Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Every Time I Feel the Spirit'

History of Hymns: 'Every Time I Feel the Spirit'

By C. Michael Hawn

“Every Time I Feel the Spirit”
African American spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, 404
Songs of Zion, 121

Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart,
I will pray.
Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart,
I will pray.

Upon the mountain my Lord spoke,
Out of his mouth came fire and smoke.
All around me looks so shine,
Ask my Lord if all was mine.

“Every time I feel the Spirit” explores the powerful combination of Spirit and prayer as indicated in the key words of the refrain. African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) ascribed three gifts from the African American community that “mingle” with the others who occupy the land now called the United States of America. The first is “the gift of story and song.” The second is “the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire . . .”. The third gift is “the gift of the Spirit” (DuBois, 1903, pp. 189–190). The following witness indicates that the Spirit imbued enslaved Africans with both joy and endurance:

In slavery times, my master whipped me terribly, especially when he knew I was praying. He was determined to whip the Spirit out of me, but he never could, for the more he whipped me, the more the Spirit made me happy to be whipped. (name unknown, from Chenu, 2003, p. 195; cited in Guenther, 2016, p. 91)

Spirit-filled worship could be ecstatic. The words of an old spiritual describe worship in the Spirit:

Gwine hab happy meetin’,
Gwine shout in hebben,
Gwine shout an’ nebber tire,
O slap yo’ hand’s chilluns,
O pat yo’ feets chilluns,
I feels de spirit movin’
O now I’m gittin’ happy.
(Odum, 1909, p. 35)

The refrain may find its biblical roots in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4), or it could be an extension of Paul’s understanding of the Spirit in Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (KJV). William McCain’s commentary “translates” the biblical context into an African American understanding:

“This widely known spiritual describes ‘the power and energy released in black devotion to the God of emotion.’ Black people have never had any concept of a God who could not be felt. It is this feeling of the spirit of God that renders the black religious experience incomparable to any other” (McCain, 1990, pp. 105–106; italics in original).

The spirituals not only speak of prayer but often are prayers. “It’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer” identifies each person’s need for prayer. “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart” is a prayer of contrition and holiness. African American activist and children’s advocate Marian Wright Edleman (b. 1939) affirms the role of prayer in this way: “We Black children were wrapped up and rocked in the cradle of faith, song, prayer, ritual, and worship which immunized our spirits against some of the meanness and unfairness inflicted on our young psyches by racial discrimination and poverty in our segregated South and acquiescent nation” (Edleman, 1996, p. xxi). Sung prayer is a way of surviving.

The roots of this spiritual may be found in the antebellum South. One often-cited report indicates that Abraham Lincoln heard a group of escaped slaves led by “Aunt Mary” Dines singing this spiritual among others during one of his visits to the “contraband” camp at Seventh Street in Washington, D.C. Contraband camps were areas where escaped enslaved people lived. The description notes that Lincoln sang with the group as they were singing for him. Not all accounts include this spiritual with those that were said to have been sung on this occasion, but many do (See ‘Music of the Civil War,” n.d., n.p.). The event was documented with a photograph by celebrated antebellum and Civil War photo-journalist Matthew Brady (1822–1896), who captured the camp members lined up to receive Lincoln (Washington, 1942, pp. 85–88; cited in Daw, 2016, p. 67).

Contraband camp

Carl Daw Jr. suggests that the images and allusions in the stanzas were “floating” themes that might appear in other spirituals (Daw, 2016, p. 67). The stanzas were, for the most part, standardized as early as 1909 in Thomas Fenner’s groundbreaking Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations, published while he taught at the Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia. An allusion to Moses on Mt. Sinai undergirds stanza 1, noting that all gleamed (‘shine’) from that height. In stanza 2, the singer seems to join Moses on the heights of Pisgah to view the Promised Land. Spirituals and gospel hymns are replete with references to the Jordan River (stanza 3). For the enslaved African, the Jordan could be a place of physical freedom in the north or the liminal spiritual space between this life and heaven. Numerous biblical references to the Jordan River, including one from Numbers, link the Jordan to the Promised Land. In addition, Matthew’s Gospel records that Jesus received the Spirit in his baptism in the Jordan River.

Upon the mountain my Lord spoke,
Out of His mouth came fire and smoke. (Exodus 19:18)

All around me looks so shine,
Ask my Lord if all was mine. (Deuteronomy 34:1–4)

Jordan river is chilly and cold,
Chills the body but not the soul. (Numbers 35:9–11; Matthew 3:13–17)

These stanzas were repeated in dialect in American Negro Spirituals, Vol. 1 (1925, pp. 142–143) with a concertized solo arrangement by J. Rosamond Johnson. Generally, hymnals conflate stanzas 1 and 2 above into a single first stanza. To the third stanza (“Jordan River”), a couplet rounds out the second half of stanza 2. The “train” reference is common in many spirituals. This was the mode of transportation to freedom, be it the metaphorical “underground railroad” to the north or the direct line to freedom beyond this life:

Ain’t but one train on dis track,
Runs to heaven and right back. (from Songs of Zion, no. 121)

An unattributed unique third stanza appears in the Chalice Hymnal (1995):

I have heartache, I have woe,
I have trouble here below.
While God leads me I’ll not fear,
I am sheltered by God’s care.
(no. 592)

Theologian James Cone (1938–2018) captures the spiritual’s importance for the African American community:

To interpret the theological significance of [this] spiritual for the black community, “academic” tools are not enough. The interpreter must feel the Spirit; that is, he must feel his way into the power of black music, responding both to its rhythm and the faith in experience it affirms. This song invites the believer to move close to the very sources of black being and to experience the black community’s power to endure, the will to survive. The mountains may be high and the valleys low, but “my Lord spoke” and “out of his mouth came fire and smoke.” All the believer has to do is to respond to the divine apocalyptic discourse of God’s revelation and cry, “Have mercy, please.” (Cone, 1972, p. 5; italics in original)

“Every Time I Teel the Spirit” does not appear to have been a part of famous Fisk Jubilee Singers’ publications or concert repertoire at the end of the nineteenth century. It may have made its way into the repertoire through the Hampton Institute publications, quartet concerts, and recordings in the early twentieth century. Like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Hampton sent out choirs and quartets to sing spirituals and raise funds to support the struggling institution.

Ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875–1921) made recordings during visits to Hampton between 1915 and 1917, where eminent African Canadian Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943) was the composer and teacher. The “First Quartet”—one of several—recorded a number of spirituals, work, and play songs on a cylinder phonograph for her research. Among the spirituals recorded was “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” (Brooks, 2004, p. 513), an indication of its acceptance. Burlin’s transcription of the male quartet arrangement has been preserved in the Hampton Series of Negro Folk-Songs (Burlin, 1918, pp. 28–31). Where Fenner offers a barebones version in standard English that barely takes half a page (Fenner, 1909, p. 169), Dett’s version, recorded less than a decade later by Burlin, is a fully concertized arrangement in dialect. Burlin notes assiduously the names of the original male quartet, their voice parts and majors, and then follows with a most interesting note:

Of all the Spirituals, this is one of the most touching in its prayerful suggestion and quiet reverence, and in the poetic imagery of its verse, couched in a few crude words, elemental in their simplicity, yet somehow conveying the grandeur of the vision of God on the mountain-top and the dazed soul beholding heaven (Burlin, 1918, p. 28).

As was the custom in concerts of this era, the text follows in dialect. The tempo indication is “Slowly” with a pulse of fifty beats per minute. By the time that Tuskegee Institute musician William Dawson (1899–1990) published his famous choral arrangement in 1946, the tempo indication more than doubled to 120 beats per minute. Dawson’s arrangement has held sway as the norm for interpreting the spiritual. The Hampton Institute recording places the emphasis on “pray[er]”. Dawson and most subsequent renditions place the emphasis on “Spirit!”

The spiritual “crossed over” to the white evangelical community earlier in the twentieth century in publications such as Gems of Love (Chicago, 1924) and then in Plantation Melodies and Spiritual Songs (Philadelphia, 1927). It was included in more collections in the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1980s, it entered the canon of spirituals found in virtually all African American collections and then more broadly. Songs of Zion has an unembellished diatonic harmonization on the refrain with unison/solo unharmonized stanzas very similar to Fenner’s 1909 collection. By contrast, The United Methodist Hymnal employs the quasi-concertized harmonies by William Farley Smith (1941–1997) with chromatic inner parts and slightly extended cadential progressions. As one author notes, “this is one of the most thrilling of the later jubilee songs. It is much used for taking up collections in churches” (Perkins, 1922, p. 248).

The range of interpretations of the spiritual is broad. Compare the classic arrangement by William L. Dawson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6AcJWPhSnI) with an upbeat version by the Cosmo Warriors (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=855dDk0_P8w). Mahalia Jackson adds a distinctive sermonic riff on the Lord’s Prayer before launching into the spiritual’s main theme (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N315gkU7lhc). Rather than a version of the spiritual, the spiritual inspires a new song. Click here to hear a meditative rendition on pan flute.

Returning to the initial assertion by W.E.B. DuBois concerning the “gift of the Spirit” from the African American community to all in the United States, the following slave narrative, while bearing a specific poignancy in its context, is a witness that might be told by many:

I felt awful when I first got to church and took my place in the stand, waiting for the congregation to gather. And the spirit lifted me up. I forgot all about the pain and just lost sight of the world and all the things of the world. When the spirit begins to work with me it don’t have any cares for pain or anything of the world. . . . We rejoice because the spirit makes us feel so good and forget all worldly cares. (name unknown, from Johnson, 1969, p. 59; cited in Guenther, 2016, p. 91)


Timothy Banks, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890–1919 (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

Natalie Curtis Burlin, Hampton Series of Negro Folk-Songs, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (New York: G. Schirmer, 1918), https://archive.org/details/hamptonseriesne00instgoog/page/n32/mode/2up (accessed March 6, 2021).

Bruno Chenu, The Trouble I’ve Seen: The Big Book of Negro Spirituals (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 2003).

James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (New York: Seabury Press, 1972).

Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Greenwich, CN: Fawcett Publications, [1903] 1953.

Marian Wright Edleman, Guide My Feet: Prayers and Meditations for Our Children (New York: HarperPerennial, [1995] 1996).

Thomas P. Fenner, Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations (Hampton, Virginia: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, 1909), https://archive.org/details/religiousfolkson00fenn/page/168/mode/2up (accessed 7 March 2021).

Jeannine Hunter, “For Freed Blacks in the Civil War, Washington Was a City of Contradictions,” The Washington Post (October 7, 2011), https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/free-blacks-in-washington-during-civil-war/2011/09/09/gIQAgFzHLL_story.html (accessed March 5, 2021).

Clifton H. Johnson, ed., God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1969).

Eileen Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of the Spirituals (St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2016).

William B. McCain, Come Sunday—The Liturgy of Zion: A Companion to Songs of Zion (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1990).

“Music of the Civil War: Emancipation Spirituals (Spiritual Songs),” Civil War, http://www.civilwar.com/history/soldier-life-85851/music-6601/226-songs-of-the-north/147404-emancipation-spirituals.html (accessed March 5, 2021).

Howard W. Odum, “Religious Folk-Songs of the Southern Negroes,” American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education 3 (July 1909), pp. 265–365 [Separate reprint of original].

A.E. Perkins, “Negro Spirituals from the Far South,” Journal of American Folk-Lore 35 (1922), pp. 223–249.

John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1942).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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