Negro Spirituals: The Connection between Negro Spirituals and Religion in the United States

By Janelle Clark & Nichele Washington

What is the Negro Spirituals’ connection to religion in America?

Nichele Washington

The analysis of Negro spirituals is crucial for understanding the role religion played in the lives of enslaved Black persons. Not only did these songs offer temporary solace for enslaved Africans, but they also created the foundational building blocks from which the Black church emerged.

Being forcefully (and at times, violently) assimilated into Christianity, enslaved African Americans were often preached to about submission and obedience. In fact, ex-slave Lucretia Alexander recounted instances where “The preacher came and…He’d just say ‘Serve your masters. Don’t steal your masters turkey’ [etc]”(Mellonee Burnim 91) Because they were able to identify the ways in which Christianity was being manipulated to serve the institution of slavery, African Americans would often gather outdoors to worship freely in what were called ‘bush meetings.’ These meetings eventually came to create what was called the ‘invisible church.’ During these illegal gatherings–illegal because, per the parameters of BlackCodes, slaves were prohibited from organizing without white supervision–enslaved African Americans would testify, sing, dance, and draw parallels between their current conditions and stories in the Bible. it is this parallel that gave Negro Spirituals its very name. Deriving from the King James Version of Ephesians 5:19, the following quote led to these religious folksongs being renamed ‘spirituals’: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Negro Spirituals not only contain forms of call and response that are native to African music, but they also incorporate the aspects of Christianity and the Bible that best reflected the enslaved persons struggle for freedom. With a plethora of phrases containing double entendres, enslaved African Americans used key biblical figures they felt they could relate to (such as Moses and Daniel) to create songs about the devastations of slavery and the hope for freedom. In fact, these spirituals were so populated by double entendres that they could be (and were) utilized as discrete signals when moving within the Underground Railroad. 

Today, Negro spirituals are most commonly sung in Black churches where their significance is equal to that of hymnals. However, as is typical of Black creatives, many of these spirituals have been adapted and improvised to create new sounds like Louis Armstrong’s rendition of ‘Go down Moses’.

despite all modifications, what remains true of all Negro spirituals is its soulful timbre and ability to nurture spirituality and foster faith.

Janelle Clark