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Were You There

posted Mar 23, 2013, 12:18 PM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Jul 2, 2015, 2:41 PM ]

When slaves were introduced to Christianity here in the United States, they were intrigued by the Bible stories of oppression and freedom. They began to create spirituals that reflected their own heritage, their new religion, their longing for freedom, and their hope for a future when things would be fair for everyone. It was a way of sharing religious, emotional, and physical experience through song. 

The lyrics or texts would often contain dual meanings, communicating Christian ideals while also conveying the hardship that was a result of being an African-American slave, since they unfortunately knew horrible punishment firsthand. Many were brutally whipped like Christ. So they could relate to the humiliation, suffering and pain leading to His death. 

As a result, Were You There was infused with a personal element rarely found in Easter anthems. Though the tune probably comes from British origin, the text stems from the early 1800s by an unknown writer. It chillingly portrays the sights, sounds and reality of the crucifixion in each succeeding verse. But it also asks accusatory questions most people don’t want to answer, of how anyone can stand by and allow terrible events to happen. 

Traditionally, it has seven verses, all asking haunting questions, though ending on a note of positive hope for deliverance from your sorrows...
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? 
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? 
Were you there when they pierced him in the side? 
Were you there when the sun refused to shine? 
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? 
Were you there when they rolled away the stone? 
Were you there when God raised him from the dead?

By the late 1800s, Were You There had spread from the slaves’ worship services into the churches of white congregations. It first appears in print in Old Plantation Hymns, published in 1899. Its text and tune remained intact, even the arrangement didn't change from its original Gullah style. And its popularity passed along the subtle message that although the color of people’s skin may vary, the color of our souls is the same, decades before integration of schools and churches. Even today, this song still puts us all on the same level, revealing the guilt we all share, and pointing the way to spiritual freedom for everyone. 

Now sometimes, doesn't that cause you to tremble?