History of Hymns: 'Take Me to the Water'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Take Me to the Water”
African American Spiritual
Africana Hymnal, 4045
Worship & Song, 3165
Zion Still Sings, 190
Take me to the water,
take me to the water,
take me to the water
to be baptized.
None but the righteous,
none but the righteous,
none but the righteous
shall see God.
Water is integral to understanding deliverance and freedom in the spirituals (“Go down Moses”), a representation of passage from this life to the next (“Deep river”), and an agent of healing (“Wade in the water”). “Take Me to the Water" is a rare example of a spiritual explicitly devoted to the sacrament of baptism.
This hymn first appeared in print in Yes, Lord! Church of God in Christ Hymnal (Memphis, 1982). However, recordings and possible references to the spiritual in the accounts of enslaved Black people indicate that its roots may extend at least to the turn of the twentieth century and perhaps to the antebellum South. While found primarily in African American hymnals, other mainline denominational collections now include the spiritual.
In addition to the two stanzas listed above, additional stanzas found in hymnals include:
I love Jesus . . . Yes, I do.
He’s my Savior . . . Yes, he is.
In the name of Jesus . . . we shall be saved.
I know I’ve got religion . . . Yes, I do.
Glory, hallelujah . . . to be baptized.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BAPTISM AND ENSLAVED AFRICANS
The simplicity of the words of this spiritual belies the deep cultural understandings surrounding water spirituality that accompanied Black people from Africa. Furthermore, baptismal practices in colonial America encoded inhuman views of enslaved people. Enslaved Africans found a deep connection between river baptisms and the spirituality of the African traditional religion. Water was the realm of the spirits, representing a source of life at creation and at birth, an instrument of purification linked to initiation rites, and a locus of regeneration (Tounouga, 2003, p. 283). Undoubtedly, these meanings comingled with the experience of Christian baptism as practiced during American colonial times.
Baptism was fraught with many complications upon the arrival of enslaved Africans in 1619 in British colonial America. European settlers doubted the humanity of Black people and, therefore, if they were capable of understanding and receiving baptism (Neri, 1940, p. 220). The following newspaper account details an early colonial argument against baptism:
The first slaves that were brought to America were pagans. . . To speak the truth, there was not, in the seventeenth century, much interest on the part of whites in North Carolina in religious matters . . . [T]here was for a time, a well-defined notion among the slaveowners that a slave who was a church member could not be held in bondage. This notion grew out of a principle which was common to the legal concept of Europe at the time that . . . it was allowable to enslave a man who was pagan, but that it was not allowable to enslave a man who was a Christian. (Bassett, Raleigh News and Observer, 1899)
This argument may have masked a more significant concern. Though proselyting was a priority in colonial America, neither the masters of enslaved people nor missionaries permitted baptism in the seventeenth century. Conversion was a possible step toward slave rebellion (Gerbner, 2018, n.p.). These views were legally encoded in the Colony of Virginia statutes in 1664, asserting that baptism did not bring freedom from servitude to baptized Black people. This law was strengthened in 1706 in six colonies, stating that a baptized Black person could not threaten the legal rights of a master of enslaved people (Costen, 2007, p. 20). Furthermore, masters were generally against the catechesis of enslaved Black people, therefore distorting a crucial aspect of the rite of Christian initiation. Masters feared that the message of freedom in Christ could be construed to mean freedom from physical bondage (Costen, 2007, p. 21).
Some antebellum accounts indicate that only white ministers could baptize Black candidates. In contrast, African American “cheerbackers” (spiritual advisors) could not conduct baptisms (James Bolton, in Killion and Waller, 1973, p. 24). Furthermore, masters had to give permission for enslaved people to be baptized (Thomas Lewis Johnson, 1909, p. 17; in Guenther, 2016, p. 127).
HISTORICAL EVIDENCE OF “TAKE ME TO THE WATER”
Two audio recordings from 1926 (September, New York City) and 1927 (February, Memphis, Tennessee) from Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890–1950 (2009) offer insight on the role of this spiritual in immersion baptism rituals in the early twentieth century. The pastor offered a brief baptismal sermon. As the candidates made their way into the water (most likely a river), the people sang the first stanza under the pastor's leadership. In these recordings, the final line is modified to “and baptize me.” The pastor continues to chant in the same key, “Beyond[?] the holy commandments, I baptize you my brother/sister on the confession of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The pastor then led the people in singing stanza 2, “None but the righteous.” To view rare footage of a river baptism during this era, see the following YouTube video recording from National Geographic in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akaAMYGJ44k.
Elisha Garey (?1818–1901), an enslaved person, provides an undated account naming a song that may be either a variant or precursor to the current spiritual:
Warn’t no pools on the churches to baptize folks in them, so they took them down to the creek. First, a deacon went in and measured the water with a stick to find a safe and suitable place. Then they was ready for the preacher and the candidates. Everybody else stood on the banks of the creek and joined in the singing. Some of them songs was “Lead me to the Water for to be Baptized,” (Elisha Garey, Killion and Walker, 1973, p. 70; in Guenther, 2016, p. 127)
Another textual variant may have been “Marchin for de water / For to be baptized” (Carrie Hudson, in Guenther, 2016, p. 357).
This author has not located a printed version of the spiritual before its relatively recent appearance in hymnals. For example, it does not appear in any form in the seminal Slave Songs of the United States (1867), the first published postbellum collection of African American songs. However, one song in the collection, “Almost over” (no. 97), may have had a baptismal use:
1. Some seek de Lord and they don’t seek him right,
Pray all day and sleep all night;
And I'll thank God, almost over, almost over, almost over,
And I'll thank God, almost over.
2. Sister, if your heart is warm,
Snow and ice will do you no harm.
3. I done been down, and I done been tried,
I been through the water, and I been baptized.
An editorial note follows this song in the collection: “A baptismal song, as the chattering ‘almost over’ so forcibly suggests.”
Documented performances by various African American centers for the revival of spirituals, including the Fisk Jubilee Singers, do not mention “Take Me to the Water.” Neither is it included in standard collections of concertized spirituals produced by the Johnson brothers, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamund, and Harry T. Burleigh.
Worship & Song (2011) provides four stanzas with simple vocal parts. The Africana Hymnal (2015) and Zion Still Sings (2007) include six stanzas and a gospel-style keyboard accompaniment by Marilyn E. Thornton (b. 1953), who served as the music editor for Zion Still Sings and The Africana Hymnal. A graduate of Vanderbilt University (M.Div.), she also has music degrees from Howard University (B.M. in Music History) and the Peabody Conservatory of John Hopkins University (M.M. in Violin). Rev. Thornton, an author of several books, is an elder in full connection with The United Methodist Church, currently serving as pastor of Dixon Memorial United Methodist Church (Nashville) and director of the Wesley Foundation at Fisk University.
The lack of printed versions of the spiritual in no way invalidates its importance in African American religious experience. Based on the history of baptism among enslaved Africans, this spiritual, or a related version, may have been reserved only for clandestine baptismal rituals in the antebellum South known as “brush arbor” (or “bush” or “hush arbor”) meetings of what Melva Wilson Costen refers to as the “Invisible Institution” (Costen, 2007, p. 25). Furthermore, even during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South, African Americans may have continued to hold river baptisms beyond the purview of white churches and members of the larger community. Some whites would have considered larger gatherings of Blacks outside of the church building to be suspicious and, perhaps, dangerous.
J.S. Bassett, "The Religious Conditions of Slavery in North Carolina," The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina; December 17, 1899), http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/slavery/The-News-and-Observer-(Raleigh-NC)-12-17-1899-6.pdf (accessed September 1, 2021).
Melva Wilson Costen, African American Christian Worship, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007).
Katharine Gerbner, "Conversion and Race in Colonial Slavery," The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere (June 26, 2018), https://tif.ssrc.org/2018/06/26/conversion-and-race-in-colonial-slavery/ (accessed August 31, 2021).
Eileen Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals (St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2016).
Thomas Lewis Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave, or the Story of My Life in Three Continents (Bournemouth, England: W. Mate & Sons, 1909).
Ronald Killion and Charles Walker, eds. Slavery Time When I Was Chillun Down on Master’s Plantation (Savanah, Georgia: The Beehive Press, 1973).
Philip Neri, “Baptism and Manumission of Negro Slaves in the Early Colonial Period,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 51, nos. 3/4 (September and December 1940): 220–232, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44209369 (accessed August 31, 2021).
Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890–1950 (Atlanta, Georgia: Dust to Digital, 2009):
- Rev J.M. Gates (September 1926, New York City:) (https://dusttodigital.bandcamp.com/track/baptize-me)
- Rev. E.D. Campbell (Memphis, TN Feb 26, 1927): (https://dusttodigital.bandcamp.com/track/take-me-to-the-water)
Camille Talkeu Tounouga, “The Symbolic Function of Water in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Cultural Approach,” tr. Odile Brock, Leonardo: The MIT Press 36, no. 4 (August 2003), p. 283. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/45618 (accessed August 31, 2021).
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.