Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace'

History of Hymns: 'We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace'

By C. Michael Hawn

1st SC Volunteers 1862 72px
First South Carolina Volunteers, 1862 photo

“We Shall Walk Though the Valley in Peace”
African American Traditional
From Voices Together (2020), 574

We shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
we shall walk through the valley in peace!
And if Jesus himself will be our leader,
we shall walk through the valley in peace.

Variations of this song run deeply in the African American tradition. Perhaps the earliest print version appears in the post-Civil War collection Slave Songs of the United States (Boston, 1867, no. 95), the first collection of American folk music. Many of the songs gathered by the originators for this source were notated from the formerly enslaved soldiers under the command of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911), a Unitarian abolitionist from Massachusetts. He commanded the first black regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteers, mainly from men who lived on the islands off the coast of South Carolina, an area claimed by the Union forces in 1861.

Being included in Slave Songs usually indicated that a song had a significant presence in the antebellum South among the enslaved people in that region. Some of the songs in Slave Songs are attributed directly to the Black soldiers under Higginson’s command. Many songs they sang were contrafacta (new or adapted words to existing melodies). This song was not listed as one of those, though the words seem to indicate this possibility:

We will march through the valley in peace,
we will march through the valley in peace.
If Jesus himself will be our leader,
we will march through the valley in peace.

We will march through the valley in peace . . .
Behold I give myself away and
we will march . . .

We will march through the valley in peace . . .
This track I’ll see and I’ll pursue;
we will march . . .

We will march through the valley in peace . . .
When I’m dead and buried in the cold, silent tomb,
I don’t want you to grieve for me.

The melodic arch of the music in Slave Songs bears significant similarity with what is sung today, though with some embellishments:

We Will Walk 72px

J.B.T. Marsh includes the song in a four-part hymn-like version in The Story of the [Fisk] Jubilee Singers with Their Songs (London, 1876, no. 74). The melody has been simplified and is more related to today’s versions. The refrain has been altered from the earlier publication to the words known today: “We shall walk through the valley in peace.” The first stanza begins, “We shall meet those Christians there (meet them there),” and is followed by “There will be no sorrow there.”

The refrain appeared in a words-only collection titled Salvation Army Songs (1911, no. 210), compiled by General William Booth (1829–1912). From there, it was included in three prominent African American compilations associated with the National Baptist Convention: National Jubilee Melodies (Nashville, 1916), Gospel Pearls (Nashville, 1921, no. 163), and Edward Boatner’s Spirituals Triumphant Old and New (Nashville, 1927, no. 55). National Jubilee Melodies incorporates an often-used familial listing in its stanzas: “We will meet our mothers there” and “We will meet our sisters there” among its four stanzas. Later versions simplify the familial attributions to “loved ones.” The version in Gospel Pearls is attributed to the “Work Brothers”—John Wesley Work (II) (1872?–1925) and Frederick Jerome Work (1878?–1942), who published New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (Nashville, 1902). The song does not appear in New Jubilee Songs, but the Work brothers contributed to the National Baptist Convention publication, Gospel Pearls, where it does appear (Gospel Pearls, Preface). It is included in the John Wesley Work (III) (1901–1967) collection American Negro Songs and Spirituals (New York, 1940, p. 108). From these collections, we arrive at a more fixed sequence of stanzas while the refrain remains unchanged:

There will be no sorrow there . . .
We will meet our loved ones there . . .
We shall meet our Savior there . . .
He will wipe away ev’ry tear . . .

The New National Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, 1977, no. 496) ascribes the music (probably meaning the arrangement) and the words to A.L. Hatter. No information is available about this person. This distinctive arrangement maintains the refrain and has two stanzas: “There will be no sorrow there” and “There will be no dying there.”

Lucie Eddie Campbell (1885–1963), long-time composer and song leader for the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., was on the editorial committee for Gospel Pearls. Her hymn, “The Lord is my Shepherd” (1919), draws heavily on the refrain of the spiritual for its refrain:

We will walk thru the valley,
We will walk in peace;
We will walk thru the valley with Jesus alone;
On his rod and his staff thru the valley of death,
We will walk thru the valley in peace.

This hymn appears in many of the same collections as the spiritual.

Though the valley was a common location/destination in folk songs, the central scriptural source for this spiritual’s text is the familiar Psalm 23:4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (KJV). The “valley” is a poignant theme in African American songs, including, “Jesus walked this lonesome valley” and “Down to the river to pray”—the original version being “Down to the valley to pray.” The valley was a place of refuge and prayer in times of deep distress. Congregational minister and Abraham Lincoln biographer William Eleazar Barton (1861–1930) described the importance of prayer in his Old Plantation Hymns (1899):

Several songs tell of going down in the valley to pray. The valley seems to the colored Christian the proper place for all prayer save that of ecstatic fervor; and that fervor voices itself in song rather than in prayer. Prayer, to the negro, was so commonly associated with the thought of trouble that often had no other outlet, that all the drapery of the valley seemed to fit its mental association (Barton, 1899, p. 4).

Though a psalm in the Old Testament, it is apparent that the Good Shepard who will guide the traveler through the valley is Jesus.

Spirituals authority Eileen Guenther includes this song in sections on the theme of “Community/Family Songs” because of the familial references cited above; it is also included in sections on “Death and Funerals.” Metaphors of crossing the valley and the river in spirituals indicated a passage to the next life. Thus, the spiritual finds a place in a third section, “Jesus as Friend/Protector” (Guenther, 2016, pp.362–365, 375). While the inhumane conditions under which this passage took place were immensely different for the enslaved African than for many today, a spiritual based on a portion of Psalm 23, usually read at funerals, has a universal reach.

The famous folk and blues singer Huddie William Ledbetter (1888–1949), known as Lead Belly, included this song as a regular part of his performance and recording repertoire. In the Leadbelly Songbook (New York, 1962), his version adapts the melody and a second stanza, “We shall meet our father over there.” It is unclear if this references God or the performer’s father, leaving various interpretations open. Folksong collectors John and Alan Lomax provide a brief introduction that Lead Belly used in his performances: “Now when you walk through the valley you’re walking through the shadow, and that’s darkness. And they have spooks around. Baboons and panthers. Elephants. But still, if the Lord’s with you, you can walk right on through the valley” (p. 59).

Several hymnals have incorporated an arrangement by New York educator and conductor William Appling (1932–2008), who was particularly devoted to American compositions. His arrangement, originally published by World Library Association in 1970, appears in the Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992) and its successor Voices Together (2020), The Covenant Hymnal (1996), and One in Faith (2015). Appling’s arrangement, now under copyright from GIA Publications, Inc., may be heard as performed by the Dale Warland Singers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxAxQR8thcA). A distinctive feature of this arrangement is the legato humming in the final stanza.

Numerous choral versions are available in print and via YouTube by noted composers, including Joseph Jennings, arranger for the male ensemble Chanticleer, and African American composers Moses Hogan, Undine S. Moore, and Marques L.A. Garrett, the latter a distinctive arrangement paired with the traditional Agnus Dei supported by a rich harmonic texture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22OE6UWO1i8).

Unlike the more assertive “We shall overcome,” “I/we shall not be moved,” and “This little light of mine,” “We shall walk through the valley in peace” is not associated with the more public face of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. However, it undoubtedly comforted many who suffered during this time, just as it comforted people in the nineteenth century.


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

William Eleazar Barton, Old Plantation Hymns: A Collection of Hitherto Unpublished Melodies of the Slave and the Freedman, with Historical and Descriptive Notes (New York: Lamson, Wolffe and Company, 1899).

Edward Boatner and Willa Townsend, Spirituals Triumphant Old and New (Nashville: National Baptist Sunday School Board, 1927).

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

J.B.T. Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1876).

Willa Townsend, Gospel Pearls (Nashville: Sunday School Publishing Board, National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., 1921).

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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