Welcome to the Sunday Devotional. “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16 (NIV) I’ve been singing a lot the last two weeks. I’ve been visiting my grandchildren and revisiting all the songs we sang together when they lived close by. One of my grandsons requested “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, a song I sang to my children and one that my daughter now sings to hers. In recognition of Black History month, I delved into the history of this Negro Spiritual and wish to share what I found with you.
Many of the words of Negro Spirituals have covert meaning. "Swing low, sweet chariot" refers to Ripley, a "station" of the Underground Railroad, where fugitive slaves were welcome. Because Ripley sits at the top of a hill by the Ohio River, which is not easy to cross, fugitives had to wait for help to take them to the top of the hill. The words of this spiritual, "I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/ A band of angels coming after me" referred to this part of their travel.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCWtysB-uB4
While I am familiar with other Negro Spirituals, I was surprised to find that “There is a Balm in Gilead” is one as well. We sing this song quite often during a communion service. In the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead is taken most directly from Jeremiah chapter 8:22: "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my [God's] people?" In this spiritual, the balm is spiritual medicine to deal with the sins of God's people. We also have the message that there is a promise of healing, hope, and liberation in Jesus. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mO17UImQcto
Another well-known Negro Spiritual is “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO69zb_0CJk The humble image of being on our knees takes me there every time we sing it. “When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun, O Lord, have mercy on me.”
We have such rich, beautiful Negro spirituals that have spoken to us through time. May we always be aware of how they came to be, and what they meant to those who first sang them.
Dear God, thank you for the many songs that have come from people’s hearts. May we remember with each word and each tune, that the message of Christ is one to be shared. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
Author: Bonnie Barber
Various authors throughout the Chesapeake Bay Mission Center and beyond provide these thought-provoking weekly devotions.