Religion among slaves in America came partly from their African heritage and partly from the Christianity taught by their masters. Among the Bible stories they found inspirational was the escape of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. They identified with the increasing harshness the people endured under King Pharaoh’s pressure to get more and more work out of them. Their longing for deliverance was expressed in one of the most enduring spirituals coming from the days of American slavery, “Go Down, Moses”:1
When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go!
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh:
Let my people go!
The demand for freedom, “Let my people go!” is first found in Exodus 5:
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:1-2)
However, “Let my people go!” is repeated in 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 8:21, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3 and 10:4. Again, and again, and again. That’s a total of eight times. Why the repetition? Because Pharaoh kept breaking promises to them. Each time, the Lord answered with a powerful punishment; we know these as the Ten Plagues. Gnats, frogs, flies, boils, locusts, diseases — finally, the death of the firstborn child in every Egyptian family. At that point, Pharaoh relented and let them go, but he changed his mind again and had his armies entrap them at the Red Sea. Another intervention by God allowed them to escape across the Red Sea through a path he made on the ocean floor. They were safe on the other side, but when they turned around, they saw nothing but desert, which would be their harsh home for the next forty years. Where was the Promised Land of freedom?2
Historians have been unable to trace “Go Down, Moses” to slave churches on Southern plantations. The first notice we have of it was when it was sung by runaway slaves at Fort Monroe, VA, in 1861. Those who joined together that day may have been singing it as a joyous expression of freedom, but built into the Biblical story was a reminder that their journey of suffering was not over, that there would be many false promises and plagues and years of wilderness wanderings ahead of them.
Did they have any clue that here, 160 years later, their descendants would still be denied access to full equality of opportunity in their American promised land?
Those runaway slaves, their sisters and brothers emancipated after the Civil War and the generations of their descendants since have held on to a wonderful truth contained in the Biblical exodus story: “Let my people go!” is a quote within a quote. These words are not an assurance from Moses, who is often portrayed as the heroic leader of the Exodus. Moses is quoting GOD! Black churches, through the years, have faithfully reassured their people that it is God who has said “Let my people go!” Not Abraham Lincoln; not Harriet Tubman; not Martin Luther King, Jr.
James Weldon Johnson ends his epic poem about the continuing Exodus-struggle of Blacks within American society:3
God led the Hebrew Children on
Till they reached the promised land.
Listen! — Listen!
All you sons of Pharaoh.
Who do you think can hold God’s people
When the Lord God himself has said,
Let my people go?
– Pastor George Van Alstine
1 You may enjoy this rendition by Louie Armstrong that demonstrates that modern jazz is a second cousin to traditional spirituals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxmyzVzsmwY
2 To get the full force of how agonizing this struggle was, it may be helpful to review the whole Bible story in Exodus, chapters 5 through 14.
3 “Let My People Go” https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/let-my-people-go-0. Johnson (1871-1938) is also the author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”