A balm is something that heals, soothes, or comforts. My mother used to place a homemade medicine plaster on my chest overnight when I was sick with the flu. She called it a balm, and I always felt better in the morning. Perhaps it was similar for the African American songwriter who first sang "There is a balm in Gilead," suffering through the miseries and indignities of slavery.
Inspiration for the words (United Methodist Hymnal no. 375) came from Jeremiah 8:22, "Is there no balm in Gilead*? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" and Jeremiah 46:11: "Go up to Gilead, and take balm, O virgin daughter Egypt! In vain you have used many medicines; there is no healing for you." The Spiritual responds to the question of 8:22 with an affirmation, "Yes, there IS a balm in Gilead! We will find comfort and healing from the injustice and suffering of this life in Jesus. This suffering and pain will give way to liberation."
The origin of the BALM IN GILEAD tune is lost to history. We don't even know if this is the original tune that accompanied these words. This hymn appeared in the 1889 Methodist Hymnal with a different tune, but the tune in our present hymnal, as with most other publications, is the traditional tune.
This spiritual is among the best known and loved among American congregations. It appears in most of our hymnals and songbooks, including The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), Mil Voces Para Celebrar (Spanish United Methodist Hymnal), Come, Let Us Worship (Korean-English Bilingual United Methodist Hymnal), Songs of Zion, and Zion Still Sings in a variety of settings. It is often included in concert and recital programs and in numerous choral arrangements and recordings. Here are three very different versions:
- For a choral setting, you might have in a typical mainline church on Sunday morning, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJXsG_kXzRY
- For an updated African American gospel setting, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQPEm1gkgNI&NR=1
- For a simple, worshipful setting for private or congregational meditation, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=BN9JALQRMb0&feature=related
In whatever setting or arrangement, and whether it is sung by soloist, choir, or congregation, the message of "There Is a Balm in Gilead" is that regardless of circumstances, in Jesus there is a promise of healing, hope, and liberation.
*Gilead is a mountainous region east of the Jordan River in modern Jordan.