Negro Spirituals: The Genesis of Sacred Music

A post by Amariah Sledge and Kennedy Brooks

Origin of the Genre:

The Negro Spiritual was birthed from the Christian beliefs adopted by African Americans in the 18th and 19th century. When Africans were first brought to North America, the Christianity they saw was formatted to justify slavery. However during the first Great Awakening, Christianity gave African Americans a feeling of identification. They were able to see something far deeper than their oppressors presentation of the religion. For those reasons, the Christianity they assumed was created out of what was presented to them; African Americans re-evaluated this Christianity and modified it to fit their needs. It was from these Christian beliefs and the tradition of worship in church settings that the Negro Spiritual was born. The first written account of what would later become known as the Negro Spiritual, was written by John Watson. In this account, he describes a form of music in an African American Methodist church that was distinct from his own.


Characteristics of the Genre

The content of Negro Spirituals was derived from Christian values and the personal experiences that African Americans endured. Spirituals often had double meanings, or double entendre, and utilized a call-and-response structure. Negro Spirituals also employed the ring shout which was a combination of singing, dancing, and clapping in a circle. These shouts were repetitive, lasted an indefinite amount of time, and a combination of contrasting rhythms sung simultaneously.


Social Implications

Even though the name “Negro Spiritual” does not appear until after the Civil War, this genre of music gained momentum and popularity among African Americans before the Civil War. Slavery and all the conditions that came with it are the reasons why Negro Spirituals came to be. Many of the spirituals’ lyrics are about the conditions and experiences of African Americans, but these lyrics often also had hidden messages as a means of communication between people. Spirituals also contained themes of a yearning to go home or to be free, which is parallel to the actual desire and want to be free from slavery.


Important Performers

  • Harry T. Burleigh
  • Marian Anderson
  • Paul Robeson



In 1867, three white abolitionists wrote and published what is regarded as the first written form of Spirituals. William Francis Allen, Charles Piccare Ware, and Lucy Garrison desired to document the cultural voice of African Americans as a way to confirm their humanity and give them a voice when no one else would. These “slave songs” became the first scholarly work that documented African American music.


Influences of Future Genres

Negro Spirituals eventually gave way to arranged spirituals–in choral and quartet arrangements– and Gospel music.


Conclusory Opinions

Traditional Negro Spirituals have are at the heart of many worship services and celebrations even now and I have experienced this first hand. The African Methodist Episcopal Church has deep roots in my family; my great-grandfather was the pastor of an AME Church and his son, my grandfather, still sings in that very same church every Sunday and has done so since he was a young child. Whenever I visit this church on holidays or attend just because, I am always impressed by the choir singing spirituals. Even though these spirituals are arranged specifically for ensembles, the words and messages are still the same. These spirituals hold so much importance to African American history that they really are a treasure to behold.

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