It’s Black History month and with it comes not only the remembrance of fearless black leaders like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King, but remembrance of the centuries of indescribable cruelty and persecution blacks suffered under the yoke of slavery and segregation.
I write this post not to rehash those awful events but rather to marvel at the uncanny fortitude, hopefulness, and preternatural joy blacks displayed during that time. In doing so, I don’t seek to diminish their suffering, but to show the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to turn the bleakest of hearts into ones bursting with jubilee.
There’s no greater picture of this than in the Negro spirituals.
Oh, every day to you I pray
Oh, yes Lord
For you to drive my sins away
Oh, yes Lord
Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
(Glory) glory Hallelujah (hallelujah) (Lord)
Excerpt from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” published, 1867
Kidnapped from their homeland and forced into slavery, the Gospel came to slaves in the strangest of circumstances: from their kidnappers who were in direct violation of God’s law which clearly states that man stealing and the buying of stolen men is a sin punishable by death. (Exodus 21:16)
Unable to read or write, slaves learned about the goodness of God and the stories of the Bible through their wicked masters. They then memorized those truths and turned them into songs. These songs were passed down through the generations and often wouldn’t be recorded on paper until much later.
My people told stories, from Genesis to Revelation, with God’s faithful as the main characters. They knew about Adam and Eve in the Garden, about Moses and the Red Sea. […] They could tell you about Mary, Jesus, God, and the Devil. If you stood around long enough, you’d hear a song about a blind man seeing, God troubling the water, Ezekiel seeing a wheel, Jesus being crucified and raised from the dead. 1(Thomas, 2001, p.14, quoted in Jones, 2007, p. 2)
And they sang these songs joyfully! You won’t hear a single word of complaint against God, no talk of retribution against their captors—this from people who in our eyes would have every right to complain!
In these songs God is their deliverer, their hope, and their salvation. Their joy rested not in their present circumstances but in the joy that awaited them in Heaven where there would be neither master nor slave—just brothers and sisters in Christ.
“The preaching and the singing of black slaves and post-Civil War black churches virtually never questioned God in the miseries of their lives. […] Suffering was pervasive. Slavery was unthinkable. Whites were culpable, but God he was the deliverer and he was never portrayed as helpless […]. The spirituals are shot through with the sovereign Lord of history.”John Piper, Why So Few African-American Calvinists
How incredible that African slaves with their feeble grasp of scripture, displayed the truths of the Gospel better than their learned masters. Jesus said the Gospel would be received as such.
“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children, yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”Matthew 11:25-26
The slaves’ faith was simple…like a child’s, but as evidenced in their songs, they knew three things for sure: God was sovereign, slavery was unjust, and they would see justice either in this life or the next.
More learned slaves like Frederick Douglas, who was secretly taught to read by his slave master’s wife, were able to expound on these truths. In his now infamous remarks on slavery, Douglas made clear the distinction between the Christianity of the Bible and the “Christianity” being peddled by slaveholders.
I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”Frederick Douglas
Despite knowing that they were being treated unjustly, and knowing that the “Christianity” of their slave masters was no Christianity at all–they endured their captivity with fortitude, singing songs of praise with backs bent in the cotton fields and in the slave quarters around the leftover food from their slave master’s table.
They didn’t know a Civil War was coming. They didn’t know God would use a man named Martin Luther King to bridge the divide between blacks and whites. They didn’t know that one day I, an African American woman would be sitting in freedom telling their story. For all they knew, slavery was all there was and ever would be.
Only a belief in a sovereign God, however feeble the grasp on the immensity of those two words, could produce such hope as displayed in their spirituals.
We are often destitute
of the things that life demands,
want of food and want of shelter,
thirsty hills and barren lands;
we are trusting in the Lord,
and according to God’s word,
we will understand it better by and by.
Trials dark on every hand,
and we cannot understand
all the ways of God would lead us
to that blessed promised land;
but he guides us with his eye,
and we’ll follow till we die,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.
Excerpt from “We’ll Understand it Better By and By” by Charles Tindley
1 Velma Maia Thomas. No Man Can Hinder Me: The Journey from Slavery to Emancipation through Song (New York: Crown Publishers, 2014), p. 14
2 Randye Jones. The Gospel Truth about the Negro Spiritual (A Lecture-Recital, Grinnell College, 2007)