Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'I Want Jesus to Walk with Me'

History of Hymns: 'I Want Jesus to Walk with Me'

By Victoria Schwarz and Rev. Wilson Pruitt

"I Want Jesus to Walk with Me"
African American Spiritual, Adapted by William Farley Smith
The United Methodist Hymnal, 521

I want Jesus to walk with me.
I want Jesus to walk with me.
All along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
(Public Domain)

A spiritual that is frequently programmed during Lent, healing services, and contemplative services is “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” Traditionally attributed to the African American spiritual tradition, there is no record of this spiritual in early collections, which results in an undetermined first publication date and has led to some divergent scholarship on its origin.

In the Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal, a reference is made to Don Hustad’s Dictionary-Handbook to Hymns for the Living Church (1978), quoting, “I Want Jesus to walk with me” is “probably one of the ‘white spirituals’ which thrived for more than two hundred years in the rural Appalachian culture.” The entry goes on to say that, “If Hustad’s assumption is correct . . . [it] may have its roots in early nineteenth-century camp meetings that were attended and led by Native Americans, African Americans, and Euro/Anglos” (Young, 423).

Carl P. Daw’s recent scholarship for Glory to God: A Companion claims a higher probability for an African American origin by revealing the appearance of a variant form of the spiritual in Dorothy Bolton and Harry Burleigh’s Old Songs Hymnal: Words and Melodies from the State of Georgia (1929). The entry reads:

. . . among the spirituals collected by Dorothy Bolton and Harry Burleigh there is a similar text, ‘I Want Jesus to Talk with Me.’ After that line is sung twice comes ‘When I’m on my lonesome journey,’ then the first line is repeated (Bolton and Burleigh 1929, no. 84).

In that spiritual, “talk with me” remains invariable in the first, second, and fourth lines, as does the third line just quoted. Some of the varying beginnings are “When friends forsake me,” “When I am grieving,” and “When I am dying,” with the clear implication that additional conditions could be improvised, as lines are in many spirituals (Daw, 737).

Certainly, the overwhelming majority of hymnals and other sources list this spiritual as being from the African American experience, and there is scattered evidence that it was part of the early repertoire of the Fisk Jubilee Singers for their performances during the late nineteenth century – another indicator of African American origin. Calvin Earl (b. 1952), a modern preserver of African American spirituals who successfully lobbied before the United States Congress to recognize the African American spiritual as a National Treasure in 2007, relays the story of an early tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers where the singing of “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” saved them from a mob (YouTube link below). Whether this story is legend or true, a quick Google search indicates instances of this spiritual being performed by the Singers at various venues.

It is not unusual for a spiritual to have an unknown source; rather, this is the norm for this genre of music. In her book In Their Own Words, Eileen Guenther writes,

Spirituals are folk songs, the spontaneous utterances of those who originally sang them. They are the fruit of the creative capacity of an entire people rather than of individuals. They give voice to the joys, sorrows, and aspirations of that people and, in so doing, they reveal the influences of the environment from which they sprang (Guenther, 10).

James Cone, African American theologian and prolific author, writes of the nature of spirituals:

The spirituals are historical songs which speak about the rupture of black lives; they tell us about a people in the land of bondage, and what they did to hold themselves together and to fight back. We are told that the people of Israel could not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. But, for blacks, their being depended upon a song. Through songs they built new structures for existence in an alien land. The spirituals enabled blacks to retain a measure of African identity while living in the midst of American slavery, providing both the substance and the rhythm to cope with human servitude . . . The spiritual, then, is the spirit of the people struggling to be free; it is their religion, their source of strength in a time of trouble. And if one does not know what trouble is, then the spiritual cannot be understood (Cone, 30).

“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” is simultaneously several different things: it is a song of lament, a song of personal invitation, and a statement of assurance that Jesus walks alongside those who suffer. Guenther writes, “The slaves’ association with Jesus was of such a personal nature they believed Jesus accompanied them daily on their earthly journey and helped them endure its pains and sorrows” (Guenther, 102). This is expanded on by Gwendolin Warren, an African American author, who, while reflecting on this spiritual, wrote:

African-American Christians found great comfort and encouragement in believing that this life was only a journey¾a “passing through”¾to a better place . . . As they passed through the bitter trials of this earth, their desire was that they not walk alone, but that Jesus walk with them. Knowing that Jesus, who had already passed through the fiery trials and come out triumphant on the other side, was walking beside them gave them courage to go on (Warren, 60).

This spiritual is part of a group of folk songs known as “journey songs.” A companion spiritual is “Jesus walked this lonesome valley” (The Faith We Sing, 2112); similarly, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” usually designated as an Appalachian ballad, speaks of the transient nature of our lives. Walking with God is a trope used throughout the Bible to illustrate intimacy with God. Enoch walked with God in Genesis 5; in Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are exhorted to “observe the commands of God by walking in his ways.” In Micah 6:8, the great verse of justice ends with walking humbly with God. In the Gospels, Jesus walks a lot – most places, in fact. When Jesus calls people to follow him, they start walking with him. In Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, and 1 John, walking with Jesus is used as mark of intimacy and faithfulness.

In The United Methodist Hymnal (521), the first stanza repeats the line “I want Jesus to walk with me” twice. The desire is important, as well as the reality that it is Jesus who walks with us, not us with him. Stanzas two and three are filled with occasions of need and a consistent call for God’s presence in such need. “In my trials, walk with me . . . when I’m troubled, walk with me.” Jesus doesn’t need me; I need a savior— not just for those hard times, but especially for those hard times.

In seeking Jesus to walk with me, the hymn also affirms the peripatetic and pilgrim nature of this life. The troubles of this world do not define us, but we still need Jesus. This is not our final home, but we still need Jesus.

Finally, in singing this hymn congregationally, the theological power is found in the fact that not everyone will be facing a trial, but some will. And, as the body of Christ, we call on God together. The “I” is not me, but us; we are one in Christ Jesus, and we all call God near.

Sources and Further Reading

Dorothy Bolton and H. T. Burleigh, Old Songs Hymnal. Words and Melodies from the State of Georgia (New York: The Century Co., 1929).

James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991).

Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

Calvin Earl, “The Fisk Jubilee Singers Story.” YouTube video. Posted January 25, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Shwq6npD5Bk

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

Gwendolin Sims Warren, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997)

Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Victoria Schwarz is the recording secretary of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts; Director of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX; and a Master of Arts in Ministry Practice student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Rev. Wilson Pruitt is the pastor of Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Pruitt is passionate about the theological and formational aspects of hymns at the intersection of faith and practice in the liturgy of the church.

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