Spirituals are the Christian songs that expressed the African American religious resistance to the inhuman conditions of slavery. While never taken very seriously by writers in slave-holding states, the spirituals did spark serious interest among abolitionist Union officers dealing with displaced slaves in camps immediately following the Civil War, and the first serious written recording of spirituals began in 1867.
The Bible was the major source of images, ideas, and themes for the spirituals. Spirituals were inspired by black preachers’ messages or in individual contemplation of the Bible stories heard at home and at work. But spirituals are virtually all anonymous—we know the actual composers and lyricists of none of them. In a profound sense, the community “wrote” them. There are clear heroes of some spirituals: Moses and Daniel, for example. And there are also profoundly important symbols, such as the river Jordan.
The American theologian James Cone suggests that there are two basic meanings of the Jordan River as a symbol in African American spirituals. First, the Jordan represented death—a death that was typically seen as liberation from the harsh realities of slave life. Thus, “crossing Jordan” was a theme of going home to restore a community lost in oppression and slavery.
Second, the Jordan could also represent the border between slavery and freedom—and so the “other side of the Jordan” could just as often suggest the Northern states, even Canada, and thus freedom:
I’ll meet you in the morning
when you reach the promised land
on the other side of the Jordan
for I’m bound for the promised land.
In Erskine Peters’s definitive collection of spiritual lyrics, there are further variations in the use of the Jordan River as a symbol. At times, the Jordan serves as the symbolic border between this world and heaven, as in the song “Roll, Jordan, Roll”:
Roll, Jordan, roll
I want to go to heaven when I die
to hear Jordan roll
In other songs, “walking Jordan’s road” suggests living a Christian life, and “going down” to the river can suggest making a commitment to Christian life through baptism, as in “I’m Going Down to the River of Jordan”:
I’m going down to the river of Jordan
I’m going down to the river of Jordan
Some of these days, Hallelujah…
…I’m going to set at the welcome table;
I’m going to feast off milk and honey…
Finally, however, the idea of the Jordan “rolling” suggests a coming judgment on present injustices and, in the following and last example, perhaps even the arrival of Union soldiers, as the very title “My Army’s Crossing Over” suggests:
Jordan river’s rolling
Cross it, I tell you, Cross it
Cross Jordan’s dangerous river.
My brother, take care of Satan
My army’s crossing over,
My brother take care of Satan,
My army’s crossing over
In sum, the river Jordan in traditional African American religious song became a symbolic borderland not only between this world and the next but also between the harsh realities of present injustice and the achievement of freedom and justice on earth. It could symbolize travel to the north and freedom or could signify a proverbial border from the status of slavery to living freely in general.
- Thurman, Howard. Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death. New York: Harper, 1947. Repr., Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1975.
- Peters, Erskine, ed. Lyrics of the Afro-American Spiritual : A Documentary Collection. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993, especially pp. 141, 182, 225.
- Allen, William Francis, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, eds. Slave Songs of the United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
- Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues. 1972. Repr., New York: Orbis, 2008, especially pp. 80–81.