Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Give Me Jesus'

History of Hymns: 'Give Me Jesus'

By Thomas L. Baynham, Jr. and C. Michael Hawn

"Give Me Jesus"
African American Spiritual;
Worship and Song, 3140
Songs of Zion, 165

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus,
You may have all this world,
Give me Jesus.

Eileen Guenther states, “Spirituals affirm a complete trust in God to make right in the next world what was done wrong in this world” (Guenther, 2016, xviii). She notes, “spirituals are powerful, beautiful music of sorrow and hope” (Guenther, 2016, xix). In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) describes spirituals as “those simple and apparently incoherent songs” with “strong, long and profound accents” that “breathed the prayers and complaint of souls suffering the most cruel anguish. Each voice was a witness against slavery and a prayer that God would deliver us from our chains. . . I often found myself in tears listening to them” (cited in Chenu, 2003, 104–105). These assertions relate strongly to “Give Me Jesus.”

According to author Bruno Chenu, spirituals are an expression of the Christian faith seen through the lens of slavery and set to music from an African and European context (Chenu, 2003, 86). As we will see below, “Give Me Jesus” draws upon both African and Euro-American musical roots.

The Origins of “Give Me Jesus”

The origins of this spiritual appear to be a confluence of the white hymn tradition and the creativity and existential experiences of enslaved Africans. Numerous first stanzas appear over the decades with the refrain “Give me Jesus,” though the most commonly used initial stanza now begins “In the morning when I rise.”

The earliest post-Civil War collection, Slave Songs of the United States (New York, 1867), contains several slave songs on this theme. This authoritative source consists of songs collected and transcribed from African Americans who lived on plantations in the South Carolina sea islands—St. Helena Island, Port Royal Island, and Hilton Head Island—by northern abolitionists William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison during the Civil War. The Union Army took these islands in the early 1860s and held them throughout the war. Though the plantation owners had fled, the enslaved Africans remained. Lucy Garrison was a professional musician, and she led the cause in transcribing the 136 spirituals in the collection.

The metaphor of “morning” runs throughout the spirituals. “As a rule morning signified to the negroes the time for going to heaven and for the resurrection” (Odum and Johnson, 1925, 100). Two entries in Slave Songs develop this theme. “Tell my Jesus ‘Morning’” (Slave Songs, No. 20, p. 15) begins:

In de mornin’ when I rise,
Tell my Jesus huddy, oh;
I wash my hands in de mornin’ glory
Tell my Jesus huddy, oh.

“Early in the Morning” (Slave Songs, no. 58, p. 44) describes the reunion of family members in heaven:

I meet little Rosa early in de mornin’,
An’ I ax her, how you do my darter?
O Jerusalem, early in de mornin’
Walk ‘em easy round de heaben. . .,
Till all living may join dat band.
[Variation: O shout glory till ‘em join dat ban’.]

I meet my mudder (stanza 2)
I meet my brudder Robert (stanza 3)
I meet *titta-Wisa (stanza 4) (*‘sister Louisa’)
[Note: ‘Titty’ is often used for mother or oldest sister (p. xxvi)]

A separate note in the preface of Slave Songs provides a clue concerning the origins of “Give Me Jesus”: “We have rejected as spurious ‘Give me Jesus,’ ‘Climb Jacob’s Ladder,’ (both sung at Port Royal), and ‘I’ll take the wings of the morning,’ which we find in Methodist hymn-books” (p. vi). Thus, the editors of Slave Songs eliminated from the collection songs they felt were “spurious”—probably an indication that they were too similar to hymns found in white collections. Since that time, however, scholars have become aware of numerous spirituals that draw upon phrases from white hymns, subsequently being transformed by African American creativity.

From the description in the brief note, it is possible, even likely, that the editors may have been referring to a song “Give me Jesus” in an oblong tune book edited by Methodist singing school master and preacher D.H. Mansfield (1810–1855)—The American Vocalist: a selection of tunes, anthem, sentences, and hymns, old and new: designed for the church, the vestry, or the parlor; adapted to every variety of metre in common use, Rev. ed. (Boston, 1849). Zion’s Herald (Boston, May 3, 1848), a Methodist paper, stated that the first edition was published on November 11, 1848. A revised edition appeared just a year later, November 30, 1849. The date of the revised collection (1849) in which the song appears would make it possible for the northern editors of Slave Songs (1867) to be familiar with it. The American Vocalist sold well. In 1857, less than a decade later, an advertisement from Brown, Taggard, and Chase Publishers indicated that “nearly 100,000 copies [had been] sold” and that the collection had received “the highest recommendation from gentlemen of music education.”

Mansfield, a Methodist from Maine, began as an itinerant singing master but became a preacher (Deacon, 1991, p. 30). He traveled widely and was known as a fine singer. Mansfield died at age 45 of a fever on February 25, 1855. Since his wife Lucy preceded him in death a year earlier, Mansfield’s demise left two orphaned daughters who were cared for by Methodists in Maine (Deacon, 1991, 38).

Thus, the external evidence suggests that the note in Slave Songs (1867) may be referring to The American Vocalist, Rev. Ed. (1849). The collection was thoroughly Methodist in its origins. It is quite possible that the northern abolitionists who prepared Slave Songs were aware of this popular collection and a song contained in Mansfield’s collection with the same title and a similar musical structure.

The internal evidence of the song “Give Me Jesus” (“When I’m happy, hear me sing”) in The American Vocalist (p. 345) suggests that even the melody (found in the tenor part) bears some resemblance to the melodic shape of the spiritual as it is now sung. Thus, it seems probable that Lucy Garrison was aware of the song in The American Vocalist and, as her note suggests, its adaptation in the black community in Port Royal, one of the primary island locations off the coast of South Carolina where Allen, Ware, and Garrison collected the songs in their collection.

Give me jesus

As is the case with other spirituals, a melody or text experienced transformation when adopted by the African American community. There is enough similarity between the song in Mansfield’s collection and the spiritual version in use today to make a connection between the two.

David Deacon, who prepared a master’s thesis on Mansfield and The American Vocalist, Rev. Ed., speaks of Mansfield’s version of “Give Me Jesus” as a northern millennialist text that differed from similar songs in the south. However, “the dominant theme, that of the journey, with its sub-themes of conversion (starting the journey), exile and world-rejection, and hopeful arrival in heaven, belonged to Southern as well as Northern plainfolk traditions; Mansfield (and his sources) adapted them for Millennialist purposes” (Deacon, 1991, 140). Millennialist theological perspectives with concerns about salvation before the thousand-year reign of Christ are apparent in Mansfield’s text, especially in the final variation of the refrain, “Blessed Jesus, / By thy grace are we saved.” The entire text from The American Vocalist follows:

When I’m happy hear me sing . . .
Give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus.
You may have all the world,
Give me Jesus.

When in sorrow hear me pray . . .
When I’m dying hear me cry . . .
When I’m rising hear me shout . . .
When in heaven we will sing . . .

Blessed Jesus, Blessed Jesus,
By thy grace we are saved,
Blessed Jesus.

The transformation of this song into the theology and experience of enslaved Africans reveals that the focus migrated from millennial concerns for salvation and Jesus’ thousand-year reign on earth to themes of deliverance from this earth, the reunion with family in heaven, and ultimate safety in the presence of Jesus. Numerous versions from African American oral tradition trace the creative process that shifts the theological focus and demonstrates a family of spirituals on this theme. Dena Epstein cites a pre-Civil War version on this theme that makes this clear (Epstein, 2003, 227):

In that morning true believers,
In that morning,
We will sit aside of Jesus,
In that morning,
If you should go fore I go,
In that morning,
You will sit aside of Jesus,
In that morning,
True believer, where your tickets,
In that morning,
Master Jesus got your ticket,
In that morning.

African American scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon cites a version attributed to the escaped former slave Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883):

It was early in the morning . . .
Just as the break of day
When he rose and went to heaven on a cloud (Reagon, 2001, 126–127).

E.A. Mcilhenny includes a spiritual on this theme with striking similarities to ‘Give me Jesus’ in his 1933 publication, Befo’ de War Spirituals: Words and Melodies (Boston, 1933):

In the morning,
O, in the morning,
I want to see Jesus in the morning.

I want to see my Jesus . . .
at the breaking of the day . . .
at the rising of the sun . . .
when the sinner man runs . . .
when the tombstone busted . . .
when this world’s on fire . . .
when the dead be rising . . .
I want to see my Jesus in the morning.

Fisk Jubilee Singers historian J.B.T. Marsh records the following stanzas (No. 17) in his 1880 publication with the now familiar refrain, “Give me Jesus”:

O, when I come to die . . .
In the morning when I rise . . .
Dark midnight was my cry . . .
I heard the mourner say . . . (Marsh, 1880, p. 140)

The Fisk Jubilee version published during Reconstruction seems to have influenced the choice of stanzas in concertized arrangements that started appearing in the early twentieth century. “Give Me Jesus” was the first spiritual arranged by African American composer Edward H. Boatner (1898–1981) in 1918 and one of the earliest concertized arrangements. He includes just two stanzas. His arrangement may be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5n5Rrphjdk:

O, when I come to die . . .
Dark midnight was my cry . . .

J. Rosamund Johnson and James Weldon Johnson followed Marsh’s version in Book 1 of their American Negro Spirituals (1925, p. 160):

Oh, when I come to die . . .
In dat mornin’ when I rise . . .
Dark midnight was my cry . . .
I heard a mourner say . . .

John Wesley Work (III) (1901–1967) used different stanzas in his American Negro Songs and Spirituals (New York, 1940, p. 80):

I heard my mother say . . .
Dark midnight was my cry . . .
In the morning when I rise . . .
And when I come to die . . .

Collections today universally begin with “In the morning when I rise” but continue with a variety of additional stanzas. The following list includes the order with the most commonly used stanzas indicated by an asterisk (*):

*In the morning when I rise . . .
I heard my mother say . . .
Oh, when I am alone . . .
*Dark midnight was my cry . . .
Just about the break of day . . .
*Oh, when I come to die . . .
And when I want to sing . . .

Using “Give Me Jesus” Today

Numerous solo and choral arrangements indicate the acceptance of “Give Me Jesus” into the broader repertoire. The spiritual has also been adapted, often without attribution, in other musical styles including Bluegrass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXEwJABQdHk&feature=emb_title) and contemporary Christian genres (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPs09QEDCw4&feature=emb_title).

A group devoted to singing from The American Vocalist meets annually in Maine (see https://www.facebook.com/americanvocalist).

The spiritual is often used during funerals and Lent. As was the case with most spirituals, it is difficult to interpret its meaning or purpose. Gwendolin Sims Warren writes that songs like “Give Me Jesus” “could be a response to a common place tragedy like the brutal loss of children and other family and friends to the auction block” (Warren, 1997, 37). She states further, “Persons in slavery, deprived and besieged in this life, might have nothing earthly to hold on to. But, if they were Christians, they believed they had an inheritance in God” (Warren, 1997, 37). William McClain writes, “although the slaves undoubtedly desired, at some level, just a few of the simple pleasures, they realized that without Christ all the luxuries the world could offer mean nothing” (McClain, 1990, 121).

The spiritual was a favorite of Louvenia “Mom” Painter, the founder and director of the Great Day Chorale of New York City. She offers the following interpretation:

Anyone who knows Jesus knows that He's everything. If you’ve got Him, you've got everything. If you don't have Him, you don't have anything. I know what it's like to wake up before day and sense His presence [In the morning when I rise]. I think of the many times when 'dark midnight was my cry, just before the break of day. Oh, give me Jesus! (Warren, 1997, 38)

The harmonization was composed by Verolga Nix (1933–2014), a member of the New Covenant Church of Philadelphia and organist for Ward AME Zion Church of Philadelphia. While various hymnal collections and supplements will vary in its use of stanza text, Worship and Song incorporates the four stanzas most familiar with the spiritual.

SOURCES:

Edward Boatner, “Edward Boatner Papers,” The New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division (New York: 1981), http://archives.nypl.org/uploads/collection/generated_finding_aids/scm20547.pdf (accessed November 16, 2020).

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

J. Jefferson Cleveland, Cynthia A Wilson, and William B McClain, “A Historical Account of the Negro Spiritual” in Songs of Zion, edited by J. Jefferson Cleveland (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981), 73–79.

David William Deacon, “D.H. Mansfield and The American Vocalist,” M.A. Thesis (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1991), http://hopehist.com/Himages/HD1601.html (accessed November 16, 2020).

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave: Written by Himself (Anti- Slavery Office, 1845. Reprint, New York: Penguin, 1982).

Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbans: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

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

Kim R. Harris. “Slave Songs of the United States.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/slave-songs-of-the-united-states (accessed November 16, 2020).

D.H. Mansfield, comp., The American Vocalist, Rev. Ed. (Boston: Thompson, Biglow & Brown, 1849), https://archive.org/details/americanvocalist00mans/page/n3/mode/2up (accessed November 23, 2020).

J.B.T. Marsh, The Story of the [Fisk] Jubilee Singers with Their Songs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1880), https://archive.org/details/storyofjubilees00mars/page/140/mode/2up (accessed November 16, 2020).

William McClain, Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).

E.A. Mcilhenny, Befo’ de War Spirituals: Words and Melodies (Boston Christopher Publishing House, 1933).

Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson, The Negro and His Songs: A Study of Typical Negro Songs in the South (Westport, CN: Negro Universities Press, 1925).

Bernice Johnson Reagon, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

Gwendolin Sims Warren, Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997).


Rev. Thomas L. (Tom) Baynham, Jr., has served as the senior pastor at Friedens United Church of Christ (UCC) in St. Charles, Missouri, since January 2020. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Tom is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Ministry degree at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. In addition, he holds degrees from the Boston University School of Theology, The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Bluefield College. Tom is an active member of The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, serving on the advisory team for The Center for Congregational Song (2015–2018). He is currently serving a three-year term on the society’s executive committee.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU. He directs the Doctor of Pastoral Music degree program at SMU.


This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.

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