From “Were You There?” to Where We Are

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 30, 1997

One of the important literary events of the last few months was the publication of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (W. W. Norton, New York, 1997). The massive anthology is edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Humanities at Harvard University. It brings together in one volume the contribution of two centuries of African American letters.

Since African American literature is rooted in oral tradition, the anthology appropriately begins with more than a dozen spirituals. The first one takes for its theme the events of Easter Week, which is why we will sing it together this evening. It is hymn #260 in the Trinity Hymnal:

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?

The spiritual proceeds through the sufferings, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they pierced him in the side? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” Finally, triumphantly, “Were you there when he rose up from the dead?”

This simple spiritual rehearses the basic facts of the gospel as we find them recorded in Scripture. It takes the testimony Paul gave the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:2-4) and sets it to music:

By this gospel you are saved… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

But the spiritual does more than state the simple facts of the gospel. It does not simply ask if these things happened. It demands an answer. It compels the singer to make a faith commitment. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” In other words, have you accepted the death of Christ on the cross as the atonement for your sins? Do you believe that Jesus was raised for your justification?

The Christian answer in the affirmative. Yes, I was there when they crucified my Lord, because Jesus died for my sins. With the apostle Paul, the Christian says I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20). If you are a Christian then you have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (Col. 2:12). You were there when Jesus was crucified, nailed, pierced, buried and raised again. His death and resurrection count for you.

The simple power of this spiritual makes it a wonderful place to begin an anthology of African American literature. One is struck by the distinctively Christian vision of the earliest African American literature.

The first African American poems published in the English language came from the pen of young Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784). When Wheatley’s poems first appeared in the 1770’s, the intelligentsia in Boston had trouble believing they had been written by “a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa.” Wheatley’s poetic style was influenced by John Milton and Alexander Pope, as well as by her studies in Latin. So a committee of some twenty judges was assembled to determine if she had actually written the poems herself. The committee included Thomas Hutchinson (then Governor of Massachusetts), the Rev. Charles Chauncy and the soon-to-be-renowned John Hancock. After the examination these men were unanimous in their judgment that Phillis was indeed the author of the poems published under her name.

One of Wheatley’s poems is called “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1773). It shows the way the first African American writers were steeped in the Christian tradition.

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train (p. 171).

Both the poet and her readers shared a Christian world view. This made it possible to communicate the biblical truth about racial reconciliation through poetry.

The strong Christian element in African American literature gradually disappeared. The history of African American letters is partly the story of a long, slow decline of the influence of Christianity on culture. African American literature has lost its distinctively Christian vision. The same thing has happened in American literature in general, which is a reminder that the experiences of black Christians and white Christians are inextricably bound together.

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ends on a gloomy note. The last writer in the collection is Essex Hemphill, who died of AIDS in 1995. One does not read Hemphill’s poetry to see the good, learn the true or embrace the beautiful. Instead, the poet revels in his homosexuality. Hemphill celebrates lewd and immoral acts, even finding salvation in them (“Everytime we kiss we confirm the new world coming,” p. 2611).

The difference between the poetry of Phillis Wheatley and the poetry of Essex Hemphill speaks volumes about what has happened in American culture during the last 200 years. Where we are is a long, long way from “Were You There?”

But the message of “Were You There?” is still true. The gospel is as true today as it was when black slaves first sang it on American plantations. And the gospel is as necessary today as it was back then, if not more so. Jesus died for our sins and he was raised for our justification. Were you there when he did it?

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