History of Hymns: 'We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder'
By C. Michael Hawn
“We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” (“Jacob’s Ladder”)
African American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, 418
Songs of Zion, 205
The story of Jacob’s ladder is embedded in Genesis 28:10–22. Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. In Jewish tradition, his brother, Esau, had sworn to kill him for stealing his birthright, which was the promise of his inheritance. Jacob fled to the house of a relative. As he rested for the night, he dreamed of a ladder extending between earth and heaven. As angels were ascending and descending the ladder or stairway, Jacob witnessed God at the apex of the ladder repeating the promise he had made to Isaac and Abraham: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15, NIV). When Jacob awoke, he consecrated the place where God’s presence was revealed to him by taking the stone he had used for his pillow, pouring oil on it, and making a vow: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (Gen. 18:20–22, NIV).
Enslaved Africans found fertile connections between this narrative and their existential experience and spirituality. As with many spirituals, the origins of “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” are unknown. An undocumented account indicates that the spiritual dates between the wide span of 1750 to 1875 (James, 1995, p. 58). Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (1915–2002) suggests without documentation, “This is one of the old spirituals which emerged from white tradition but was early remade by Negroes” (Lomax, 1960, p. 453). He may have gleaned this from a note by the editors in Slave Songs of the United States (1867) that indicates, “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). The implication is that the editors of Slave Songs sought to avoid songs that may have had origins in the white community. Without further documentation, it is difficult to know which variations of the song they are referencing.
Black historian, pastor, and educator Miles Mark Fisher (1899–1970) linked the spiritual’s origins in the early nineteenth century to the re-patriotization of enslaved African Americans in West Africa. An unlikely alliance of mostly Quaker abolitionists and slaveholders formed the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816, the slaveholders viewing “re-patriotization” as a way to avoid rebellions by enslaved people on their plantations, even though they opposed their freedom. The ACS began sending a limited number of enslaved African Americans to Liberia in 1822. Related to these events, Fisher states that the Jacob’s ladder theme appeared in spirituals around 1824 or 1825. It gained momentum following the Civil War (Fisher, 1952, pp. 56–57).
Songs on the theme of Jacob’s ladder appear several times in Slave Songs in the United States (1867). Examples include “Wrestle on, Jacob” (No. 6), “I saw the beam in my sister’s eye” (No. 23), “Wake up, Jacob” (No. 83), and “God got plenty o’ room” (No, 128). The earliest printed sources of the spiritual as it is now known do not appear until the early twentieth century, beginning with Calhoun Plantation Songs, Second Edition (Boston, 1907), edited by Emily Hallowell, who notated the songs from the Black boarding students at the Calhoun Colored School in Calhoun, Alabama, an institution founded in 1892 and affiliated with the Tuskegee Institute. Hallowell’s version (No. 33) in F Major is similar in musical style to the arrangements in hymnals today. The text was rendered in dialect:
- We are climbing Jacob’s ladder . . . so’dier ob de cross.
- Eber’y round goes higher, higher . . . so’dier ob de cross.
- Sinner do you love my Jesus . . . so’dier ob de cross.
- If you love him why not serve him . . . so’dier ob de cross.
- Do you think I’d make a so’dier . . . so’dier ob de cross.
- Faithful prayer will make a so’dier . . . so’dier ob de cross.
Hampton Institute choral director Thomas Fenner (1829–1912), editor of Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (1909), included the song in his collection (p. 118) in E-flat Major. Rather than being notated in Common Time (4/4) as Hallowell had done, Fenner notes the musical meter in 2/2. The text is virtually identical to Hallowell’s except for one stanza and does not use dialect:
- We are climbing Jacob’s ladder . . . soldier of the cross.
- Every round goes higher and higher . . . soldier of the cross.
- Sinner, do you love my Jesus? . . . soldier of the cross.
- If you love Him, why not serve Him? . . . soldier of the cross.
- Do you think I’d make a soldier? . . . soldier of the cross.
- We are climbing Jacob’s ladder . . . soldier of the cross.
During the same year, Charles Davis Tillman (1861–1943), a gospel song publisher who often adapted songs from a variety of sources and incorporated them into what is now called southern gospel, included the song in his Tabernacle Songs (1909), followed immediately by The Revival No. 6 (Atlanta, 1910). Tillman adopted a standard gospel quartet call/response style with the lead voice beginning while the remaining three voices echoed the rhythm and words of the lead singer. He altered the single “soldier” to an army of “soldiers.” Tillman also adds the refrain “We will rise and shine and give God the glory” after each stanza, an arrangement Tillman copyrighted in 1908. Tillman’s stanzas indicate an intense evangelistic fervor:
- We are climbing Jacob’s ladder . . . soldiers of the cross.
- Each day brings me one round higher . . . soldiers of the cross.
- Jesus cleanseth all who trust him . . . soldiers of the cross.
- Don’t you wish you had this blessing . . . soldiers of the cross.
- Jesus died that you might have it . . . soldiers of the cross.
Refrain: We will rise and shine and give God the glory . . . soldiers of the cross.
With slight textual variations, these two versions—the spiritual and Tillman’s gospel song—established a counterpoint among the nearly ninety hymnals that include the song throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. Arrangements by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) and J. Rosamund Johnson (1873–1954) in 1925 and John W. Work (III) (1901–1967) in 1940 indicate or imply a slower steady tempo that would accompany the climbing of a ladder. Tillman’s arrangement reflects a livelier tempo in the spirit of a revival.
Howard University scholar John Lovell Jr. (1907–1974) notes, “The ladder was that of a new Jacob. Climbing was terribly important to the slave; he felt he had been kept down for too long” (Lovell, 1972, p. 245). Presbyterian minister and theologian Christa K. Dixon (1935–2003) notes that “where the spirituals sing of Jacob’s ladder, the angels play no role whatsoever. The spirituals stress the personal initiative, determination, and the effort of the believer: ‘I’m goin’ to climb up Jacob’s ladder,’ ‘I want to climb up Jacob’s ladder’. . . The ladder . . . represents the last obstacle to be overcome before the faithful can arrive in the heavenly home and finally relax, freed from all of their burdens” (Dixon, 1976, p. 16).
Theologian and Civil Rights leader Howard Thurman (1899–1981), commenting on this spiritual, believes it articulates a theology of hope: “There seems to be basic to human experience a kind of incurable optimism about the ultimate destiny of man . . . Sometimes blindly, sometimes with scarce hope of vindication, often with wild irrationality, the spirit of man dares to affirm ultimate hope” (Thurman, p. 84). Thurman further develops the theme of hope, concluding with an expansive understanding of the meaning of this spiritual that includes all humanity: “We are all climbing Jacob’s ladder, and every round goes higher and higher. All who recognize that this is a living part of their experience join with those early destiny-bound singers who marched through all the miseries of slavery confident that they could never be entirely earth-bound” (Thurman, 1975, p. 87).
The spiritual has been included in at least ten African American collections published since 1980. Most include four, five, or six stanzas drawing upon those published in Fenner’s 1909 collection. Almost all use the simple four-part familiar style used by Fenner. The exception is the quasi-choral arrangement by R. Nathanial Dett (1882–1943) from The Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals (Chicago, 1936) that appears in Songs of Zion (1982). Incorporating only two stanzas, the tenor part provides a counterpoint with a rising motif that contrasts with the traditional melody and rhythm carried by the women’s voices. The bass part—predominantly in whole notes—uses an augmented line contrasting with the other parts. None of the hymnals published since 1980 used the revival variant by Charles Tillman. The “rise and shine” refrain appears to be a “floating” chorus that occurs with other texts, most notably a spiritual, “Jesus carried the young lambs in his bosom.”
Other more recent hymnals that include the spiritual are Baptist Hymnal (1991), The New Century Hymnal (1995), Singing the Living Tradition (1993), and The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). The United Methodist Hymnal incorporates rhythmic variation and chromaticism by William Farley Smith (1941–1997). The New Century Hymnal (NCH) and Singing the Living Tradition (SLT) alter the text in several places, notably “soldier(s) of the cross” in the original final line of each stanza to “bearers of the cross” (NCH) and “we are climbing on” (SLT). Carlton R. Young notes that though the Hymnal Revision Committee for The United Methodist Hymnal struggled with militaristic language such as that found in “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” maintaining “soldiers” was never in question for this spiritual (Young, 1993, p. 675). Both NCH and SLT also include an additional text to the same melody, “We are dancing Sarah’s circle” (1975), a feminist-inspired text by Universalist Unitarian Carole A. Etzler (b. 1944).
The spiritual was disseminated by a wide range of singers and in various musical styles throughout the twentieth century. Black bass Paul Robeson (1898–1976) often included this song in his programs. Hear this 1958 Carnegie Hall recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BW8XiLj_2KU&t=1s. Pete Seeger (1919–2014) sang a variation of the song in 1968 during the Civil Rights protest era (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmxkSq0cc9k&t=20s). The Angelic Choir, organized by Baptist Pastor Lawrence Roberts (1936–2008), offers a stirring call/response rendition from a 1991 album (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUqjxLOjcvA). Bernice Johnson Reagon (b. 1942), founder of the vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, leads an a cappella call/response rendition featured in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War (1990) (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-qQsW6pdVM&t=20s). Bruce Springsteen sings a rock/country version that has become one of his signature songs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrOLgWhisVU&t=55s). Numerous concertized choral versions are available. A distinctive choral arrangement by Calvin Hampton (1938–1984) is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceGwfD-YlCA.
Christa K. Dixon, Negro Spirituals: From Bible to Folksong (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).
Jacqui James, Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995).
Alan Lomax, Folk Songs of North America (New York: Doubleday & Company  1975).
John Lovell Jr., Black Song: The Forge and the Flame (New York: Macmillan, 1972).
Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (American Historical Association, 1953).
Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1975).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Verses marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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.