Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Were You There"

History of Hymns: "Were You There"

By David Bjorlin


“Were You There”

African-American Spiritual;
United Methodist Hymnal, No. 288

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Included in almost every major hymnal of the last thirty years, “Were You There” is one of the most prominent and popular of the African-American spirituals. Yet, like most spirituals, the origins of “Were You There” are impossible to trace, borne not from the pen of an individual but out of the communal slave experience. As Paul Westermeyer notes in the companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, its first published iteration came in 1899 in William E. Barton’s Old Plantation Songs in the section “Recent Negro Melodies.” There, it included four stanzas: 1) Were you there when they crucified my Lord?; 2) …when they nailed him to the cross?; 3) …when they pierced him in the side?; 4) …when the sun refused to shine. The United Methodist Hymnal, along with many other songbooks, includes a fifth: “…when they laid him in the tomb.”

The series of questions that forms the basis of the song is obviously not meant to be taken literally; none of us were physically present at the passion of Christ. Rather, the questions are meant to function as a form of anamnesis. From the Greek, anamnesis literally means to remember. Yet, it is much more than simple mental recall of an event. It calls the community to re-member the past to the present, to bring these historic events to bear on the now and make them part of our story. When Moses tells the second generation of Hebrew people about to enter the promised land, “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today,” it is anamnesis; when Jews continue to proclaim at the Passover Seder, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God took us out,” it is anamnesis; and when the Christian community celebrates the Lord’s Supper “in remembrance” (and the Greek word here is anamnesis!) of Christ, it is anamnesis. “Were You There” is then an anamnetic song that is meant to bring the past events of Christ’s suffering and death into the present and transform us in its light.

Yet, if our anamnetic exercise only includes Christ’s passion, it is incomplete. The song also calls us to re-member the African-American slave experience out of which the song arose. As James Cone notes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the cross is central to the African-American experience: “During my childhood, I heard a lot about the cross at Macedonia A.M.E. Church, where faith in Jesus was defined and celebrated. We sang about ‘Calvary,’ and asked, ‘Were you there?’, ‘down at the cross,’ ‘when they crucified my Lord.’ ‘Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.’…There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built.”

For African Americans, this re-membering of the cross allowed them to claim the Christ who knew their suffering and stood in solidarity with their oppression. Again, Cone notes, “In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.” The spiritual thus re-membered the suffering of Christ to the suffering of the African-American community, with its inherent promise of God’s presence and resurrection power.

Yet, like any hymn or song that has achieved such prominence, the message of “Were You There” quickly expanded beyond its initial context. African American pastor, author, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman gives one poignant example in his memoir, With Head and Heart. On a trip to India, he and his wife, Sue, had the honor of meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. After a wonderful conversation, the talk took a surprising turn as the Thurmans prepared to leave. Thurman notes, “But before we left, he asked, ‘Will you do me a favor? Will you sing one of your songs for me? Will you sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”’ He continued, ‘I feel that this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.’”

While the story could be told simply to marvel at the image of Howard and Sue Thurman singing “Were You There?” with Gandhi in his ashram tent, it also shows the power and affect of the spiritual. And while the influence of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement has been well documented, perhaps we see here how the influence was reciprocal, as this song borne from the crucible of suffering spoke to any and all around the world who faced oppressions of every kind.

As we continue our journey through Lent and prepare for a Good Friday where many of our congregations will no doubt sing “Were You There,” anamnesis calls us not only to remember Christ’s death but also the stories of all those who suffer at the hand of oppression. As mass incarceration, discriminatory drug policies, and police brutality continue to disproportionately target African Americans and other people of color, the song continues to give comfort to the oppressed that they serve a suffering Savior especially present in their suffering. Yet, it also asks those of us in privileged positions of comfort not only if we “were there” at the cross of Christ, but if we are there in the suffering of the oppressed where Christ’s cross still stands.

About this month’s guest writer:

David Bjorlin, a minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church, is a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies at the Boston University School of Theology. He teaches worship courses at North Park Theological Seminary and is a pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago. He recently co-authored Incorporating Children in Worship: Mark of the Kingdom with Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom.

This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.

Discipleship Ministries
The Hymn Society

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