History of Hymns: 'This Little Light of Mine'
By Fernando Berwig Silva and Mykayla Turner, Guest Contributors
“This Little Light of Mine”
African American Spiritual
Africana Hymnal, 4150 (LIGHT OF MINE)
Songs of Zion, 132 (LATTIMER)
The United Methodist Hymnal, 585 (LATTIMER)
It is difficult to trace the development of “This Little Light of Mine.” It does not appear in any of the standard collections of spirituals published in the wake of the Civil War or early twentieth-century publications. Some hymnologists attribute this short song to Harry Dixon Loes (1892–1965), a gospel song composer and teacher at Moody Bible Institute, though it is as likely that he was the arranger rather than the composer (Deggans 2018). A Library of Congress recording made by folk song collectors John and Ruby Lomax near Huntsville, Texas, in 1939 indicates that variants of the song were probably widely known (see https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000628/).
“This Little Light” functioned as a children’s song for mid-twentieth-century families, as evidenced by its publication in Action Songs for Boys and Girls (1944) and other children’s hymnals, but it was transformed during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (Smith and Peterson 1944; Ruehl, n.d.). Now beloved in both white and Black communities, the song is categorized as a Black spiritual, by editors of recent hymnals, including One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: An African American Ecumenical Hymnal (2018) and Voices Together (2020) and (Abbington 2018; Kauffman 2020).
“This Little Light of Mine” tends to float freely between sacred and secular contexts, further obscuring this song’s background from our view. Scholars call attention to how Black spirituals flourished after enslaved people were converted (or perhaps coerced) to adopt the Christian faith that pervaded the North American landscape, resulting in the development of their own liturgical practices and — most significantly — preaching styles (Lincoln and Mamiya 2001, p. 40). To the extent that preachers were skilled orators, they were also song leaders who used call-and-response techniques to engage congregants. In several cases, the call and response would develop into a musical artifact that took on a life of its own (p. 41). Spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine” — a song well-suited to call and response by its short, repeated phrases — emerged within this context.
Whether or not it originated within the Black church, “This Little Light” became localized in other communities by the mid-twentieth century. Many of us likely recall learning the song in a Sunday School setting, singing stanzas beginning with “Hide it under a bushel? No!” or “Won’t let Satan blow it out.” To solicit anything other than anecdotal evidence for these stanzas is somewhat futile. Many spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine” became popular as a result of oral transmission, making textual variants normative rather than exceptional. Even in recently published hymnals, the song appears with upward of six different stanzas in various combinations, including such phrases as “Ev’rywhere I go,” “All through the night,” “All in my home” and “Jesus gave it to me.” “Hide it under a bushel? No!” and “Won’t let Satan blow it out” are not included in most denominational hymnals. These examples, though, are featured in several online resources for children, suggesting that the song has not lost its appeal in Sunday school classrooms (see https://missionbibleclass.org/songs/english-songs/new-testament-songs/this-little-light-of-mine/).
The song’s title, “This Little Light of Mine,” alludes to Matthew 5:14-16 and its call to keep faith even if one feels “surrounded by shadows” (McClain 1990, p. 109). “Hide it under a bushel? No!” aligns well with the words of Jesus in Luke 11:33: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light” (NRSV). From a Scriptural perspective, “This Little Light of Mine” serves well as a closing hymn by encouraging the congregation to act as witnesses of God’s light amid the world’s turmoil (McClain 1990, p. 110). Arthur C. Jones describes the effect of singing the song in a Black context using similar terms: “Singers of this song communicated their understanding that although each person is but a small part of the kingdom, the collective shining of many ‘little’ lights provides a powerful resource in the ongoing struggle for personal and social transformation” (Jones, 1993, p. 86).
'This Little Light' in the Civil Rights Era
Despite their religious roots, spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine” acquired political associations during the Civil Rights Movement. Much of this development emerged from the context of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Founded by Myles Horton, the school was fully integrated and thus witnessed the maturation of several Black Civil Rights activists, including Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–77) (“Highlander Folk School,” n.d.). Here, students “learned to adapt songs to their struggle” (Donaldson 2021, p. 690). Hamer worked alongside Horton’s wife, Zilphia (1910–56), to add a new stanza to “This Little Light of Mine” that opposed the “darkness” of racism by claiming, “I’ve got the light of freedom!” (Donaldson 2021, p. 690; Sekou 2018). Guy Carawan (1927–2015) later followed the efforts of these women to adapt the song’s lyrics for contemporary relevance (Hawn, 2023). It is worth noting, however, that recent articles problematize the respective positive and negative associations with “light” and “dark” imagery in songs like “This Little Light of Mine” (Miller 2022; Burton-Edwards et al., 2016).
If it is true that “This Little Light of Mine” originated in a Black context, then Hamer’s use of the song to mobilize Black activists in later decades is a powerful instance of one individual reclaiming her right to “the light of freedom” on the broader community’s behalf. Following this initial adaptation of “This Little Light,” the song likely underwent further changes as it became one of several “freedom songs” sustaining the efforts of young activists associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Highlander Folk School,” n.d.). Hamer herself supported this organization, even joining several members on a bus ride to and from Rueville to Indianola, Mississippi to demand voter registration privileges (Darden 2016, p. 113). While riding back to Mississippi, the group encountered a patrol officer who arrested two of them. Hamer, however, persisted in leading songs like “This Little Light of Mine” throughout the ordeal. Being forced to leave multiple towns due to the civil unrest she caused in each of them, Hamer should be recognized as one of several circulators of this song (p. 113).
Musical Variants of 'This Little Light'
Since spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine” belong to an oral song tradition that flourished across multiple contexts and social boundaries, they are conducive to improvisation and elaboration beyond the scope of musical notation (Lincoln and Mamiya 2001, 42). Consequently, “This Little Light of Mine” varies in text and tune. Each appearance in a hymnal is linked to a different set of performance practices arising from a specific context. Keeping in mind that “This Little Light” has been published in denominational hymnals ranging from Catholic to Quaker traditions, in addition to its translation into Korean and Spanish, three specific tunes appear most often (Watson and Hawn, n.d.). The first tune, LATTIMER, appears in Songs of Zion (1981), The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), The New Century Hymnal (1995), and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: An African American Ecumenical Hymnal (2018). According to Carlton R. Young, William Farley Smith named the tune after Louis Lattimer, a Black inventor. The use of Lattimer’s name was symbolic since he and Thomas Edison worked together on developing the incandescent light bulb (Young 1993, p. 658). The tune usually occurs in both C major and E-flat major. Duple and quadruple meters are characteristic of the spiritual genre in contrast to triple or compound meters (Work 2001, p. 20).
LIGHT OF MINE is another popular tune. Usually published in G major, it appears in This Far by Faith (1999) and the African American Heritage Hymnal (2001). Both publications feature harmonic progressions closely linked to the Black music tradition. These progressions are achieved by chromatic voices and the addition of seventh and ninth intervals — sharpened and natura l— to the dominant and subdominant chords in the first repetition of the text in each stanza (Work 2001, pp. 19–20). Although this tune is less syncopated than other variants, it appears in these hymnals alongside vocables, call and response directives, and other referrals to “the [Black] phenomenon of frequent variation of the phrase and improvisation on it” (Work, p. 20).
THIS JOY appears in The New Century Hymnal (1995). Compared to LATTIMER and LIGHT OF MINE, this tune is more recent. It is also somewhat modified. Most significantly, in The New Century Hymnal, “This Little Light of Mine” is merged with another spiritual, “This Joy I Have.” The same tune appears in Voices Together (2020), but it is slightly more stepwise and thus distinguished as THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE. The Voices Together score is also idiomatic for oral-based improvisation; instead of a complete harmonization for four voices, it only includes a melody line and chord symbols. This minimalist scoring encourages creativity, improvisation and freedom to develop localized practices. Although the earliest spirituals were sung a cappella and perhaps in unison, the absence of notated harmonies in Voices Together encourages musicians to explore different varieties of instrumentation (Work 2001, p. 18). The simple melody line combined with chord symbols might suggest the use of guitar and voices singing in unison, but numerous other possibilities exist.
In contrast, most other hymnals notate “This Little Light of Mine” in SATB harmonies that somewhat exclusively lend themselves to singing in four parts with keyboard accompaniment. In either case, however, musical notation can neither capture nor prescribe what takes place in churches across North America. Although Carol A. Doran explains that to engrave songs descended from oral traditions — such as Black spirituals — is to “stabilize and establish more authority and authenticity for those who read the musical score,” such authority does not preclude ongoing development and variation (Doran, n.d.).
With the advent of rock ‘n’ roll music and the Civil Rights movement, “This Little Light of Mine” quickly infiltrated popular American culture. A recording by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73) showcases how congregational practices were adapted for broader social appeal through the efforts of Black musicians (“This Little Light,” 2016). Tharpe gained popularity in the first half of the twentieth century by being one of the first musicians to perform gospel songs in the emerging rhythm, blues and rock genres (Wald 2007, 84). In the recording, Tharpe combines call and response, improvised stanzas and ornamented vocal lines — all of which derive from Black spirituals — with her incredible ability as a guitarist (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qj3fpujjFis).
Tharpe’s music changed American popular music as a whole. Her influence is evident in the works of famous non-Black musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, who also covered “This Little Light of Mine” (“Bruce Springsteen,” 2019). Springsteen captured the public’s attention by writing songs with evident influence from the Black tradition. However, he sang to the so-called “blue-collar” members of the white working class (Basham 2012, 11). Springsteen presents an excellent example of how Black discourses were translated into — or co-opted by—other contexts (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0qAYq1GVec). Based on this evidence, even if we were to confirm that Loes composed “This Little Light of Mine,” we would be no less obligated to acknowledge the Black church’s contribution to this song’s success, both as a spiritual and as an instrument of social reform.
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Fernando Berwig Silva is a Brazilian composer and Master of Sacred Music graduate from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. A drummer since his teenage years, Berwig Silva holds a bachelor’s degree in Composition and Conducting from Paraná State University in Brazil. He has experience leading music in churches from diverse cultural backgrounds. He served three years as Coordinator of Arts Ministries at a Lutheran church in Brazil and has premiered compositions at the intersection of church and concert music in Europe, the U.., and Brazil.
Mykayla Turner is a Master of Sacred Music graduate from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. Under the direction of Dr. Marcell Silva Steuernagel, her thesis research focuses on the role of music in rural congregations. Mykayla is an active church musician and liturgist in Mennonite, Methodist and ecumenical contexts.