During slavery in the United States, there were negro spiritual efforts to de-Africanize the captive Black workforce. Enslaved people were forbidden to speak their native languages, to play drums, or practice their mostly Animist and Muslim faiths. They were urged to become Christians and often forced to identify as Christians by slavemasters, who used Christianity as a tool of control.
Scholars debate the degree to which Christianity among enslaved Africans in the U.S. was a syncretic faith, but there is no doubt Blacks suffused their practice of religion with African religious beliefs and customs. The imprint of Africa was evident in the oral and musical traditions in the style and cadence of liturgical delivery, and in call and response in song and sermon; in the use of blue notes and syncopation in musical expression and dance styles; in the sometimes exuberant, but always very personal and democratic, self-expression through testifying, possession and speaking in tongues; and in full-immersion baptism. In comparison with the worship style of whites, Africanized Christianity was often lively, loud and spontaneous.
It was not long before further restrictions were placed on the religious expression of slaves. Rows of benches in places of worship discouraged congregants from spontaneously jumping to their feet and dancing. The use of musical instruments of any kind often was forbidden, and slaves were ordered to desist from the "paganism" of the practice of spiritual possession. Nonetheless, the Christian principles that teach those who suffer on earth hold a special place with God in heaven undoubtedly spoke to the enslaved who saw this as hope and could certainly relate to the suffering of Jesus. For this reason many slaves genuinely embraced Christianity.
Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, enslaved Africans often held secret religious services. During these “camp meetings” and “bush meetings,” worshippers were free to engage in African religious rituals such as spiritual possession, speaking in tongues and shuffling in counterclockwise ring shouts to communal shouts and chants. It was there also that enslaved Africans further crafted the impromptu musical expression of field songs into the so-called "line signing" and intricate, multi-part harmonies of struggle and overcoming, faith, forbearance and hope that have come to be known as "Negro Spirituals."
While slaveowners used Christianity to teach enslaved Africans to be long-suffering, forgiving and obedient to their masters, as practiced by the enslaved, it became a kind of liberation theology. The story of Moses and The Exodus of the "children of Israel" and the idea of an Old Testament God who struck down the enemies of His "chosen people" resonated deeply with the enslaved ("He's a battleaxe in time of war and a shelter in a time of storm"). In Black hands and hearts, Christian theology became an instrument of negro spirituality.
So, too, in many instances did the spirituals themselves. Spirituals sometimes provided comfort and eased the boredom of daily tasks, but above all, they were an expression of spiritual devotion and a yearning for freedom from bondage. In song, lyrics about the Exodus were a metaphor for freedom from enslavement. Songs like "Steal Away (to Jesus)", or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" raised unexpectedly in a dusty field, or sung softly in the dark of night, signalled that the coast was clear and the time to escape had come. The River Jordan became the Ohio River, or the Mississippi, or another body of water that had to be crossed on the journey to freedom. “Wade in the Water” contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom. Leaving dry land and taking to the water was a common strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one's trail. “The Gospel Train”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” all contained veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and Follow the Drinking Gourd contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad. The title itself was an Africanized reference to the Big Dipper, which pointed the way to the North Star and freedom.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is one of the best known spirituals:
(Refrain) Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home, Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan, and what did I see? Coming for to carry me home, A band of angels coming after me, Coming for to carry me home. (Refrain) If you get there before I do, Coming for to carry me home, Tell all my friends I’m coming, too. Coming for to carry me home. (Refrain) I’m sometimes up and sometimes down, Coming for to carry me home, But still my soul feels heavenly bound, Coming for to carry me home. (Refrain) The brightest day that I can say, Coming for to carry me home, When Jesus washed my sins away, Coming for to carry me home. (Refrain) - Traditional In the 1850s, Reverend Alexander Reid, superintendent of the Spencer Academy in the old Choctaw Nation, hired some enslaved Africans from the Indians for some work around the school. He heard two of them, "Uncle Wallace" and "Aunt Minerva" Willis, singing religious songs they had composed. Among these songs were Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I'm a Rolling, and Roll Jordan Roll. Later, Reid, who left Indian Territory at the beginning of the Civil War, attended a musical program put on by a group of Negro singers from Fisk University. Although they were singing mostly popular music of the day, Reid thought the songs he remembered from his time in the Choctaw Nation would be appropriate. He and his wife transcribed the songs of the Willises as they remembered them and sent them to Fisk University. The Jubilee Singers put on their first performance singing the old captive's songs at a religious conference in 1871. The songs were first published in 1872 in a book titled Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, by Thomas F. Steward. Later these religious songs became known as "Negro spirituals" to distinguish this music from the spiritual music of other peoples. Wallace Willis died in 1883 or 84.