Our pre-Easter sermon series is entitled “Were You There?” We’re focusing on several key events in the building drama leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross, each time asking, “Were you there?” That is, have you entered personally into this aspect of Jesus’ sacrifice for you? Have you absorbed the meaning of this part of his journey into your faith experience?
So far, we’ve asked,
“Were You There When Jesus Washed the Feet of His Disciples?”
“Were You There When Jesus’ Friends Fell Asleep?”
“Were You There When Jesus Prayed in the Garden?”
“Were You There When Jesus Was Betrayed with a Kiss?”
In the next two weeks, we will continue to probe with the questions,
“Were You There When the Rooster Crowed?”
“Were You There When the Crowd Waved Palm Branches?”
I became curious about the history of this familiar spiritual, and I discovered that it actually has its roots in the days of slavery. The spirituals arose from the hopeless misery of those awful times of oppression, and there was no greater solace for the slave than the realization that Jesus had also walked a path of suffering and humiliation. Bent over as he toiled in the field, he could see Jesus bent over next to him, weighed down by the heavy cross he was forced to carry. As the slave was whipped by a cruel slavemaster, he could feel the lashes on Jesus’ back, administered by a brutal Roman soldier. When another slave called out the line of the song, “Were you there?” his inner spirit responded, “Yes, I was there; I feel it in my whole being.”
This spiritual was first published in 1899. A clergyman by the name of William Eleazer Barrett was fascinated by the music of the Fisk College Jubilee Singers, who, beginning in 1871, toured the northern states, then Europe, exposing white folk to the unique musical genre that became known as “negro spirituals.” Barrett spent more than a decade researching the many spirituals that had not been included in the Jubilee Singers’ repertoire, and among them was “Were You There?” He published the music and the lyrics in his book Old Plantation Hymns.
Each stanza of the song is an expansion of one graphic line about Jesus’ sacrificial suffering, following this pattern:
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
In Barrett’s book, there are three other stanzas, built on three harsh aspects of his suffering:
“Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?”
“Were you there when they pierced him in the side?”
“Were you there when the sun refused to shine?”
Recent popularized versions of the spiritual have added stanzas that bring Easter resolution to the message:
“Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?”
“Were you there when the stone was rolled away?”
But I think the song is more effective with only its original four stanzas, focusing only on the excruciating pain and the descending darkness. A slave would feel the full weight of this.
And what would that feeling be? “Oh [this word ‘Oh’ would be stretched into four beats on four different notes], sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” I can see the beaten-down slave, who knew suffering, who had felt the whip, who could well imagine nails being hammered into his hands, who thought tonight’s sundown could well be his last. I can see him tremble, tremble, tremble.
And I can feel myself responding from deep within my soul, and I, too, can only tremble, tremble, tremble