God, Swing Down Low (Artful Devotion)

Johnson, William H._Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
William H. Johnson (American, 1901–1970), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ca. 1944. Oil on paperboard, 28 5/8 × 26 1/2 in. (72.6 × 67.2 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

And as [Elijah and Elisha] still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.

—2 Kings 2:11–12a

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SONGS: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” attributed to Wallace Willis, ca. 1840; “Swing Down, Chariot,” author unknown, 19th century

Most Negro spirituals are of unknown authorship, but one of the best loved, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” was, according to several accounts, written by Wallace Willis, the black slave of a Choctaw Indian who had been forced out west into what is now Oklahoma. Uncle Wallace, as he was known, was hired out part-time by his master to Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boys’ school, and this is one of the songs he sang to entertain the students. It became popular among them, and during the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ inaugural tour in 1871, the academy’s superintendent, Alexander Reid, shared the song with the all-black group. They had never heard of it but added it to their repertoire, performing it on concert stages throughout the US, along with other slave songs. It was one of twelve songs that their successor, the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, chose to record for the first time in 1909, further cementing its longevity.

In 2002 the Library of Congress added this historic recording to the United States National Recording Registry, to be preserved for future generations. The accompanying essay by Toni P. Anderson recounts, in addition to Uncle Wallace’s story, an alternate origin account that says “Swing Low” was the creation of Sarah Hannah Sheppard, a southern slave who had set out to drown herself and her daughter in the Cumberland River, until an elderly slave woman intervened, urging her to instead “let de chariot of de Lord swing low”—rescue would come, she prophesied. And for Sarah and her little Ella, it soon did.

In one sense, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is a plea for death: come and carry me over, God. “Home” is heaven, the promised land, just “over Jordan,” and the chariot refers to the divine vehicle that swept down to take Elijah there. In another sense, “home” could signify an earthly place outside the bounds of slavery, a place of relative safety and liberation and reunion with family—such as the North, just over the Ohio River. A clandestine “chariot” was in operation during the antebellum period, run by Harriet Tubman and a network of others (a “band of angels”), who transported slaves up to freedom, and this is the chariot to which the unnamed prophet of Sarah Hannah Sheppard’s story refers.

The song is often performed slowly, solemnly, as a weary surrender to death—as in this bluesy version by contemporary gospel singer Robert Robinson:

But it can also be inflected differently—with joyful anticipation and celebration. Such is the musical interpretation of The Lower Lights:

“In biblical tradition,” writes Old Testament scholar Iain W. Provan,

both chariotry and fire have strong associations with God’s self-disclosure. Both images come together in the most common natural form of divine appearing (“theophany”) in the OT: the thunderstorm—the storm cloud representing the divine chariot or throne (Ezek. 1; Hab. 3:8) and the fiery lightning bolts representing the divine weapons (Ps. 18:14; Hab. 3:11). [ESV Study Bible, p. 648]

Tim Mackie of The Bible Project calls the eccentric theophanic vehicle of Ezekiel 1 the “God mobile.” It’s God’s glory on the move. And it was probably what (or at least similar to what) Elisha witnessed when his predecessor, Elijah, was whisked away into the heavens. It may also be what the prophet Habakkuk had in mind when he wrote about God’s “chariot of salvation” that flashes forth lightning (Hab. 3:8, 11).

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is sometimes sung in medley with “Swing Down, Chariot” (variant title: “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot”), a fast-paced spiritual popularized by the Golden Gate Quartet in the 1940s. See, for example, this clip from the 2003 movie The Fighting Temptations, featuring Beyoncé:

This clip from Elvis’s movie The Trouble with Girls (1969) is also a lot of fun:

“Swing Down, Chariot” references Ezekiel’s vision of the God mobile, humorously nicknaming the prophet Zeke. It has him chancing upon an angel repairing a chariot wheel in the middle of a field. Having never seen such a vehicle, he approaches it, runs his hand over the exterior. The angel offers him a ride, which he gladly accepts. It’s a bumpy one, but Zeke doesn’t mind; “he just wanted to lay down his heavy load.”

Listening to these two spirituals side by side can help us make connections between Bible passages, as we see God’s fiery chariot present not only at Elijah’s ascension but also at Ezekiel’s call to the office of prophet. When mapped onto the context of enslavement, the chariot’s meaning is made real and intensified, a symbol of hope, release, freedom, of God’s wild and transporting glory.

As previously mentioned, the Negro spirituals were multivalent. To some, the chariot was this-worldly, effecting a passage to the northern states where slaveholders held reduced power. To others, to beckon the chariot meant to beckon death, to initiate a departure to the otherworld. The chariot songs held both meanings to their early singers, marking the tension between the slave’s will to live, to survive trauma, and his or her desire to be with God in the flesh, the ultimate freedom.

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William H. Johnson (1901–1970) is one of my favorite artists—I wrote about him in stations 3 and 13 of the Stations of the Cross audio tour at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and in my review of Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art.

In his painting Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a two-wheeled horse-drawn car sweeps in from the upper left, fiery orange and red and filled with stars. Eleven angels in brightly colored dresses and anklet socks hover above, one of them waving hello to the aged man on the opposite side of the river, who runs to catch his ride. His arms are stretched out wide, ready to embrace his new home.

This is probably the best artistic representation of death in the Christian tradition that I know of. It’s glorious and sweet and evocative. The old man’s body is just on the verge of release from its pains, and I feel it. His heaviness is already giving way to lightness, to nimbleness. I feel the joy that awaits him across the river, which the yellow flowers seem to anticipate (they vibrate!), and I sense the community of friends that the thin, magenta-winged beings will be escorting him to. God’s presence, the sun’s orb, glows intensely, the same deep orange as the chariot’s exterior. That’s the glory into which the man is heading.

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There are so many wonderful renditions of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” What’s your favorite?


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 8, cycle C, click here.

“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus

Moses and the Sea by Zak Benjamin
Zak Benjamin (South African, 1951–), Moses and the Sea, 1982. Hand-colored etching.

The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, where they had been held in bondage for at least two hundred years, through the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea is the archetypal salvation event in the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout its books, one of the primary epithets for God is “he who brought us up out of Egypt,” or some variation thereof, for this action defined God’s character, assured the Israelites of his strength and will to save.

In addition to its historical sense, Christians have long understood the Old Testament exodus story as a prefigurement of the “new exodus” led by Christ, whereby we are liberated from the bondage of sin. As the New Moses, Jesus confronts evil—institutional evil, but also the evil inside each of us—and leads us out of its clutches. He stretched out his hands on a cross to create for us a clear path to freedom, then he stretched out his hands again three days later in resurrection victory, burying our former oppressors. Liturgical tradition acknowledges the link between the Exodus and the Resurrection by prescribing the reading of Exodus 14 at Easter Vigil.

In the farm fields of the antebellum South, African American slaves resonated strongly with the story of the Israelites. They looked to the Exodus—that literal, historic flight—in hopes that God would one day accomplish the same feat for them, and they even encoded this hope into the songs they sang. “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is one such example. The verses vary by performer, but the chorus is this:

Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh Mary, don’t you weep

One might be tempted to assume that the Mary referred to here is Moses’s sister, for narrative coherence. (“Miriam” is the Hebrew equivalent of the English “Mary.”) However, the more logical choice, given the weeping detail, is either Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene, both of whom the Bible records as weeping in response to death—Mary of Bethany, at the death of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:31–33), and Mary Magdalene, at the death of Jesus (John 20:11–13). In both stories, though, Christ demonstrates power over the grave. He brings Lazarus back to life, and he himself returns to life three days after his Crucifixion.

Melancholy by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Melancholy, 1876. Charcoal on paper. Art Institute of Chicago.

The chorus applies equally well to either Mary, and perhaps the dual reference is intentional. Their stories are similar, the one a precursor to the other. Mary of Bethany, however, seems to be the more popular interpretation, as evidenced by adaptations of the song that add Martha’s name to the chorus, such as the Swan Silvertones’ version (“Oh Mary, don’t you weep / Oh Martha, don’t you mourn”). Either way, the song creates a link between God’s victory over the Egyptians in the Old Testament and his victory over death in the New. The chorus is a consolatory reminder that God is mighty to save.

As with most spirituals, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” operates on three levels:

  1. as Jewish history;
  2. as spiritual metaphor; and
  3. as an expression of present circumstances and/or anticipations.

Continue reading ““Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus”