Spirituals: From Being Earthly Bound to Moving Homeward Bound

Spirituals History

The Spiritual is the earliest form of religious music of African Americans in the United States born in the heat of slavery. While there is no precise starting date, historians would characterize the ‘Spirituals’ music period beginning circa the mid-1800’s. 

This genre, born of an enslaved people, is imbued with a unique expression of Christian religious values and ideals coupled with the social, cultural and physical experience of American slavery. 

The Spiritual is dramatically different in form and style from the European hymns and psalms which are defined as, “metrical compositions in strophic forms, typically eight bars of rhyming couplets, loosely based on biblical scripture.” Spirituals are not hymns nor were their creators attempting to make them so.


Spirituals are characterized by a ‘call-response’  or ‘antiphony’ structure, which originates from West and Central Africa from which most of the slave population was taken from. ‘Call-response’ consists of a singer or instrumentalist making a musical statement which is then answered by another soloist, instrumentalist, or group. 
Spirituals also consist of demonstrative behaviors such as hand clapping, body movement, unadulterated displays of religious ecstasy. 
All of these characteristics come from a cultural memory that could not be forgotten. Spirituals are a form of liberative praxis, an unspoken way for enslaved Africans to express themselves as the truly were, creatives, and exuberant. Which directly negates the societal narrative that they were savages and needed slavery to be properly groomed. 

Shouts in the North

In 1787, Richard Allen and several black members of St. George’s Methodist Church separated and established the independent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation which ushered in and fostered the growth of spirituality in the North. In addition to separating from the white methodist church, Allen also rejected the standard methodist hymnal in favor of compiling his own hymnal which he felt had greater appeal for his black congregation. Allens goal was to generate congregational participation and assure freedom of worship for his members which gained him a lot of scrutiny from his white methodist counterparts who were “disgusted” by the AME demonstrative fashion of worship. 

Arranged Spirituals 

 After Slaves Songs of the United States was published in 1867, the label ‘folk spiritual’ was made popular in the antebellum South. But this particular genre was outside the boundaries of the general White American consciousness. It wasn’t until spirituals were brought to the concert stage in 1871 that it’s meaning and and significance was made known outside the Black community. The folk spiritual was created as an expression of African American cultural and religion and because it was brought to the stage, this change in function was also accompanied by a change in performance practices. Demonstrative displays such as hand clapping, foot stomping, etc. were replaced with a more formalized and reserved presentation.

Notable Groups/People

Fisk Jubilee Singers: Founded by George White, originally known as the “Colored Christian Singers”, this group of 11 singers traveled the country to be the prevailing image of Black performers and to raise money for their institution. 
John Work II: (1873-1925) the first African-American collector of folk songs and spirituals, as well as choral director, educationalist, and song writer.
William Dawson: (1899-1990) African-American composer, musician, and musical figure
R. Nathaniel Dett: (1882-1943) Canadian-American composer, organist, pianist, choral director, and music professor 
Undine Smith Moore: (1904-1989) “The Dean of Black Women Composers”, prolific composer and professor of music

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