Black Worship Music Inspires Congregations

Source: Baptist Press

For many Black parishioners, old hymns and spiritual songs play an important role in their faith practices.

“I heard that sung over and over and over again, and I can even still hear some of the pain in the voices of some of the people who sang it, and some of the hope in the voices of the people who sang it,” Seminary Dean Michelle “Missie” Branch to the Baptist Press. “And I think that that’s what made those words more real to me as I witnessed the strength and the fear as those words were being sung, and then I watched people’s lives.

“None of it looked like it was purely academic or just something to do, a rote thing that we did on Sundays,” said Branch, assistant dean of students – women and director of graduate life at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS). “I got to be in the midst of people who were being transformed by those truths and were depending on them to get through.”

Roy Cotton, a retired ethnomusicologist and senior pastor emeritus in Dallas, said God has used songs, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” as a “cultural vehicle of liberation for African Americans.”

“Isaac Watts, who was one of the fathers of modern hymnody, wrote many of the songs in the Baptist hymnals like, ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,’ but he also wrote songs that Black people just loved,” Cotton told the Baptist Press. “’Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee.’ You don’t hear that (typically) in a white church. I was in a Black/African American church last Sunday. Before the message, the pastor called for, ‘Father I Stretch My Hands to Thee;’ ‘No Other Help I Know;’ ‘If Thou Withdraw Thyself from Me;’ ‘Oh Whither Shall I Go?’”

Dean Branch and her husband William Branch, who is an assistant professor of preaching and Bible at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, think it’s important to pass down the tradition of singing hymns and spirituals to their children.

“I want my children to see that there is, first of all, there’s just a level of strength in relying on the Lord and not relying on necessarily what’s going on in my life right now. The Lord clearly has a plan and a path,” Branch said. “If this God was faithful to the people who wrote the Negro spirituals, and this God’s continued to be faithful to the people who were writing the hymns, and then all the way up to where we are now, then clearly His track record has proven that our circumstances do not dictate His faithfulness, His goodness, the truth of His Word.”

“One of the things that has been really sweet is my husband is a theologian first,” Branch said, referencing a college course she took with her daughter Trinity. “As the professor was talking through all the theological doctrines we were going to talk through, my daughter said, ‘I’ve learned something about every one of these things through Dad’s music.’”