Spirituals: A Brief History (1 of 2)

Spirituals are African American religious songs that evolved in the context of slavery primarily in the Southern United States. They were a mechanism for survival – a potent example of how humans can endure the worst of conditions. Spirituals combine elements of European American religious music with African musical characteristics. Their influence can be felt in virtually all subsequent forms of American music, including jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, country, rock and roll, and hip-hop.

Music in Africa

Most people who came to America in slavery were taken from the west coast of Africa. While they hailed from a wide variety of kingdoms, states, city-states, clans, tribes, and kinship groups, music was integral to everyday life throughout the region. “We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets,” writes Olaudah Equiano, one of the first Africans to write a book in the English language.

Through the slave trade, elements of music and dance traditions from Africa were integrated into American culture. This includes African musical and performance characteristics that were elemental to spirituals. Both musics were very emotional. The singing was often highly intense and included falsettos, shouts, and groans. There was call and response singing, with a song leader singing a phrase and the rest of the group singing a reply. Refrains were repeated and sung as choruses. Percussive sounds were added with hand claps and foots stomps. Words were improvised. Dancers shuffled in ring formations.

European American Religious Music

Early Protestants in the New World sang a type of religious song called a psalm. Psalms had lyrics that were taken directly from biblical scripture. They were sung at a slow tempo without instrumental accompaniment. In New England during the colonial era, some African Americans attended Sabbath services in segregated seats and joined in the singing of psalms. Psalm singing was led by a precentor who “lined out” the psalm and “set the tune” so that those who couldn’t read or didn’t have the psalm book could join in the singing. The most popular early psalter was the “Bay Psalm Book,” first published in 1640. It was the first book printed in the English colonies.

The Bay Psalm Book
The Bay Psalm Book title page

“Psalm 100,” also known as “Old Hundred” was one of the best known and most commonly sung psalms.

In the 1730s and 1740s, a series of emotional religious revivals called the Great Awakening swept across the American colonies. Along with the Great Awakening came a new, livelier form of religious song called a hymn. While the words to psalms came directly from the Bible, hymns were religious poems based on scripture. English minister Dr. Isaac Watts published the book “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” in 1707. The book was very popular in the colonies, especially with African Americans. The new hymns gradually replaced the old psalms among the Protestant denominations.

African Americans and Christianity

People in the American colonies disagreed over whether to encourage, discourage, enforce, or prohibit the conversion of African Americans to Christianity. In the North, Christian denominations generally supported and facilitated conversion. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), the Church of England’s missionary organization, formed in 1701 to convert African Americans to Christianity. They founded schools, including one at New York’s Trinity Church, to provide religious instruction, which included psalm singing. Schools that taught Christianity and psalm singing also formed that were independent of established churches.

In the South, religious conversion was much less common than in the North. Large plantations were relatively isolated, and it was up to individual plantation owners whether or not to convert their slaves. Some believed that religious instruction made enslaved people “proud, and not as good servants.” Others used passages from the Bible to justify the existence slavery. They attempted to leverage these passages to make slaves more docile and subservient. After some people in slavery used their status as Christians to argue for their freedom, Virginia and other states passed laws specifying that baptism does not bring freedom to blacks.

The SPG was active in the South, and the Church of England had a strong influence on Southerners. Some slaves attended church with their masters. They sat in segregated galleries, on the floor, or listened from outside through an open window. The Reverend Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia noted in 1751 that he was able to attract African Americans to his ministry through congregational singing. “The Negroes, above all the Human Species that I ever knew, have an Ear for Musick, and a kind of extatic Delight in Psalmody; and there are no books they learn so soon or take so much Pleasure in.” The songs and hymns of Dr. Watts were favorites.

Black Churches

When worshiping in white churches, African Americans were generally segregated and subject to discrimination. By the late 18th century, African Americans began forming their own congregations that were part of the established churches. Whites were divided over their support of separate black congregations. The First African Baptist Church at Savannah, Georgia, formed in 1788. It was the earliest permanent African American congregation in the United States. Blacks in the South formed other congregations, generally Baptist. By the 1790s, there were separate black congregations in the North, most of which were Methodist.

Particularly in the South, most black congregations had white ministers and were governed by white councils. Following the Denmark Vesey uprising in 1822 and the Nat Turner insurrection in 1831, most black congregations were dissolved. As both revolts were led by preachers, whites placed blame on religious organizations. After the Civil War, blacks again formed independent congregations in the South.

Richard Allen’s Hymnals

In 1784, Old St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia issued former slave Richard Allen a preaching license. He was one of the first two black men to receive such a license from the Methodist Church. To overcome the discrimination blacks faced in white churches, Allen organized the first congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1794.

Richard Allen
Richard Allen

In 1801 Allen published a hymnal for the AME Church. “A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister” included 54 hymn texts without tunes. Many of these were drawn from the hymnals of Dr. Watts and other favorite Methodist and Baptist hymnals. Others had been in oral circulation, and some may have been original Richard Allen compositions. The book is invaluable as a reference of songs that had were favorites of African Americans before and after it was published.

“A Collection of Spiritual Songs” was the first song collection published expressly for a black congregation. The hymnal is also significant because it included refrains that both supported and contrasted with the message in the stanza. Refrains can be found in only one previous hymnal. Sung as a call and response, they were an element of African music that became common in later spirituals. Some refrains appeared in more than one song. Wandering refrains such as this appear to be unique to African American singing at the time. They were also frequently found in later African American spirituals.

The spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning” is an adaptation of a hymn from Allen’s “A Collection of Spiritual Songs.”

Despite the relative freedom enjoyed by the independent black congregations, they were still controlled by white elders and subject to discrimination. In 1816, following a battle in court, several black Methodist congregations separated from the church and established the African Methodist Episcopal Church as the first black denomination. As the Church’s first bishop, Allen published a new hymnal in 1818. It was larger than his previous hymnal and still contained favorites by Dr. Watts and others.

Many of these hymns would soon become favorites at the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. These camp meetings would provide fertile ground for the further development of spirituals.

Part 2 of this 2-part series explores how spirituals continued to develop in the 19th century.

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Author: Matthew Sabatella

With vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and mountain dulcimer, Matthew Sabatella brings to life music that is woven into the fabric of the United States. For nearly two decades, he has followed the threads of traditional folk song, revealing a tapestry of music created by American colonists, pioneers, sailors, lumberjacks, immigrants, '49ers, farmers, mountaineers, slaves, soldiers, cowboys, railroaders, factory workers, and activists. Performing both with the 5-piece Rambling String Band and as a solo artist, Sabatella tells his own story of discovery while digging deep into his repertoire of folk, old-time country, fiddle tunes, Appalachian music, ragtime, blues, spirituals, railroad and cowboy songs, work songs, sea shanties, Old World ballads, bluegrass, and more. Audiences engage with the strength and beauty that have emerged from the often troubled history of the United States. He has recorded and released three albums with the Rambling String Band in their Ballad of America series. This is American heritage music. This is your birthright. Own it. Visit http://www.matthewsabatella.com for more.

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