What is a Spiritual?

The spiritual is a type of folk song that emerged in the United States in the second half of the eighteenth century, roughly from 1740 to the turn of the century. Although there is a subgroup of spirituals known as “white spirituals,” which includes shape-note hymns, camp-meeting songs, and folk hymns, the term “spiritual” is most commonly used to refer to African-American songs.

These songs were primarily and initially “spiritual songs” that arose from the singers’ Christian worship. They were often referred to as “Negro spirituals.” Some were used as work songs, with a call and response form that allowed for the regulation of work operations that needed to be coordinated in real time.

Due to the repressive ban on spoken communication between slaves in many places, as well as the exigencies that arose as the Underground Railroad grew and escapes had to be planned, a specialized use of spirituals arose. The spiritual began to be used as a coded message in these circumstances, carrying not only its original spiritual meaning but also a secondary practical meaning.

The spirituals, for example, carried the analogy between the escape route and a railroad or other vehicle, such as a chariot. There were many references to getting “onboard,” “stations,” and “home,” which meant the destination in a free state or Canada. Examples include “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

A spiritual was Harriet Tubman’s signature song. She was a fugitive slave who was the Underground Railroad’s greatest “conductor,” or shepherd of slaves to freedom. She would sing “Go Down, Moses” if she had to hide a group of her “passengers” to scout the road ahead during a journey, a reference to her reputation as “the Moses of her people” for leading so many slaves to freedom as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.

The following are some of the most well-known spirituals:

• “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” says the author.

• “Were you present when My Lord was crucified?”

• “Row the Boat Ashore, Michael,”

• “No One Is Aware of the Trouble I’ve Seen,”

• “Joshua Fits the Jericho Battle,” in addition

• “Wade in the Water” is a song.

All of these songs, as well as others, can still be heard in worship and concert settings today.