In North American white and black folk music, an English-language folk hymn. White spirituals derived variously, notably from the “lining out” of psalms, dating from at least the mid-17th century. Where congregations could not read, a leader intoned the psalm one line at a time, alternating with the congregation's singing of each line to a familiar melody; the tune, sung slowly, was ornamented with passing notes, turns, and other graces. A second source was the singing of hymns set to borrowed melodies, often secular folk tunes. Themes included going home to the promised land and gaining ground against sin; typical refrains were “Roll, Jordan” and “Glory Hallelujah.” The songs survive in oral tradition in isolated areas and also in the form of shape-note singings. African American spirituals developed in part from white rural folk hymnody but differ greatly in voice quality, vocal effects, rhythm, and type of rhythmic accompaniment. They were sung not only in worship but also as work songs, and the text imagery often reflects concrete tasks. Like the white gospel song, the modern African American gospel song derives from the spiritual.
Learn more about spiritual with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The term spiritual is derived from spiritual song. The King James Bible's translation of Ephesians V.19 is: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The term spiritual song was often used in the white Christian community through the 19th century (and indeed much earlier), but not the term spiritual. Negro spiritual first appears in print in the 1860s, where slaves are described as using the noun spiritual for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music. Musicologist George Pullen Jackson extended the term spiritual to a wider range of folk hymnody, as in his 1938 book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, but this does not appear to have been widespread usage previously. The term is often broadened to include subsequent arrangements into more standard American hymnodic styles, and to include post-emancipation songs with stylistic similarities to the original Negro spirituals.
Although numerous rhythmically and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources, nonetheless it is a fact that Negro spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans transported from Africa. They are a result of the interaction of African religious elements with music and religion derived from Europe. Further, this interaction occurred only in the United States. Africans who converted to Christianity in other parts of the world, even in the Caribbean and Latin American, did not evolve this form.
Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, enslaved Africans often held secret religious services. During these “bush meetings,” worshippers were free to engage in African religious rituals such as spiritual possession, speaking in tongues and shuffling in counterclockwise ring shouts to communal shouts and chants. It was there also that enslaved Africans further crafted the impromptu musical expression of field songs into the so-called "line singing" and intricate, multi-part harmonies of struggle and overcoming, faith, forbearance and hope that have come to be known as Negro spirituals.
Restrictions were placed on the religious expression of slaves. Rows of benches in places of worship discouraged congregants from spontaneously jumping to their feet and dancing. The use of musical instruments of any kind often was forbidden, and slaves were ordered to desist from the "paganism" of the practice of spiritual possession.
While slaveowners used Christianity to teach enslaved Africans to be long-suffering, forgiving and obedient to their masters, as practiced by the enslaved, it became something of a liberation theology. The story of Moses and The Exodus of the "children of Israel" crossing the Jordan River, and the idea of an Old Testament God who struck down the enemies of His "chosen people" resonated deeply with the enslaved ("He's a battleaxe in time of war and a shelter in a time of storm"). The lyrics of Christian spirituals reference symbolic aspects of Biblical images such as these, in songs like Michael Row the Boat Ashore. In Black hands and hearts, Christian theology became an instrument of liberation.
Over time the pieces the Jubilee Singers performed came to be arranged and performed by trained musicians. In 1873, Mark Twain, whose father had owned slaves, found Fisk singing to be "in the genuine old way" he remembered from childhood, but an 1881 performance review said that "they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbarity, the passion." Fifty years on, Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 book The Sanctified Church criticized Fisk singers, and similar groups at Tuskegee and Hampton, as using a "Glee Club style" that was "full of musicians' tricks" not to be found in the original Negro spirituals, urging readers to visit an "unfashionable Negro church" to experience real Negro spirituals.
A group of lyrics to Negro spirituals was published by Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who served as the commander of a regiment of former slaves in the Civil War, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly and subsequently included in his 1869 memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869).