relate to and influence congregational song?

Spirituals emerged from a collision of cultures.  The slave trade to the Americas forced men and women on to the slave ships from the west coast of Africa.  The captives were drawn not from one, but from a whole variety of tribes, some of whom would have been enemies and most of whom would have spoken different languages.  However, they were forced together in adversity, manacled together for their torturous and hazardous voyage across the Atlantic.    The great majority of those who were sold on the slave blocks of America did not come directly from Africa, but from the Caribbean.  When they did arrive in America, they came carrying experiences of their own tribes and cultures from Africa as well as experiences from Jamaica or Barbados or Haiti.  Then they were confronted with an alien culture with its strong British and European influences.  When they arrived in America, it quickly became clear that they were being regarded as slaves, ‘non-people’ and there was no possibility of their being accepted as full members of American society.  They had to find a way of surviving and they could not see it in their new ‘home’ which, as they soon saw, was not their ‘home.’

2018_05_23_BForced to journey from their African homeland (with some from an enslavement in the Carribean), the captives encountered many religions.  On their parents’ knees, many would have imbibed their religion from Africa, they will then have experienced different beliefs in the Carribean and now they were confronted with Christianity, the religion of their oppressors, in America.  There were some in America who were concerned for the souls of their enslaved possessions, but not for their bodies and the freedom that was at the heart of the Gospel; they were regarded as inferior.  Christianity was preached in a way that told them that their lot in life was to be slaves and that they should be obedient to their masters.

Within the DNA of the enslaved was a deep yearning for survival.  But they needed to find something that would give expression to this yearning. The spirituals (variously described as ‘African-American’ or ‘Negro’ and also known as ‘Sorrow Songs’ and ‘Slave Songs’) fulfilled this need.  While the spirituals were influenced by the experiences of the enslaved, it was their African identity which gave to the spirituals their energy, life and authenticity. 

It has always been difficult to plumb the depths of the spirituals because, like apocalyptic literature, they were frequently written in a code whose key was hidden from the oppressors.  Indeed, black liberation theologian James Cone whose book, The Spirituals and the Blues, provides a masterly exploration into the the whole genre, wrote,

To use European or Western theological and philosophical methodologies as a means of evaluating the significance of black reflections on the slave condition is not only theoretically inappropriate but very naïve….it is necessary to suspend the methodology of the enslavers and to enter the cultural and religious milieu of the victims.

Bishop Michael Curry’s spiritual of choice in his sermon, ‘There is a balm in Gilead’, displays the radical nature of the spiritual and provides a clue to the way that many survived their enslavement without losing their identity as human beings.  The song is based on Jeremiah chapter 8, where the prophet comes to a great depression in his life.  He is distressed over the external events of Israel and he is spiritually downcast and tortured when he cries out in verse 22:

Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

Jeremiah utters this cry at his lowest point when brought face to face with the core of his own faith.  He is in fact saying that surely there must be healing balm in Gilead.  The writers and singers of the spiritual caught the mood of this dilemma because they too had been brought to a low point and shared Jeremiah’s ordeal. However, their response was different. The result is the hymn that answers Jeremiah’s deep questioning from their own experience:

There is a balm in Gilead,
To make the spirit whole,
There is a balm in Gilead,
To heal the sin-sick soul.

2018_05_23_CIn a bold and radical twist, the enslaved had taken on the Christian faith that the slave-owners had profaned in their midst, made it their own and transformed it from being a justification of slavery to becoming a means of liberation.

This is just one example among many of the radical nature of the Spiritual which brought hope and opened up new possibilities for an enslaved people who were dehumanized on a daily basis.

The spirituals deserve an honoured place in the story of congregational song.  They  encourage and challenge us to look afresh at our hymns and spiritual songs, some of which have been written in blood and tears.  Frequently, the radical nature and the transforming power of congregational song has become sanitized and lost between the covers of books and the flickering of power-point.  What one commentator wrote about spirituals can also be found in other forms of congregational song:

….there is more, far more than the ordinary Christian zeal embedded in Negro Spirituals.  They are not merely religious hymns written or recited to sweeten the service or improve the ritual.  They are the aching, poignant cry of an entire people.

Thank you, Bishop Michael Curry, for bringing the power and potential of congregational song to the world’s attention.  It is now for the Church to act upon it by using its song more creatively both inside and outside of the liturgy.