The Black Church

The Difference Between Spirituals and Gospels

Although Negro Spirituals and Gospel songs both are about freedom they have a few differences. Negro Spirituals are from the 19th century and Gospel songs began in the 20th century. Spirituals were religious folk songs by slaves that allowed them to speak on freedom when they couldn’t do so with regular speech. These Spirituals were sung in Black churches and included Biblical references. Gospel songs are about after slavery so they had “freedom” in the eyes of the white people but they were not truly free. To this day Black people are not “free”, we are not “free” until we gain equality and don’t fear for out lives every time we step out our homes. Until a white cop is found guilty and serves time for the murder of an unarmed Black person, we are not “free”. Gospel music was a way to express wanting freedom, at the time from Jim Crow laws and inequality.

The Great Awakenings


The Great Awakenings were a religious movement where Christianity was promoted. Christians would go around to different towns preaching and influencing people to convert to Christianity or they’d burn in hell. There were two waves of the Great Awakenings, the first in the early 1730s and the second one in late 1800s. Johnathon Adams, a Yale minister, began the Awakening movement. The Awakening created a division within the Nation, between the New Lights and Old Lights. George Whitefield was a British minister who travelled the American colonies. Whitefield would shout his sermons in order to deliver the Lord’s word, the people would gather around him and listen. Benjamin Franklin was amongst those who fell prey to Whitefield’s approach. Whitefield would even preach to slaves and Native Americans, anybody who would listen and were willing to convert.

Main Points of the Awakenings

  • -You’ll be sent to hell if you don’t ask God for forgiveness for the sins you committed. 
  • -Everyone is born a sinner.
  • -Everyone needs a personal relationship with God
  • -Religion should be practiced in a personal manner, not institutionalized.

Impact on Slaves

During the second awakening the many of the slaves began to covert to Baptist and Methodist faiths. The slaves found the promotion and form of worship appealing. The priest would tell the slaves that everyone is equal which appealed to the slaves’ desire to be seen as equal. The priest also described form of worship  that was similar to how African worshipped with call and response, clapping, dancing and intense singing. Since the whites did not see slaves as humans they also did not believe slaves had souls. The whites didn’t want slaves to worship on their own because they believed religion would convince the slaves that they had souls, which would lead to rebellion.

Invisible Institutions

The Black Church was referred to as invisible institutions because they were happening in secret behind white people’s backs. Slaves were not allowed to have church unsupervised, if they were caught they’d have to suffer the brutal consequences. These institutions were in chapels and temples in swamps, cotton fields, under trees, wherever the oppressor couldn’t hear them. In these institutions the slaves would worship in their own way which included various ways of expressing their faith. This is were spirituals were formed, folk songs developed into the Negro Spirituals. During these sermons, after they finished worshiping, the slaves would plot and play rebellions including the messages and codes used during them. 

Nat Turner

Nathanial “Nat” Turner was a slave in the 1800s, he was killed in 1831 during his rebellion. After being sold around several times Turner was sold to Joseph Travis in Virginia. Many of the slaves referred to Turner as “the prophet”. Turner was a well known preacher, many slave owners had him preach to their slaves since he was one of them. On August 21, 1831 Turner lead a rebellion that began with the killing of his owner, Travis, and his family. Turner started with 6 of his fellow slaves and gained 75 as the rebellion progressed. 55 whites died as a result of the rebellion. The rebellion lasted 2 days before people scattered, Turner lasted 2 months before they caught and hung him. Turner’s rebellion placed fear within the white people and caused them to place stricter laws. Many slave owners worried that religion would cause more rebellions like Turner’s. Whites made sure to oversee all the slaves’ sermons and anything they didn’t like they’d make sure it didn’t happen.

Impact on today’s music

Negro Spirituals evolved over time and turned into Gospel music. Spirituals today are still sung but have been modernized as well, spirituals were the foundation for the gospel music we hear today in church. There would be no Black church without the Negro Spirituals. Gospel music doesn’t have a distinct sound or form, Gospel artist, Kirk Franklin, gave Gospel music a modernized structure to apply to younger audience. Rap artist, Kanye West, recently formed his own choir to sing another modernized structure where they remix rap songs and turn them into Gospel songs. There’s been some controversy on both forms of Gospel music but you can’t please everyone.

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