Reflection: August 25

Published on Aug 26th, 2019 by Rev. David Boyd | 0

Spirituals Sunday

Vignettes taken from a worship service prepared by Alydia Smith with some additions and editing by David Boyd.


The 1600s
Slavery existed in Canada, as it existed in colonies throughout the world. The first documented slave in Canada was named Olivier Le Jeune in 1628. (However, there are reports of slave ships arriving in the early 1600s.)  Many of the documented slaves in Canada were “owned” by clergy. It was not until the late 1700s that talks of abolishing slavery started in Upper Canada. While auction blocks where being built to sell people, the church sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Voices United 262).


The 1700s
During the late 1700s promises of freedom and land in exchange for British loyalty brought many freed Blacks to Nova Scotia. Although no longer slaves, the Black community was oppressed and denied basic civil and human rights. As a result, there was a mini exodus in the late 1700s when Black Loyalist and Black Refugees (the Maroons as they were known) took the offer to resettle in Sierra Leone. Although the church often attempted to preach a so-called “thin” Bible to Black peoples, focusing on servitude and honouring your master, the power of the gospel shined through the hymns of Isaac Watts and the Wesleyans, offering hope and empowerment to an enslaved people. For example, “Love Divine” (Voices United 333) was sung and Black peoples in church heard the line, “Come Almighty to deliver; let us all thy grace receive.”  And so, the Black Church responded with the likes of “Lord, I want to be a Christian.”



The 1800’s
In the early 1800s, Canada and the northern part of the United States gained a reputation for being a safe haven for the enslaved. Seeking freedom, many enslaved peoples travelled secretly to Canada through a concealed network known as the Underground Railroad. Many churches and Quaker meeting houses became “stations” on the route to freedom. There is much mythology on how people communicated with each other between these “stations.” Since music and spirituals were often used in Black communities to counter the theologies being preached, music seemed like the perfect way to convey messages of freedom, as music was (and remains) a primary form of communication. So, hymns like “Wade in the Water” were used as code.  Harriet Tubman, a Gospel singer, once said of “Wade in the Water,” that this spiritual was a warning to runaway slaves. To escaping slaves, the song told them to abandon the path and move into the water. By travelling along the water’s edge or across a body of water, the slaves would throw chasing dogs and their keepers off the scent.  Another example, “Go Down Moses,” repeats the refrain, “Let my people go.”  Enslaved Africans would have seen the parallels in the hymn between the enslavement in Egypt and the enslavement of African people. Again, Harriet Tubman sang this song in the late 1800s as code for slaves fleeing Maryland.  Another example is “Get On Board.”  The following lines are an obvious allusion to the Underground Railroad.  But, they weren’t understood in the same way by the Plantation owners.

                  The Gospel train’s a’comin

I hear it just at hand
I hear the car wheel rumblin’
And rollin’ thro’ the land

Chorus: Get on board little children
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
There’s room for many more

I hear the train a’comin
She’s comin’ round the curve
She’s loosened all her steam and brakes
And strainin’ ev’ry nerve

The fare is cheap and all can go
The rich and poor are there
No second class aboard this train
No difference in the fare


1900’s in Canada
Long after slavery was abolished (in 1833 in the British Empire and in 1865 in the United States), life remained difficult for Black people across North America. In the 1950s and 1960s, the fight for civil rights intensified. Several iconic moments included: Viola Desmond refusing to sit in the Black only section of the movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia; Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama; the three civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery; and the demolition of Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that resulted in the forced relocation of the historic Black community.  Martin Luther King’s impact north of the border was somewhat different than south of the border; many Canadians went to march with King, but the calls for justice in Canada were loud, but Canadian society muted calls to action.  We often harbour the illusion that because we received so many fleeing slaves via the Underground Railroad that we were a safe-haven for people of African descent. Anthony Bailey, a United Church minister in Ottawa, grew up in Montreal with racism directed at him.  Many other African-Canadians have spoken about growing up with racism as a daily occurrence.  Many churches, though, joined in the movement for racial equality, while many others went about their daily business warning activists to slow down and to temper their voices. When society actively put restrictions on the rights of Black peoples, “You cannot sit here” and “You cannot march there,” the church sang “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” (Voices United 575).



The 2000’s
Over recent years, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and many others have tragically reminded us that the fight for equal rights is far from over in the US, but also in Canada. Black peoples in Canada talk about how racial profiling continues to affect every aspect of society. From childcare to educational and employment opportunities, it is clear that the fight for racial equality continues.  What will our church’s response be to the current reality of Black and other marginalized peoples in our society?  Near the end of the last General Council, there was a question—a point of order, really—from people who felt they’d been excluded from speaking by white, privileged people—Jody could say more about this as he was there; those of a racial minority did not have as much input into conversations, nor as much time at the mics, and there was less time for intercultural business of GC. To the Council’s credit, it took the time to hear the concerns and have a conversation.  And so, for the United Church in particular, the question of inclusion, in general, is still an ongoing work-in-progress, extending to 1stNations people, other gendered people/LGBTQ+ folks, Muslim people, and others who have experienced oppression, injustice, racial profiling and discrimination. As followers of Jesus, we are called to work against a status quo that would keep people marginalized, and to ensure that all have access to the free gifts of Spirit, love, compassion and hope available to all in the KinDom of God.



Background to “My Life Flows On”
This hymn was written by Robert S. Lowery, a Baptist minister and hymn writer.  He was born in 1826 and died in 1899.  He wrote “Shall We Gather at the River” and “I Need Thee,” besides “My Life Flows On.” He was a Northerner and wrote and preached about issues facing people in their every day lives, like many deaths from a heatwave, which gave rise to “Shall We Gather at the River” as an assurance that God had not abandoned him.  Certainly, the hymn, “My Life Flows On,” is full of the social gospel and equality and that tyranny and oppression never work; God’s intention is love, compassion and peace.


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