Lift Every Voice and Sing - Musing for 2/8/23
As God prepares to give the people of Israel the Ten Commandments, God does a bit of reminding them of who God is and what God has done for them.
And God spoke these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Exodus 20:1-2)
Of course, God’s releasing people from bondage is not a one-time event. God’s power used to release groups and individuals actually becomes one of the major recurring themes, not only in the scriptures but through the history of Christianity and the church and even to this day.
Sometimes this release has been from actual bondage and sometimes it’s from sin or addictions or from what is sometimes referred to as “demons.”
Sometimes such release or transformation is a very public “conversion,” like that of CS Lewis, or so private that only the individual released from whatever was clutching them knows it.
Sometimes this release has involved groups or even a nation. Such is the case of the Hebrew nation being set free from slavery in Egypt. Or the Allies' liberation of France in World War II and the subsequent release of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Nazi Concentration camps.
In the American experience, the greatest example of God working to release folks from bondage is of course the abolition of slavery with the Civil War.
Of course, even today with emancipation occurring over 160 years ago, the United States is still struggling with the aftermath of slavery’s legacy. Often Slavery is referred to as “America’s Original Sin.” This term was coined in 1819 with the debate on whether to enter Missouri as a slave or free state. However, Dr. James Goodman, distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University, says such a statement improperly cast blame on God and fails to acknowledge that slavery was a sin of created and perpetrated by human societies.
He says the following:
Let’s call American slavery what it was: one of the unforgivable crimes against humanity that the people who settled the land that became our nation committed. It was a crime that took myriad strands of Black and White abolitionism, decades of sectional crisis, and a great civil war to destroy. It was a crime that contributed, over time, to other crimes and forms of injustice – racism, race prejudice, lynching, exclusion, segregation, discrimination, and too many forms of inequality to name.
That being said, while the institution of slavery was reprehensible, God did not abandon those held down under the weight of its chains. God was able to loosen these bonds and allow the truth of God’s righteousness to march on.
Now in faith communities, we often remember the release from bondage in songs that we call psalms and hymns. Through music and lyrics, we remember the mighty acts of God.
Modern examples of these hymns include When Israel was Egypt's Land, The God of Abraham be Praised, Go Down Moses, Heading for the Promised Land, Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Amazing Grace. Some of these hymns were even taught to slaves and became part of the Underground Railroad.
One such great hymn of faith that documents God’s freeing slaves with special emphasis on America’s ending Slavery is "Lift Every Voice and Sing. Written in 1900, it specifically recalls the bondage of the slaves in the South and their release from captivity, which the writers recalled in its lyrics.
Composed and written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson, it was originally written as a poem to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's birthday, but then was set to music by John Rosamond Johnson.
At its debut, a 500-member children’s choir sang it in a ceremony in Jacksonville, Florida.
The song became an anthem for the African American community and was widely used during the Civil Rights Movement. Its lyrics speak of hope, freedom, and determination in the face of adversity, and its message of empowerment and pride resonated with those fighting for equality and justice.
To some, the song became known as the "Black National Anthem" and is still sung today as a symbol of African American heritage and perseverance.
For its composer, the impact of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" on James Weldon Johnson's life and legacy cannot be overstated. The song has become a cultural touchstone for many Americans, and Johnson's message of hope and determination has inspired generations to fight for justice and equality.
Today, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" continues to be a powerful symbol of African American pride and heritage, and its impact on the Civil Rights Movement and beyond is a testament to the lasting impact of Johnson's faith and commitment to justice.
Eventually "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was included in some mainline church denomination's hymnbooks. Indeed, As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, African American Presbyterians and their allies began advocating for the inclusion of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in the Presbyterian hymnal. It was seen as a reminder of how God continues to move in the current world and was also a reminder of how so many Presbyterians of all colors gave support to the Civil Rights Movement. These individuals saw the song as an important expression of African American faith and heritage, and they believed that it should be recognized and celebrated by the larger Presbyterian community.
The song that was already well-known in the African American community became a hymn of faith for the entire church, but it did not happen without a great deal of debate and discussion.
However, eventually, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was included in the Presbyterian hymnal in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
This was a significant moment in the history of the Presbyterian Church and a testament to the power of the Civil Rights Movement and the role that African American faith and culture played in shaping it. The inclusion of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in the Presbyterian hymnal continues to be a source of hope for those struggling to let freedom ring, and it stands as a symbol of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.
As one of my favorite hymns, we sing it a few times each year but especially during February. And while I will add a link for you to hear it, I also hope you will read it as a poem that reminds us all of the power of God and a reminder of God’s ability to release us all from any bondage that chains us.
Lift Every Voice and Sing James Weldon Johnson - 1871-1938
Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the list'ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chast'ning rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, Till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast by Thy might, Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.
Have a great week.