Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: ‘There Is a Balm in Gilead’

History of Hymns: ‘There Is a Balm in Gilead’

By C. Michael Hawn

"There is a Balm in Gilead"
African American Spiritual
Songs of Zion, 123
Zion Still Sings, 114
The United Methodist Hymnal, 375


There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.


Sometimes I feel discouraged,
and think my work’s in vain.

But then the Holy Spirit
revives my soul again.

Few chapters in the Bible may have resonated with the souls of enslaved Africans in North America as Jeremiah 8 did. Israel was in exile. The Babylonians were preparing to violate their holy places for treasure, dishonoring their dead. This is a chapter of judgment and hopelessness. The exiled Jews are forced to live in a “far country” (Jeremiah 8:19). They wondered what they had done to deserve this. It is the most desperate and despondent time in Israel’s history. Then the chapter ends with these three rhetorical questions: “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Jeremiah 8:22, KJV)

The refrain of this spiritual offers encouragement and dares to respond with hope in the face of hopelessness, showing courage in the face of despair. African American theologian Howard Thurman (1899-1981) discusses the refrain of this spiritual: “The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’ [italics in original] Here is the note of creative triumph” (Thurman, 60).

This note of “creative triumph” in the face of despair is the reason this spiritual holds a secure place in the canon of African American spirituals in hymnals today.

While the biblical context situates this text in Israel’s exile in Egypt (Jeremiah 46:11), many commentators have chosen to interpret this text from a Christological perspective. Commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714) offers this assessment in his oft-cited Exposition of the Old and New Testaments (London, 1708-1710): “The blood of Christ is balm in Gilead, his Spirit is the Physician there, all-sufficient; so that the people may be healed, but will not. Thus [they] die unpardoned and unchanged, for they will not come to Christ to be saved.” It is this Christological typology of the Old Testament text that is reflected in the stanzas of the spiritual.

John Wesley elaborates on this text in his sermon, “Causes for the Inefficacy of Christianity,” preached on this passage in Dublin on July 2, 1798:

This question, as here proposed by the Prophet, relates only to a particular people, - the children of Israel. But I would here consider it in a general sense, with relation to all mankind. I would seriously inquire, Why has Christianity done so little good in the world? Is it not the balm, the outward means, which the great Physician has given to men, to restore their spiritual health? Why then is it not restored? You say, Because of the deep and universal corruption of human nature (Wesley, n. p.).

It is interesting that the enslaved people did not speak in this spiritual of the physical abuse that they faced in their bondage, but of a spiritual illness, the “sin-sick soul.” Perhaps they heard this alliterative phrase in some of the hymns being sung at that time. While there are numerous citations of this phrase in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hymns, two of the more prominent hymnwriters – John Newton (1725-1807) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) – most likely to have been sung in the worship of their masters use it. For example, Charles Wesley wrote, “Savior of the sin-sick soul,/Give me faith to make me whole.” Hymnologist Carl Daw, Jr. points out three of John Newton’s hymns that include this phrase. He notes specifically “Here at Bethesda’s Pool, the Poor”:

Here streams of wond’rous virtue flow
To heal a sin-sick soul;
To wash the filthy white as snow,
And make the wounded whole.

Other hymns by Newton are “Physician of My Sin-sick Soul” and the frequently cited hymn in the nineteenth century, “How Lost Was My Condition” (Daw, 753-754):

How lost was my condition,
Till Jesus made me whole,
There is but one Physician
Can cure a sin-sick soul.


There’s pow’r enough in Jesus
To cure a sin-sick soul.
There’s a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole (The Revivalist, Troy, NY, 1868).

An undesignated refrain published earlier in The Chorus: or a Collection of Choruses and Hymns (7th ed., Philadelphia, 1858) is almost identical to the refrain we know. The single stanza is quite different, however:

There’s balm in Gilead;
To make the wounded whole,
There’s power enough in Jesus,
To cure the sin-sick soul.

I left my worldly honours,
I left my worldly fame,
I left my young companions,
And with them my good name.

Given the possibility of hearing this phrase and the accompanying reference to being “made whole” or making the “wounded whole,” it is not unlikely that the slaves drew inspiration from it and borrowed it for this spiritual. If this connection is valid, we should not think of “Balm in Gilead” as a spiritual derivative of classic British hymns. Many hymns allude to earlier poetic works, including the hymns of Charles Wesley. “Balm in Gilead” is its own work and, even if citing works by Newton and Wesley, has long outlasted these particular hymns in our hymnals.

“Peter” and “Paul” are mentioned by name in “There Is a Balm in Gilead” for their capabilities in preaching and prayer, respectively. Other spirituals such as “Peter, Go Ring Them Bells” indicate a special place for him in slave theology. Paul is referenced with Silas in the lesser known spiritual “Jesus Is Risen from the Dead.” Another variation of the spiritual found in American Negro Spirituals: Jack Snyder’s Collection of Favorite American Negro Spirituals (New York, 1926) does not mention Peter and refers to Paul as the preacher:

If you cannot sing like angels,
If you cannot preach like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say, “He died for all.”

The three stanzas that appear in The United Methodist Hymnal, standardized in the early twentieth century, can be traced back to the first printed version in Folk Songs of the American Negro (Nashville, 1907, p. 31), edited by Frederick J. Work (c. 1887-1942), with introduction by John W. Work, Jr. (1901-1967). Although this spiritual does not appear in the earliest collection published after the Civil War, Slave Songs of the United States (New York, 1867), the spiritual must have been in use fairly extensively throughout the period of Reconstruction. For example, Rev. F. M. Hamilton (1858-1912), a pastor in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), was a hymn writer and hymnal editor. His hymn “Let Us Look to Jesus” was published in his collection Songs of Love and Mercy (Jackson, TN, 1904), in which the fourth stanza begins with a citation from “Balm in Gilead”:

O sometimes we feel discouraged,
And we think our work in vain,
For the trials that o’ertake us,
Fill our hearts with aching pain . . .

The Fisk Jubilee Singers took concert arrangements of spirituals to the broader public with their tours beginning in later 1871 and, in doing so, rescued Fisk University (Nashville) from insolvency. This paved the way for publications of arrangements of spirituals in the first half of the twentieth century. Listen to the Fisk Jubilee Quartet (1909) sing the spiritual, featuring John Wesley Work, II (Sr.) (c. 1872-1925), a collector of spirituals during Reconstruction, as the first tenor: npr.org/2011/02/26/134028602/at-fisk-university-a-tradition-of-spirituals.

While there are a number of arrangements of “Balm in Gilead,” most influential were early concert solo and choral arrangements published in 1919 by distinguished performer, composer, and arranger Henry (Harry) Thacker (H. T.) Burleigh (1866-1949). Burleigh used a two-stanza solo version that became common. The famous American bass-baritone Paul Robeson (1896-1976) sang a two-stanza solo version that drew upon Work’s notation: youtube.com/watch?v=okl2XbTM7xM.

While a much different arrangement, this passionate setting is sung by two of the leading operatic sopranos of our time, Kathleen Battle (b. 1948) and Jessye Norman (b. 1945): youtube.com/watch?v=HI1UufOrIgg.

Perhaps the most enduring concert choral arrangement was composed by William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) in 1939 for the Tuskegee Choir Series of spirituals. Countless church and college choirs have sung this arrangement.

“There Is a Balm In Gilead” appears in various hymnals with slight melodic and rhythmic variations. The concertized versions seem to have had an effect on the notation of the spiritual in some hymnals today. The following is how the spiritual appears in Frederick J. Work’s 1907 Folk Songs of the American Negro:

Note that the word “in” (m. 1) continues on the same note as “balm.” The word “whole” (m. 3) is on two eighth notes. This is the same melody and rhythm used by H. T. Burleigh in his 1919 arrangements for solo voice and choir. The influential Gospel Pearls (1921, No. 158), published by the predominately African American National Baptist Convention (Nashville), maintains this same melody and rhythm. However, William Dawson changed the melody in those two places, the word “in” sounding on the lowered dominant note, and the word “whole” receiving two half notes. Dawson’s arrangement, published in 1939, became so well known that it influenced melodic settings of the spiritual that appeared from around the mid-twentieth century forward. Variations after the mid-twentieth century included maintaining the same note on the word “in” as Work had done, lowering the note by a half step to subtonic (seventh degree of the diatonic scale), or using the Dawson-influenced lower dominant. Though hymnal editors published in the 1980s and 1990s were influenced by Dawson’s arrangement, The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) was prohibited from using Dawson’s lower dominant because the arranger, through his publisher, had “copyrighted” that note (conversation with Carlton R. Young, January 24, 2019). Thus, The United Methodist Hymnal changed the note to the lowered seventh degree of the scale in the melody, but maintained the lowered subdominant in the alto, allowing those who sang by ear to still sing the melody the way they learned it from the Dawson version. Similarly, most hymnals used either quarter-notes (some with fermatas) or half-notes on the word “whole,” reflecting the influence of Dawson’s arrangement. Most hymnals published in the twenty-first century, however, incorporate both aspects of Dawson’s arrangement. The purpose of this discussion is to demonstrate the relationship between variant versions of folk materials based on aural/oral tradition, on the one hand, and published versions, on the other, the latter having a role in “stabilizing” the tradition.

Listen to the St. Olaf Choir, under the direction of Anton Armstrong, sing William Dawson’s version: youtube.com/watch?v=SFFmnntACpE.

Episcopal Hymnal 1982 editor Raymond Glover points out two somewhat unusual musical aspects of this spiritual: first, the melody is based on the range of the first five notes of the diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol) and not on a pentatonic scale common to many other spirituals (for example, “Steal Away to Jesus”; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”); second, the linking note (rising fourth) at the end of each stanza is rarely found, with the exception of a similar linking note (rising seventh) at the end of each stanza of the familiar “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” (Glover, v. 3B, 677).

Ultimately, a congregational song continues to be sung because it speaks to congregations today. This spiritual is often included in services of healing, although the theme does not seem to be about physical or emotional healing. Howard Thurman suggests the message for today extends beyond the individual to a hope for healing in the experience of all humanity:

Yet, in times of even temporary cessation from struggle, or in times of greatest conflict, the dream of peace continues to nourish the hope of the race. The dream persists, even though we do not know what peace on earth would be like because it has never been experienced. . . . hope is fed by a conviction deeper than the processes of thought that the destiny of [humanity] is good. It is this spirit that is captured by this spiritual. Yes, “There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” The day that this conviction leaves the spirit of [humanity, our] moment on earth is over, and the last fond hope of the race perishes from the earth forever, and a lonely God languishes while [. . . God’s] dreams go silently to dust (Thurman, 65, Italics in original).

Sources and Further Reading:

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

Raymond Glover, The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Vol. 3B (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994).

Howard Thurman, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975).

John Wesley, “Causes for the Inefficacy of Christianity,” General Board of Global Ministries, https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-116-Causes-of-the-Inefficacy-of-Christianity.

Carlton Young, Personal conversation with the author, January 24, 2019.

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 at Southern Methodist University.

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