Many of the hymns in the Hymnal 1982 have very interesting histories. However, hymn 599 stands out as one that embodies the history of African American people. The name of the hymn is Lift Every Voice and Sing. I don’t remember how old I was when I began singing this hymn, but when I hear the familiar introductory notes on the piano, my instinct to stand up stems from ⅓ muscle memory, and ⅔ respect that has been ingrained within me down through the years by black teachers, church leaders and family.
You see, hymn 599 in the Episcopal Hymnal is considered the Black National Anthem. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) proclaimed it so in 1920. My surprise to see that it was included in the Episcopal Hymnal was acute, but my disappointment at realizing that the vast majority of white Episcopalians were unaware of the importance of this hymn to their African American congregants is very real.
First, some background on this historically significant hymn.
James Weldon Johnson originally wrote the words as a poem in 1899. His brother, Rosamond Johnson then put the words to the familiar music that we sing today. In 1900, the hymn was first sung by 500 African American school children in Jacksonville, Florida, in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
The first verse begins with the words:
Lift ev’ry 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.
This stanza proclaims joy. It speaks of heaven ringing, harmonies of liberty, and rejoicing that is loud and exuberant. This verse culminates by exclaiming that we should continue marching “till victory is won.” And we are reminded in this first verse that while our past has been difficult, our eyes continue to be on the noble quest for liberty.
The second stanza clarifies what this song is about: The black experience of slavery in America. It begins with the words:
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod
And it ends with these piercing words:
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.
These words clearly speak of the brutality of physical punishment, dying hope, and travelling over roads wet with tears and blood. As a child singing these words, usually at large gatherings of African American people, this second verse caused me to see in my mind’s eye the pain and savagery that my relatives had experienced. And even as a child, I realized that all those with whom I was singing, also had relatives who had traveled the same bloody roads as mine. This hymn became a bonding experience between the African Americans who were, with one voice, singing these words that had been written about our history. It was more than a mere hymn; it was more than a song being sung to fill in the gaps of a church service. This was a hymn that embodied our collective ancestral trauma.
The third verse culminates in words that are written as a prayer. It has been noted that Johnson did not include a prayer of complaining or groaning to God, but he wrote a prayer that recites the experiential history of a people who have remained faithful, hopeful, and grateful.
The third stanza begins with these words:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way.
In a 2013 sermon delivered by the Rev. Nathan Dell, he reveals that James Weldon Johnson wrote this prayer after the following historical events:
- Only 35 years after African Americans gained their freedom (1865).
- 43 years after the Dred Scott decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that U.S. territories could not prohibit slavery, and neither free nor enslaved blacks had any constitutional rights (1857).
- Four years after the Plessey v. Ferguson decision by the US Supreme Court stating separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were equal.
One year after Johnson completed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” 105 African Americans were lynched in the United States.
It is no accident that Johnson concludes this hymn with a prayer to the very God of justice and freedom.
This hymn has been sung and quoted globally in neighborhood churches and in schools all over the United States. In 2001, singer Kim Weston sang Lift Every Voice and Sing at the first inaugural concert for President George W. Bush. And in 2009, the Rev. George Lowrey quoted this song’s third verse during the benediction at President Barak Obama’s inauguration.
While hymn 599 features the history of African Americans, this hymn shines the light on American history as a whole. When we sing this hymn, all of us, black, white and brown, are singing about the joys and pains, the lives and deaths of our collective brothers and sisters.