African American Spirituals and the Mormon Pioneers

In honor of the 161st anniversary of the Saints entering the Salt Lake Valley, I would like to explore the relationship between two of the most profound spiritual movements of the 19th century: ante-bellum African American spirituals and the rise of Mormonism. While the vast majority of work with regard to African Americans and early Mormonism has focused on the explicit role that African Americans played in Mormonism, and LDS attitudes to African Americans, I would like to examine some shared themes, narratives, and assumptions, especially in the period between Mormon migration and the beginning of the Civil War. At the outset, I acknowledge that such a comparison does not in any way entail an equality of suffering between Mormons and slaves, only some shared circumstances and themes expressed lyrically.

Because most slaves were illiterate, one of the primary sources for learning about African American theological thinking in the days of slavery is the vast collection (as many as 5000) of “spirituals,” songs born out of the suffering and grief of slave life. These songs celebrated God’s love, and they often had “hidden transcripts,” or double meanings. These songs were about endurance, faith, suffering, and the future hope in redemption and liberation. Indeed, these hymns represent a liberation theology in song. They saw Jesus as a sufferer, beaten, abused, and murdered, and saw that they could related to God through this fellow-sufferer. Among the most powerful music produced by any American, one cannot help but be moved by the sentiment and rawness of these spirituals.

Consider a few famous examples:
Nobody knows de trouble I see

Swing low, sweet chariot

One of the most important theological features of these spirituals is the view that Africans saw themselves as captive Israelites in Egypt. They reflected on the state of captivity and liberation.

Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army

Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost

Wade in the Water

Go Down Moses

These hymns struggle with the problem of a silent God, but one who promises redemption in the future. Consider this hymn: Didn’t My Lord Delier Daniel

At the same time that these songs were being sung and created in the dark days of slavery, the early Mormons were also experiencing a great deal of persecution. Deprived of their property and dignity time and again, Joseph Smith cried out while unjustly imprisoned: “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, ahow long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?” (D&C 121:1-3). Redemption was far off on the horizon, in some ways many decades away, not something that was taken for granted.

LDS hymnody drew upon traditional English music, rather than the beats of Africa, but expressed many of the same themes as the spirituals. One of the most important themes that expressed LDS identity was the belief that they too were Israel. But unlike the Africans who saw themselves as Israel-enslaved, awaiting God’s intervention, Latter-day Saints saw themselves as Israel, but an Israel who had already been freed, but was still in the desert awaiting the Promised Land. The trek west was explicitly cast as an Exodus to freedom, not to the North as the Slaves desired, but West. Songs and poetry such as Ye Elders of Israel; Israel, Israel, God is Calling; Hope of Israel were battle cries with militaristic imagery, where Israel was marching, fighting, and conquering. These hymns were also messianic and millenarian, expecting God’s intervention to accompany their own efforts of seeking redemption, like Now Let us Rejoice.

The Mormon Pioneer songs also expressed the connection to the spirituals, of a suffering, yet optimistic people who expected God’s judgment on its persecutors. The folk Handcart Song expresses this sentiment. But the hymn that I think shares the most with the spiritual is the classic Come, Come Ye Saints. Written at a time when the hopes of a free Mormon life had been bitterly dashed, the successes of Nauvoo were exceeded by its failure, and the only thing the Mormons had was hope, this song shares the situation of faith in suffering, without a clear sight of redemption. I prefer when this song is sung with the heavy heart that I would have had, when the refrain “All is well” is said with great melancholy. This song has the optimism and hope without hope of a good spiritual, and is born from a shared context.

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4 Comments

Filed under LDS Church History, Mormon Culture, Theology

4 responses to “African American Spirituals and the Mormon Pioneers

  1. Very interesting parallels indeed. I thought the music in the recent documentary on black Mormons, “Nobody Knows”, made great use of black spirituals and gospel music, obviously even taking the title from one you mentioned. The context was different from what you’re talking about, but this discussion of the similarities between the two groups adds a little more significance to the choice.

    Also, your link to “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve had” points to “Swing low, sweet chariot.”

    EDITOR: fixed.

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  3. TT

    Austin, thanks for the comment and the connection to Nobody Knows!

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