Article

History of Hymns: “Beams of Heaven as I Go”

by Cynthia Wilson

The Music Canon of the Africana Church Liturgy

“Beams of Heaven as I Go” (Someday), by Charles Albert Tindley;

Songs of Zion, No. 207; Zion Still Sings, No. 139; The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 524

Biblical Themes: 2 Corinthians 5:1-10

Liturgical Topics: Faith, Hope, Celebration of Life/Death        

 

Beams of heaven as I go, through this wilderness below,

Guide my feet in peaceful ways, turn my midnights into days;

When in the darkness I would grope, faith always sees a star of hope,

And soon from all life’s grief and danger, I shall be free someday.

 

Chorus:

I do not know how long ‘twill be, nor what the future holds for me,

But this I know, if Jesus leads me, I shall get home someday.

 

In the Africana worship tradition, texts of ritual song have typically given meaning to the nature of the world: in marriage, birth, coming of age, death, sickness, floods, or drought. In the same ways that Africans hallowed human life and the life beyond, they transplanted a profound faith to North American soil that yielded a personal, yet communal, ritual tradition. All life is held sacred. Hence, all life is worship. This proposition is supported by the Latin phrases, lex orandi (pattern of prayer), lex credendi (pattern of belief). To understand this axiom in more contemporary terms, the translation of the Latin might be rephrased, the way we pray reflects what we believe what we believe reflects how we live (lex vivendi), and how we live demonstrates how we love (lex amandi) God, our neighbors, and ourselves” (Saliers, 1994, 187). Ultimately, there can be no separation between life and liturgy. E. Franklin Frazier maintains,

Black people have always taken their religion seriously. For them, religion is personal—almost tangible; it is never an abstraction disassociated with the here-and-now, the experiences that shaped the life situations of real people who are suffering and dying and struggling against forces they don’t understand. Christians in the Black community have never learned to rationalize God; rather they personalize [God] and include [God] in their life situations (Frazier cited in C. Eric Lincoln, 1974, 149).

To fully understand the rule of life, love, and faith in the Africana tradition, we must first understand how the Jesus of history was accepted as co-sufferer and friend. This Jesus clearly recognized the plight of the oppressed. This Jesus died on a tree, a familiar scenario in African American history. The presence and power of ancestral spirits allows for a full embrace of the doctrine of reincarnation. While, in Western thought, it is appointed for every person to be born once and to die once, in Africana religious belief systems, the spirit of a person is reborn. Eugene Genovese, author of Roll, Jordan, Roll, unveils a theology that affirms life and death on earth, a sense of “belongingness” to the earth’s realm (Genovese, 1976, 212). Thus, song texts and phrases such as “going on to heaven,” “moving on over to the other side,” “going home,” or other requests for deliverance from the world, are all examples of the “dual meanings” motif in Africana culture. This is clearly seen in the hymn text, “Beams of Heaven” (“Someday”):

 

Beams of heaven as I go, through this wilderness below,

Guide my feet in peaceful ways, turn my midnights into days;

When in the darkness I would grope, faith always sees a star of hope,

And soon from all life’s grief and danger, I shall be free someday.

 

I do not know how long ‘twill be, nor what the future holds for me,

But this I know, if Jesus leads me, I shall get home someday.

 

All too often, the message and meanings of this text are misconstrued and misinterpreted by outsiders as a death wish. Quite the contrary—Africana peoples are preoccupied with the theology of deliverance and survival.

 

Harder yet may be the fight; right may often yield to might;

Wickedness a while may reign; satan's cause may seem to gain.

There is a God that rules above with hand of power and heart of love;

If I’m right, he'll [God will} fight my battle, I shall have peace someday.

 

Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), poet, pastor, and “progenitor of Black gospel hymnody,” Tindley holds the distinction of articulating the Black American narrative through hymnody (title of paper written and read by Horace Clarence Boyer at The Colloquium on Charles Tindley, 7-9 May 1982, at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Later published as: Horace Clarence Boyer, The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 11, Autumn, 1983, 103-132, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1214908). Tindley’s command of languages, including Greek and Hebrew, enabled him to fluently convey the theology of descendants of Africa. His ability to tell the Africana story in song does not simply rehearse the biblical story. In this hymn, the concept of heaven points metaphorically toward the eschaton, while simultaneously acting as a code that announces an elaborate plan of departure from bondage to a place of freedom and liberation on earth.

 

Burdens now may crush me down, disappointments all around;

troubles speak in mournful sigh, sorrow through a tear-stained eye.

There is a world where pleasure reigns, no mourning soul shall roam its plains,

And to that land of peace and glory I want to go someday.

 

The combination of Tindley’s homiletical gift along with his ability to compose beautiful strophic hymns provided momentum for Tindley’s pastoral success at what we now know as Tindley Temple in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. History reports that vital congregational song was the primary attraction for the more than 12,000 weekly attendees.

 

Performance Options:

The verses of this hymn are typically sung unmetered by a soloist. However, congregations readily join in singing the chorus. It is often heard in funeral or memorial services.  

 

For Further Reading:

Boyer, Horace Clarence. “Charles Albert Tindley: Progenitor of Black-American Gospel Music.” The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 11, No. 2, Autumn 1983, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1214908.

Frazier, E. Franklin, cited in C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Church Since Frazier. New York: Schocken, 1974.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Saliers, Don E. Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

 

 

This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.  For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.

Discipleship Ministries
The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts

 


 

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia A. Wilson is an ordained Deacon and member of the Great Plains Annual Conference. Presently, Dr. Wilson serves as Associate General Secretary for Leadership Ministries at Discipleship Ministries.

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The United Methodist Hymnal, Zion Still Sings!