Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Ride On, King Jesus'

History of Hymns: 'Ride On, King Jesus'

By C. Michael Hawn and Eileen Guenther

Sheet music 1160x636

“Ride On, King Jesus”
African American Spiritual
Songs of Zion, 77

Refrain: Ride on, King Jesus,
No man can a-hinder me,
Ride on, King Jesus, ride on,
No man can a-hinder me.

I was but young when I begun,
No man can a-hinder me,
But now my race is almost done,
No man can a-hinder me.

Jesus was the Savior and a friend, human-and-yet-divine, and yet the Son of God. Because of their often brutal treatment, enslaved Africans identified with Christ’s suffering in a very personal way. They sang, “Were you there when they crucified MY Lord?” As African American, civil rights leader and theologian Howard Thurman (1899–1981) noted, “He suffered, He died, but not alone—they were there with Him. They knew what He suffered; it was a cry of the heart that found a response and an echo in their own woes” (Thurman, 1975, p. 22, cited in Guenther).

The enslaved people had a powerful imagination that was captivated by the notion of having a king who was powerful enough that absolutely no one could “hinder” him. If Jesus could not be hindered, then they felt agency in their own lives as well, giving them hope. Some versions of this life-affirming song add, “He is the King of Kings, He is the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ, the First and Last, no man hinders me”! This song captures the aspiration of the hearts of enslaved peoples. Jesus was born a baby, yes, but he was also a king, recalling his triumphal, un-hindered entry into Jerusalem (Eileen Guenther/CMH. "Ride On, King Jesus." ).

Theological foundations

William B. McLain (b. 1928), emeritus professor of preaching and worship, Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.), finds the roots for this text in both the “highway” imagery of the Old Testament (Isaiah 35:8; 40:3) and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem in the New Testament (Matthew 21: 1–11; Mark 11: 1–11; Luke 19: 28–44; John 12: 12–19) (McClain, 1990, p. 90, cited in Guenther). African American theologian James H. Cone (1936–2018) uses this spiritual to emphasize a specific theological perspective:

It is significant that theology proper blends imperceptibly into Christology in the spirituals. That is, statements about God are not theologically distinct from statements about Jesus Christ. Jesus is understood as the King, the deliverer of humanity from unjust suffering (Cone, 1972, p. 47, cited in Guenther).

Howard Thurman makes a similar observation citing a later version that stresses the majesty of Jesus in which “Jesus and God are apparently synonymous” (Thurman, 1975, p. 24, cited in Guenther). His text is as follows (p. 25, cited in Guenther).

He’s King of kings, and Lord of lords,
Jesus Christ, the first and last,
No man works like him.

He built a platform in the air,
No man works like him.

He meets the saints from everywhere,
No man works like him.

He pitched a tent on Canaan’s ground,
No man works like him.

And broke the Roman Kingdom down,
No man works like him.

Early publication of the spiritual

This spiritual was particularly open to textual adaptation and improvisation. An early version, titled “No Man Can Hinder Me,” appears in Slave Songs of the United States (1867), the first postbellum anthology of spirituals (No. 14, pp. 10–11), edited by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy Garrison McKim. The now-familiar refrain, “Ride on, King Jesus,” is not included. Rather than an oblique allusion to the Triumphal Entry, this version focuses on the miracles of Jesus, incorporating them in slave dialect:

See what wonder Jesus done . . .
Jesus make the dumb to speak . . .
Jesus make de cripple walk . . .
Jesus give de blind his sight . . .
Jesus do most anyting [anything] . . .
Rise, poor Lajarush [Lazarus] from the tomb . . .
Satan ride an iron-gray horse . . .
King Jesus ride a milk-white horse . . .

Listed as a variation is

You better pray, de world da gwine [world where you are going],
No man can hinder me!

De Lord have mercy on my soul,
No man can hinder me!

This version must have been well known during the Civil War. Thomas W. Higginson (1823–1921), an abolitionist, clergyman, and army officer, commanded the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment—a regiment of escaped slaves—for the Union cause. Colonel Higginson kept a diary in which he recorded the words of a number of songs sung by his black regiment. This diary includes what appears to be a parody of the version cited above. The earlier version, collected by Allen, Ware, and McKim in the Port Royal Island in Beaufort County, South Carolina, in the early 1860s and published in 1867, begins:

Walk in, kind Saviour,
No man can hinder me!
Walk in, sweet Jesus,
No man can hinder me.

Higginson heard the black regiment under his command singing a parody of this text as they marched for the Union cause:

Ride in, kind Saviour!
No man can hinder me.
O, Jesus is a mighty man!
No man can hinder me.
We’re marching through Virginny fields,
No man can hinder me.

Higginson notes, “Sometimes they substituted ‘hinder we,’ which is more spicy to the ear, and more in keeping with the usual head-over-heels arrangement of their pronouns” (cited in Southern, 1983, p. 186).

Dissemination and later variations

“Ride on, King Jesus” became well known through choral and solo arrangements before being included in hymnals. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the spiritual was a favorite of the Fisk Jubilee Singers on their tours to raise funds for Fisk University (Graham, Canterbury, n.p.). Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949) collected many spirituals and arranged them in his Jubilee Songs of the United States of America (1916). His solo arrangements of spirituals, including “Ride on, King Jesus,” were staples of the concert repertoire throughout the twentieth century. Later anthologies of spirituals included it with the refrain, including The Book of American Negro Spirituals, 2 vols. (New York: 1925/1926), by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) and John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954); and American Negro Songs and Spirituals: A Comprehensive Collection of 230 Folk Songs, Religious and Secular (New York, 1940, No. 49), edited by John Wesley Work III (1901–1967).

Though the spiritual appears in several African American hymnals in the United States, there is no standard version. The ground-breaking Songs of Zion (Nashville: 1981/1982, No. 77) helped bring this spiritual into the congregational repertoire. Edited by Jefferson Cleveland (1937–1986) and Verolga Nix (1933–2014), Songs of Zion provides a simple melody-only version. The refrain and stanza 1 appear at the beginning of this article. The remaining stanzas are as follows:

King Jesus rides a milk white horse,
No man can a-hinder me.

The river of Jordan he did cross,
No man can a-hinder me.

If you want to find your way to God,
No man can a-hinder me.
The gospel highway must be trod,
No man can a-hinder me.

The African Heritage American Hymnal (2001) includes a more recent gospel arrangement of the spiritual by Stephen F. Key. This variation focuses primarily on the refrain and pairs it with another spiritual, “In that great gettin’ up morning, fare ye well.” Lift Every Voice and Sing II (New York: 1993), edited by Horace Clarence Boyer (1935–2009), contains two versions: “He is King of kings” (96), arranged by Boyer, draws somewhat on the early work Slave Songs in the United States (1867); “Ride on, King Jesus” (97) uses the standard refrain with two stanzas:

King Jesus rides a milk-white horse,
No man works like Him.
De river Jord’n He did cross,
No man works like Him.

I know that my redeemer lives,
No man works like Him.
And of his blessing freely gives,
No man works like Him.

Another variation uses a different melody entirely. “Ride on, Jesus, ride on” appears in several African American hymnals as Negro Spiritual harmonized by Barbara Jackson Martin (b. 1947). The refrain follows:

Ride on, Jesus, rite. Ride on, Jesus, ride.
Ride on, Jesus, conquering King,
Ride on, Jesus, ride.

In a recent adaptation, Marty Haugen (b. 1950), following three traditional stanzas, adds six more appropriate for Palm Sunday.

“Milk-white horse”

The trope of the “milk-white horse” is found in the early versions. It also appears in at least one other spiritual, “Meet, O Lord,” no. 56, p. 43, in the postbellum Slave Songs of the United States (1867) cited above. The context suggests an image of deliverance, especially at the time of death. James Weldon Johnson used this trope in “Listen, Lord: A Prayer,” one of the poems in his book of sermons God’s Trombones (1927). “Listen Lord” draws upon decades of prayers delivered by African American pastors and places a composite of them in a poetic form. It also becomes a prototype for prayers that were to follow. He incorporates the image of the “milk-white horse” in the prayer as a symbol of a powerful Savior who rescues sinners from hell. The second portion of the prayer follows (italics added):

Lord, have mercy on proud and dying sinners—
Sinners hanging over the mouth of hell,
Who seem to love their distance well.
Lord—ride by this morning—
Mount Your milk-white horse,
And ride-a this morning—
And in Your ride, ride by old hell,
And stop poor sinners in their headlong plunge.

The connection with “In that great gittin’-up morning,” found with some versions of the spiritual, becomes clearer in the final line of the prayer (italics added):

When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death—
When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet—
Lower me to my dusty grave in peace
To wait for that great gittin’-up morning—Amen.

For the complete poem, see https://poets.org/poem/listen-lord-prayer.

The spiritual was around long before Johnson’s sermonic prayer poem in 1927, but images from what appears to be an antebellum spiritual permeate his literary masterpiece.

Citation of the spiritual in a slave narrative

There is some evidence that the singing of this spiritual in the slave community struck fear in slave owners and overseers. Wesley Seminary emeritus professor of church music Eileen Guenther cites this narrative by James Farley, an enslaved African, in her book In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals (2016). The “padderollers” (patrollers, pattyrollers, or paddy rollers) were armed white slave patrols who monitored and enforced discipline among enslaved persons.

James Farley, an enslaved African narrative:

When I was a little boy they would kill us if they caught us in a Sunday School. . .. [W]hen they did let us go to church sometimes, they would give you a seat way back here, with the white folks in front. Then sometimes they would let you come in the evenings to church, and then you would take the front seats, with the padderollers behind, so that if the preacher said something he shouldn’t say, they would stop him. One time when they were singing “Ride on King Jesus, No man can hinder Thee,” the padderollers told them to stop or they would show him whether they could be hindered or not. (Fisk, 1945, p. 125)

Sources

William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A. Simpson & Co., 1867).

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

Fisk University Social Science Institute. Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Account of Negro Ex-Slaves, Ophelia Settles Egypt, interviewer, Social Science Source Document No. 1 (Nashville: Social Science Institute, Fisk University, 1945), 125.

Sandra Jean Graham, “Fisk Jubilee Singers,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/f/fisk-jubilee-singers (accessed August 12, 2020).

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

Eileen Guenther/CMH. "Ride On, King Jesus." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/r/ride-on,-king-jesus.

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

Eileen Southern, ed., Readings in Black American Music, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1971, 1983).

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


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.

Special thanks to Dr. Eileen Guenther, Professor Emerita of Church Music, Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.).

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