A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
All Saints’ Day 1st November 2021
On this first Sunday of the month, as we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, I have given the service a theme: Saints, Spirituals & Struggle. In our worship today, which is perhaps a little more reflective than usual, I wanted to explore a tradition of Christian worship that honours the experience of those from an African and African-Caribbean perspective. So-called ‘negro spirituals’ emerged in the 18th and 19th century as a form of sung worship particular to the slave plantations and those who emerged from that horrific culture of the trade in human beings for profit. These songs have, for many African Americans in particular given expression to their experience and history, and have been given to the whole church as part of their gift to us all.
It is perhaps worth remembering that, even as we do this, slavery remains a modern experience in our society. There are those still held in bondage, in indentured service and without the liberty that we enjoy.
We do this on All Saints’ Day, when traditionally the church remembers the countless unnumbered men, women and children, who have served Christ in faithful but hidden ways across the centuries. We thank God for them today, and we rejoice in the ongoing encouragement that the saints triumphant offer us. These spirituals often express a longing for heaven, for the glory that is to come, and from these words, suffering Christians – the saints of today, the so-called Church Militant – have taken encouragement to persist in the face of the challenges of living the gospel in places of hardship and struggle.
Today, as we remember them, we think not only of those descended from the slaves some of our forebears bought and sold, but of the many today whose faith needs to be encouraged, including those for whom the current pandemic, and the new lockdown, will be detrimental to their health, wellbeing and confidence in the goodness of God. May our worship today encourage you and me as well.
The theme I’ve chosen for our 11am service this All Saints’ Day is Saints, Spirituals and Struggle. We are going to focus that service on the place of so-called Negro Spirituals in the life of prayer and mission. I’m hoping that members of the choir will sing one or two for us, and we shall listen to a few as well, such are the restrictions placed upon us at the moment.
Here at our quieter service time does not permit as extensive an encounter with this particular expression of Christian prayer and worship, but it nevertheless seems to me to be worth sharing a few thoughts about how they speak to us, perhaps particularly at the moment.
First, it’s good to acknowledge their roots in the African-American experience, especially at the end of Black History Month. I am sure we are all aware that this form of musical worship emerged from the experience of slavery. African slaves would often gather informally in so-called ‘praise houses’ and at outdoor “camp meetings”, where they would sing, chant, dance and sometimes enter into trances. Of course, Christianity was the religion of the slave masters first-and-foremost, but in the stories of the Bible, early converts to Christianity began to see resources that would speak to their own experience. So Moses, who spoke powerfully to Pharaoah and who led slaves to freedom, became a model. Hence, “Go down, Moses way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharoah Let my people go.” And Daniel as well, and Jonah. So we have, “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel. He delivered Daniel from de lion’s den/Jonah from de belly of de whale/an’ de Hebrew chillun from de fiery furnace/an’ why not every man.” It’s not difficult to see how these particularly Old Testament stories provided echoes of their own experience. It’s also not difficult to see why slave owners, alarmed not only by the content of the worship but also African ways of worship were so very alien to their own, they saw it as idolatrous and wild.
There’s also an element of lament within the spiritual tradition, something that had been lost to Christian worship in more conventional traditions, but which remain firmly embedded in the psalms. “Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow; nobody knows the trouble I see, glory, hallelujah.” Singing songs of slavery gave voice to deep emotions about the experience of captivity and its cruel consequences, that perhaps could not be spoken of easily. In this the slaves made connections with suffering of Jesus.
But this was also dangerous. Hope is the most dangerous of all Christian virtues. If love is the way of Jesus Christ, hope is often the inspiration to love, the impetus given to us by the grace of God to see beyond the way things are to the way they should be. Hope is what enables the powerless to resist. It’s why heaven features so powerfully in the spiritual tradition. Alongside the obvious parallels of freedom and liberty seen in the stories of Moses, Daniel and others, spirituals often speak of a way through suffering to freedom. Death – an everyday reality on the plantations of the Americas – and suffering – which is in the essence of the slave experience – lead to a promised land, where freedom in the key. So, in another famous spiritual, “Deep river, my home is over Jordan. Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground. Oh, don’t you want to go to that Gospel-feast? That promised land where all is peace.” Here we have the Moses story with its Jordan reference, the idea of a great barrier beyond which is the campground where the saints can gather. A song like this is all about longing and hope, sung to keep not just faith in eternal life beyond present suffering, but – in a very coded way – to sing of liberty for which the slaves longed for.
Code is actually thought to be an important element of the spiritual tradition. They are, in their way, an early version of the protest song so beloved of the 1960s counter-culture. They were a way of encouraging action. So, it is thought that the famous “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus” is in a way an incitement to escape. Some of you will have heard of the famous Underground Railroad, a network of people – white and black – who helped slaves to escape from slavery states to the freedom of the northern non-slavery states in America. You can read a fantastical version of the story in Colston Whitehead’s book of the same title. 19th Century fascination with the new technology of the railway led to a number of spirituals with railway metaphors: “Lord, if I got my ticket, can I ride, up to heaven on that mornin’. Well I hear a lot o’talk about a gospel train/better be ready, cause its on it’s way/be down at the station right on time/if you’re not ready, you’ll be left behind.” The famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman used “Go down, Moses” as a way of identifying herself to slaves who might want to flee north. Seen like this, these words have a rich hidden meaning: “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to gather me home. I looked over Jordan and what did I see, a band of angels coming after me. If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming too.”
So within this tradition of African American spirituals there is a rich spiritual resource. Like the more conventional hymns we sing, they embed in our hearts the truths of the Bible, they give voice to suffering and struggle, they offer messages of hope to people in hardship, they take the vision of heaven as something that can also speak of a condition of liberty we can experience on earth. Above all, I think, the provide the singers with a sense of their own worth to God, who understood their plight, who heard their cry and who was on their side. It enabled them to be defiant, gave them assurance and hope, and promised freedom, a happy day.
It’s not difficult to see how both within the church and beyond it, such words in worship can give voice today. Faced with the ongoing reality of racism, oppression and struggle in life, minority groups can find in these simple songs that ability, to quote Psalm 137, “to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” If these songs gave hope, energy, defiance and proud faith to keep going and at times to resist, then they can still do that today. Some of you will know that Sir Michael Tippett used spirituals as part of his mid-20th century oratorio A child of our time. He, a convinced pacifist, faced with the horror of World War 2, could take these songs and make them his own. Many others have done the same. Quoting a spiritual, Martin Luther King said, “when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the Negro spiritual: “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last!” You can see why that can still inspire African Americans to work for that day, which sadly has yet to come. Perhaps too, in a very different context, minorities in Britain can find these songs an inspiration.
We are, it seems, about to enter a new phase of hardship and challenge in England. Our lives are about to be curtailed and most of us will accept the restrictions placed upon us, even if for some their sense of freedom will lead them to civil disobedience. I don’t think the libertarians are right for what it’s worth, but they should be allowed to protest, without putting others at risk. Perhaps these songs of struggle and freedom can give us strength in the coming days, perhaps with their sense of God’s care and solidarity with us, they can nourish us with endurance and hope. As one of them says, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.” There’s an irony in this spiritual because, in the Old Testament, “the balm of Gilead” was unable to heal. The spiritual invites to connect with Jesus in the New Testament who can heal the sin-sick soul.
So, friends, be encouraged by these songs of hope and resistance. Look to a tradition of Christian faith, perhaps a long way from our own experience of privilege and almost unfettered freedom, to find not just a resource to keep you going in hope in some more difficult days ahead, but which point us in their simple, refreshing ways to Jesus and, through him, to heaven. This All Saints’ Day, look beyond what used to be called the Church Militant, and others know as the Church Suffering, to the Church Triumphant, not to escape this world, but to enter into all its challenges with faith, hope and love.
Oh when the saints go marching in, Oh when the saints go marching in,
I want to be in their number, when the saints go marching in.