History of Hymns: “Wait Right Here Until He Comes”

by Rev. Marilyn E. Thornton

South Carolina lowcountry


"Wait Right Here Until He Comes" (Traditional)
The Africana Hymnal, No. 4032

In 2008, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church authorized a collaborative effort between The United Methodist Publishing House and the General Board of Discipleship, now Discipleship Ministries, to conduct a study to determine whether the was a need for an official hymnal for its African American churches. For the 2012 General Conference, the Africana Hymnal Study Committee made a recommendation that the primary delivery system of this needed resource should be electronic: downloadable audio and print files and a DVD. The DVD would be critical because it would provide an oral narrative and visual record of songs and practices of African American United Methodists that might otherwise be lost to the future.

Our study revealed that there were songs and practices in black Methodist strongholds of the low country of South Carolina and Maryland Eastern Shore that were dying out as populations continued to move inland. One song discovery was “Wait Right Here,” as sung by Margaret Rivers Grant, a prayer band leader on Johns Island, SC. Her singing opens and closes Reflect, Reclaim, Rejoice: Preserving the Gift of Black Sacred Music, the DVD component of the Africana Hymnal Project.

“Wait Right Here” is a praise song that has been categorized in the Advent/Christmas (Second Coming of Christ) section of the hymnal. 

I’m gonna wait right here until he comes. (2x)
I’ll be standing at the station, ticket in my hand.
I’m gonna wait right here until he comes.

Well, we can’t do nothing until he comes. (2x)
I’ll be standing at the station, ticket in my hand.
I’m gonna wait right here until he comes.

With a bobbing head, hand and foot pats, Ms. Grant proclaims her determination to be found in the right place when Jesus comes, which indeed she is doing as one who, in her nineties at the time of the recording, was still carrying out the weekly responsibilities of convening a prayer band.

In England, bands were part of Methodist practice. John Wesley organized seekers and the newly convinced into societies, classes, and bands of accountability, similar to but not exactly like what current United Methodist practice calls covenant groups. These homogeneous groups met at least once weekly with a class leader for encouragement along the Christian journey. Those following Methodist practices continued them when they immigrated to the colonies. In 1763, Robert Strawbridge established a Methodist class in Maryland, and in 1766, Irish class leader, Phillip Embury and his cousin, Barbara Heck, formed a band, which led to the establishment of the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City.

While household slaves may have participated as Methodism expanded, African American praying and singing bands originated out of the context of the Black Experience. Prayer bands were part of the resistance to “an imposed Western Christianity” wherein prayers and songs were “offered to God in deep woods and brush arbors, [connecting] them to one another, to their culture, and to God.”  It is significant that the practice continues in the region inclusive of South Carolina’s low country and the Georgia Sea Islands. Here, illegal slave ships continued to bring their human cargo long after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished (1808), unwittingly refreshing African speech patterns and practices, creating a distinct Gullah/Geechee culture. 

St. Simon’s Island in Georgia was the site of one these landings. This small island had the distinction of not only having been visited by John Wesley, it also had more than twenty plantations. A ship bearing members of the Ibo tribe (Nigeria) landed on the island at Dunbar’s Creek. According to the plantation records, Ibos had the reputation of being melancholy with a tendency to throw themselves off of ships. These captives were no exception. When they disembarked the ship in their chains and saw the African faces of the slaves picking cotton, they put their heads and hearts together, and turned back in the direction from which they had come. Praying and singing, they began to walk back to Africa. The slaves on the island watched until they disappeared into the water. They could not understand the verbal language but they understood the body language. In their own singing/praying bands they remembered the melody and put these words to it:

O Freedom, O Freedom, O Freedom over me!
And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free. 

Upon liberation, African Americans built praise houses specifically for the use of the singing and praying bands. These praise houses allowed them to continue singing their own songs in their own way, away from the disapproving eyes of some and the inquiring gaze of others. As early as 1867, white historians made note of the praise house, where a band of the best singers and shouters led the religious service. In 1878, a displeased Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne (A.M.E.) clearly saw the connection of the ring shout to African culture and wanted it to stop, believing it to be “heathenish.” Nevertheless, even today, the ring shout rhythm and the praying band continue as worship practices among black people in some Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches.

The lyrics to “Wait Right Here” may also reveal another reality of black people in America. The reference to a ticket may connect to the fact that from Frederick Douglass, who bought train and ferry tickets in his 1838 quest to be free, to the years of the Great Migration (1900-1960), black people purchased tickets and waited at stations for whatever mode of transportation could move them to a better place, away from racial repression. The expectant attitude of waiting with one’s ticket in one’s hand indicates a readiness, a confidence that when the king comes back in all his glory, the ticket-holder will have done the things necessary to be counted with the sheep (Matthew 25). It indicates a faith that indeed “he’s coming back again-- for me!” And so, we’d better wait right here -- in a space of Christian commitment--until he comes.

References:

  • Reflect, Reclaim, Rejoice: Preserving the Gift of Black Sacred Music DVD (Discipleship Ministries, 2015)
  • Reflect, Reclaim, Rejoice: Preserving the Gift of Black Sacred Music, a study guide, (Discipleship Ministries: Nashville, 2015, “Prayer Bands and the Ring Shout” by Safiyah Fosua, page 14)
  • he Africana Hymnal: Black Sacred Music, 155 Songs (Abingdon Press, 2015, #4032, USB Flash Drive)
  • Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: NY, 1998, page 179.
  • Wesley and the People Called Methodists, Richard Heitzenrater, Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995, pages 104-105and 243-244.
  • Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, Albert Raboteau, Oxford University Press: NY, 1980, pages 68-71.

About this month’s writer:

Marilyn E. Thornton (B. Music History (African American Religious Music), Howard; M. Violin, Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University; M.Div. Vanderbilt) is an elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church. She is the lead editor of African American Resources at The United Methodist Publishing House, music editor for Zion Still Sings and the Africana Hymnal, and a contributing writer for the Africana Worship Book Series.

Categories: History of Hymns, Music Resources, Africana Hymnal Project

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