Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Wade in the Water"

History of Hymns: "Wade in the Water"

By C. Michael Hawn

C. Michael Hawn

“Wade in the Water,”
African American Spiritual;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2107

Wade in the water, wade in the water, children,
wade in the water, God’s a gonna trouble the water.

1. See that host all dressed in white,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.
The leader looks like the Israelite,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.

2. See that band all dressed in red,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.
Looks like the band that Moses led,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.

According to African American hymnologist Melva Wilson Costen, scholars have catalogued more than six thousand spirituals. Like the later gospel songs, many spirituals have similar stanzas, musical phrases, melodic fragments, and harmonies, but each is a discrete musical entity with its own meaning. Dr. Costen posits, “African American Spirituals are considered the first distinctive music genre of African people in the American diaspora. These unique folk songs, born out of the substance and experience of an oppressive sociological environment combined with the natural musical gifts of African peoples in the American diaspora, subsequently became the foundation of ALL African American musical forms” (Melva Costen, “African American Spirituals,” Journal of Religious and Theological Information, Volume 4, Issue 3).

Indeed, spirituals and other forms that grew out of this genre such as blues, jazz, and hip-hop are considered by many scholars to be the most representative forms of American music throughout the world.

Water is an important image in the African American spiritual. “Deep river, my home is over Jordan” (Songs of Zion, 115) is a song that finds hope on the other side of the river. “Go Down, Moses” (Songs of Zion, 112) is a spiritual of deliverance in which Pharaoh’s armies were drowned in the sea. Water was a primary aspect of slave experience. Africans began their captivity—the “middle passage”—by traveling across the ocean to a new land in slave ships. The Ohio River was the dividing line between slavery and freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Biblical narratives and allusions are embedded in the spirituals. African American scholar Yolanda Y. Smith describes the role of the Bible in the African American slave experience:

“Embodied in spirituals, the Bible can serve as a source of education that embraces, for instance, the value of the oral tradition . . . Enslaved Africans, prohibited from learning to read and write, passed on valuable life lessons from the Scriptures and other wisdom sources through the spirituals. Slaves learned these lessons in the fields as they labored from sunup to sundown, in the privacy of their living quarters, and in clandestine worship services.1 Indeed, for the masses of slaves who could not read, the ‘spirituals were their channel to the word of God.’2 The Bible in song highlighted the basic tenets of the Christian faith—love, hope, mercy, grace, justice, judgment, death, eternal life. (Yolanda Y. Smith, “The Bible in Song: Reclaiming African American Spirituals” in Yale University Reflections)

With that background, let us explore the use of Scripture in this spiritual and some theological themes these passages might represent. The refrain of “Wade in the Water” is based upon the narrative of John 5:2-9. It is the story of the pool by the Sheep Gate—Bethzatha in Hebrew. A portion of this passage follows: “Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had ”(John 5:2-4, KJV) Perhaps, among other possibilities, this is a reference of healing in body and soul.

Though that passage defines the context of the refrain, the stanzas refer to other biblical passages where water plays a significant role. The first two stanzas, cited above, reference the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-31). This is a classic passage of deliverance. The third stanza mentions, “The Holy Ghost a coming on me.” While the biblical basis is less clear in this case, it is conceivable that the reference is to Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (KJV). This passage might signify empowerment and freedom.

The final stanza refers to another body of water, the Jordan River:

If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.
Just follow me down to Jordan’s stream,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.

The Jordan River is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament. Choosing one passage can neither fully underscore the significance of the Jordan in the biblical narrative nor its importance as a landmark of deliverance and hope in the African American experience. Numbers 32:29 provides one example: “And Moses said unto them, If the children of Gad and the children of Reuben will pass with you over Jordan, every man armed to battle, before the Lord, and the land shall be subdued before you; then ye shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession” (KJV).

Returning to the refrain, we turn to Howard Thurman (1899-1981), who served as Dean of the Chapel at Howard University, to help us set the stage for understanding this spiritual in his book The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death:

“Always, patient friends placed him in the same spot beside the pool. For years longer than a fading memory could hold in focus, he had waited—this man with an incurable disease. His hope rose and fell like the ebb and flow of the ocean tide. He believed the legend, for he had seen it work its perfect work in the lives of many who had once been ill, but now were well. If somehow he could manage to be let down into the waters while they were being troubled, then he would be healed.”

Thurman then offered this interpretation of the text:

“For [the slaves] the ‘troubled waters’ meant the ups and downs, the vicissitudes of life. Within the context of the ‘troubled’ waters of life there are healing waters, because God is in the midst of the turmoil.”

Though African American spirituals were born in the pain, oppression, and struggle of a particular people, they have become songs for all people. Thurman’s conclusion is a message for all of us:

“Do not shrink from moving confidently out into the choppy seas. Wade in the water, because God is troubling the water.”

1Yolanda Y. Smith quoting Ella Mitchell, “Oral Tradition: Legacy of Faith for the Black Church,” Religious Education 81, no. 1 (winter 1986): 99–104; Thomas L. Webber, Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831–1865 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 191–205, 207–8.

2Yolanda Y. Smith quoting Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

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