Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'I Want to be Ready' ('Walk in Jerusalem')

History of Hymns: 'I Want to be Ready' ('Walk in Jerusalem')

By C. Michael Hawn

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“I Want to be Ready” (“Walk in Jerusalem”)
African American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, 722
Songs of Zion, 151

I want to be ready,
I want to be ready,
I want to be ready
to walk in Jerusalem just like John.
Stanza 1:
O John, O John, what did you say?
Walk in Jerusalem just like John!
That you’d be there on judgment day.
Walk in Jerusalem just like John!

Heaven is a prevalent theme of the spirituals. Enslaved Africans longed for heaven—“Deep river, my home is over Jordan.” They imagined what heaven would be like—“I’ve got a robe, you’ve got a robe, / All God’s children got a robe.” They were going to celebrate with Jesus in heaven—“I’m gonna sit [eat] at the welcome table.” They were vigilant in watching for heaven—“Keep you lamps trimmed and burning, / the time is drawing nigh.”

Black theologian James Cone, citing Benjamin Mays, notes that “heaven, hell, and judgment are central ideas in the black spirituals . . . . Heaven is the home of the faithful which God has prepared outside of history which God has prepared for his righteous servants” (Cone, 1972, p. 18). Spirituals that address heaven often mention judgment and the need to avoid the ways of Satan on this earth. At the same time, heaven is a place of deliverance, freedom, and liberation. A related spiritual says, “O freedom over me! / An’ befo’ I’d be a slave, / I’d be buried in my grave, / An’ go home to my Lord an’ be free.”

Revelation 21:10–27, the Revelation of John on the Isle of Patmos, inspired "I Want to Be Ready,” sometimes titled as “Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John.” This spiritual reflects the breathtaking beauty that must have captured the imagination of those in servitude: “a stone most precious, even like jasper stone, clear as crystal” (Rev 21:11); “a great wall and high, [with] twelve gates” (Rev 21:12); the large city “lieth foursquare” (Rev 21:16, KJV).

African American scholar Wyatt Tee Walker notes that Revelation does not depict John walking in Jerusalem. Instead, John has a vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev 21:1) and a spectacle of beauty and beings that, in the words of another spiritual, ‘no man could number’ (Walker, 1988, p. 66).

Possible Dating

Like many spirituals, this one has several variations. Though no version of “I Want to Be Ready” appears in the groundbreaking collection Slave Songs of the United States (1867), some evidence indicates that it has antebellum roots. Lizzie Williams, an enslaved African, recalls singing this spiritual during a river baptism:

I mind a lot of de songs we used to sing in de fields. I mind my pappy used to sing in the fields, “Get on Board, Little Children, Get on Board.” Sometimes dey baptize in de river. Den day sing:

I want to be read [sic],
I want to be read, good Lord,
To walk in Jerusalem just like John.
John say de city was just four square,
To walk in Jerusalem just like John,
But I'll meet my mother and father dere,
To walk in Jerusalem, just like John.
(Yetman, 2000, p. 316, cited in Guenther, 2016, p. 104)

William Eleazar Barton (1861–1930), a Congregational minister and author on Abraham Lincoln during Reconstruction, describes one variation of this “recent Negro melody” with a tune different from the one known today:

Walk Jerusalem jes’ like John.
When I come to die, I want to be ready.
When I come to die,
Walk Jerusalem jes’ like John.
Walk Jerusalem up and down.
Walk Jerusalem jes’ like John.
Walk Jerusalem round and round. (Barton, 1899, p. 34).

Barton includes this spiritual with what he calls “railroad songs” sung by workers constructing railroads or other public works. They may have a “train” theme. More important, using a call-response pattern allows a lead singer to improvise short lines while working. Reflecting his experience as a white mainline minister of his day, Barton describes the performance of this version of the spiritual (often sung during evening meetings) as being “interminable, and the only way to end [it] is to stop. . . it has no proper end. It goes on at the will of the leader” (Barton, 1899, p. 34). The leader was free to improvise couplets interspersed with “Walk Jerusalem jes’ like John” as long as the leader had the creativity to continue. Some examples of couplets are:

Satan thought he had me fast,
Thank the Lord I'm free at last.

I bless the Lord I’m going to die,
I'm going to judgment by and by.

Oh, John, he heard the trumpet blow,
Hills and mountains fall below.

This spiritual was one of the first recorded by Tuskegee Institute Singers at The Tuskegee State Normal School. The school was established in 1881 and began with Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), a graduate of Hampton Institute, as its sole faculty member. The Tuskegee Institute Singers preserved their music on recordings by the Victor Talking Machine Company beginning in 1915. They also developed their style and were known for signature spirituals. The Library of Congress lists a recording of a male ensemble singing “I Want to Be Ready” followed by “Get on Board” dating from 1916 (See https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-16467). Interestingly, both the antebellum account of Lizzie Williams and the performance by the Tuskegee Singers associate “I Want to Be Ready” with “Get on Board.” Similarly, Barton classifies the spiritual as a railroad song.

Dissemination and Variants

The National Baptist Convention, USA, a predominately African American denomination, included “I Want to Be Ready” in Gospel Jubilee and Soul Melodies (Philadelphia, 1918). Billy Sunday’s musical evangelist, Homer Rodeheaver (1880–1955), known for his promotion of spirituals, copyrighted an arrangement of the spiritual in 1928 and included it in several of his many convention songbooks, demonstrating its cultural “crossover” appeal, especially with male quartets.

John Wesley Work III (1901–1967) included the spiritual in his American Negro Songs and Spirituals (New York, 1940) with the three-stanza couplets:

O John, O John, what do you say? [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
That I’ll be there at the coming day, [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]

John said the city was just four square [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
And he declared he’d meet me there [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]

When Peter was preaching at Pentecost, [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
He was endowed with the Holy Ghost [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]

“Judgment” is often substituted for “coming” in some hymnals in the first couplet.

Recent hymnals include variant couplets. The following stanzas come from the African American Episcopal Church Hymnal (Nashville, 2011):

Some come crippled, and some come lame [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
Some come walkin’ in Jesus name [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]

New brother, mind how you step on the cross, [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
Your foot might slip and your soul get lost [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]

If you get there before I do, [Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
Tell all my friends I’m a-comin’ too [Walk in Jerusalem just like John].

Two of the three stanzas selected for Songs of Zion and The United Methodist Hymnal are the same. The musical arrangements differ. Songs of Zion, edited by J. Jefferson Cleveland (1937–1986) and Verolga Nix (1933–2014), provide a simple harmonization in 2/4 meter with an unaccompanied solo leader singing the couplets. William Farley Smith (1941–1997) employs 2/2 meter and four-part chromatic harmonies throughout, including the leader’s couplets, taking the approach of a more concertized-spiritual.

Thirty-six South Carolina Spirituals (New York, 1930) contains a train-related variant:

Last Sunday morning, last Sunday morning,
[Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
Walk in Jerusalem, all God’s people,
Walk in Jerusalem, tell the angels,
[Walk in Jerusalem just like John]

Train is a-coming, train is a-coming,
[Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
Walk in Jerusalem, all my brethren,
Walk in Jerusalem, all my sisters,
[Walk in Jerusalem just like John]

She’s loaded down with angels, loaded down with angels,
[Walk in Jerusalem just like John]
Walk in Jerusalem, see my father,
Walk in Jerusalem, see my mother,
[Walk in Jerusalem just like John]

The familial references in this version call to mind the painful separation of family members during the sale of enslaved people and the only hope of being reunited in heaven. The reference to the train in this version may have been a link to “Get on Board Little Children” mentioned in the two early accounts cited above:

The gospel train is coming,
I hear it just at hand;
I hear the car wheels moving,
And rumbling through the land.
Get on board, children,
Get on board;
Get on board, children,
There’s room for many more.

As Harold Odum and Guy Johnson note, “One must not only be at the station but must also have a ticket. There is plenty of room, according to the Negro’s conception, but there is not plenty of time” (Odum and Johnson, 1925, p. 112). Therefore, “I want to be ready . . .”.

Coda: A Theology of Heaven in the Spirituals

Finally, the subject of heaven raised complex theological issues. United Methodist theologian William B. McClain, commenting on this spiritual, adds another biblical connection that would have resonated with suffering and enslaved people: “The Negroes saw themselves as the future inhabitants of the new Jerusalem and looked forward to becoming its citizens. They realized, however, that this city was prepared for a particular group of people, those who had come ‘out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and make them white in the blood of the Lamb’” (Rev 7:14b) (McClain, 1990, p. 117).

The masters told enslaved people of heaven—a place the masters were sure they were going. At the same time, those in bondage also knew they were going to heaven. A sermon by African American theologian Howard Thurman describes how an enslaved African understood heaven. “There must be two separate heavens—no, this could not be true, because there is only one God. God cannot be divided in this way. I have it! I am having my hell now—when I die I shall have my heaven. The master is having his heaven now; when he dies he will have his hell” (Thurman, 1975, p. 47).


William E. Barton, Old Plantation Hymns: A Collection of Hitherto Unpublished Melodies of the Slave and the Freedman (Boston: Lamson, Wolffe and Company, 1899).

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

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

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

Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson, The Negro and His Songs (Westport, Connecticut: Negro University Press, 1925, 1968),

Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, Indiana: Friends Press, 1975).

Wyatt Tee Walker, Spirituals That Dwell in Deep Woods II (New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press, 1988).

Norman R. Yetman, ed. Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000).

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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