“Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Psalm 127: 1
The song, “Wade in the Water,” is most often associated with the freedom journeys of Harriet Tubman, known as “Moses” (who once had a $40,000 price tag on her head for “negro stealing”). She sung the song to alert those she guided to freedom, but she was a deeply religious woman, and never denied the song’s spiritual witness.
About her freedom’s jouneys, she told a writer: “Twan’t me, ’twas de Lord! Jes’ so long as he wanted to use me, he would take keer of me, an’ when he didn’t want me no longer, I was ready to go; I always tole him, I’m gwine to hole stiddy on to you, an’ you’ve got see me trou.”
By the time Harriet Tubman made it to SC the war was on. She traveled here by steam ship. She was a nurse healing dysentery with an herbal cure and commanding troops clearing the mines on the river for US naval ships. She freed 900 enslaved on a single raid, the largest action of freedom during the war. When she left, she had a South Carolina husband.
Make no mistake, the song is about freedom, but it’s more about inner freedon than it is legal or physical freedom. Its journey is about breaking through to find that immutable place in you.
The slaves didn’t just dream of returning to Africa on chariots, “coming to carry me home.” “Way up in the middle of the air,” they saw a beatific vision just like Ezekiel did. The spiritual, “Plenty Good Room,” wasn’t just a parody about the planter’s house, his material possessions, or his faith. The song described the abundance and virtues of god’s gifts for all. Its mansions celebrate the greatness of his unmerited love, and the joy open for eternity. It sung about a home with a place already prepared. Grander than what man built–because it would last for all eternity.
The fourth verse in John 5 that describes how the angel stirred the waters of the pool is left out of several early Bible manuscripts. A debate rages about whether it was actually in the original manuscript written by John. The word, “troubled” or “stirred” in the original Greek refers to “an uncertain affinity.” In other words, the angel brings forth a power whose source was unknown by observation or sensory means. This affinity’s ability to heal transferred to the waters; its blessing received by the first one in. Christ transfers this blessing, by word and deed, to all who believe by faith. But the benefits of God’s gracee only come in certain seasons.
“Wade in the Water,” re-orders the Bible story. The song stresses faith; it urges those who would be blessed to step into the waters before the angel of god comes. Gather now, and get ready, healing is promised. Gather now. So that all will be among the first received and given deliverance by the gifts of grace.
While only a few of the enslaved in the deep South escaped, nearly all converted. Those who write history who never attended a country sermon or a prayer meeting in a praise house or who never had to seek will argue the conversion was forced or naive. I think the slaves made an independent assessment. Their praise is tied to the Bible by their own view and their petitions reflect their own conditions.
Taken on their own terms, the songs celebrate the powers and witness and instructions of the god they embraced. In a shorthand, the song admonished the community not to be like the paralyzed man who seemed unable to seize opportunity.
Who that dressed in blue?
It must be the ones who made it through
And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the Middle Passage:
The Waters chilled by body but not my soul
So in the legacy we know, dramatic change can come to our lives–just as John, the youngest of the disciples, records the dramatic witness of Christ in only 22 days of his life. The miracle John describes in Jerusalem at the waters of the Bethesda pool is not recored in any of the other three gospels.
So “Wade in the Water” is more than instructions for running away, which only a small number of border state slaves were able to do. It is a song text of a dramatic story of God’s ability to restore and redeem. The spirituals are witness and memory, a text for the inner heart of history.
So, in the legacy of “Wade in the Water,” there are coded instructions. Here’s some of what we know.
Good is often spoken of as evil.
Legal ordinances are powerless before God.
There is no power in us without the grace of God.
Walk by faith, not by sight.
We profit by faith.
The faithful must be steadfast.
God does not rest in the midst of misery.
The misery of our daily conditiion tells us to believe!
Despite evil, temptation, desire, and fear, God’s gifts restore us physically, socially, and spiritually.
Stay devoted, attend God’s word.
Do not miss an opportunity for good.
Give God time to operate.
Never forget what God has done.
“Wade in the Water, Children . .”
Lift every voice and sing
Let our rejoicing rise
Let it resound as loud as the rolling sea