Imagine being an illiterate slave in the nineteenth century. Working hard in the fields, at the mercy of your masters, but yet full of praise for God in song.
That is how the slaves in America passed down stories — singing them in songs as they worked and celebrated. These songs are called spirituals and ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ is one such song. It is said to have been birthed in 1865 or earlier.
When the song was finally sung in the public by the Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers though, it came with some resistance.
John Wesley Work, Jr. had a passion to study and preserve Negro spirituals. He put lyrics to ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ and set it to the tune of the old spiritual ‘When I was a Seeker’. John was then the faculty member of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee U.S.A., a university for students ranging from the age of seven to seventy, whose background was in slavery and poverty.
In 1871, Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers went on tour to try to raise funds for their debt-ridden school. The ten-member group, whose name was inspired by Leviticus 25 (the day of Jubilee) took with them the entire university’s treasury to fund the tour.
The students were not very enthusiastic in singing the songs of their ancestors as slave songs have never been sung in public. They represented slavery and the dark past — things to be forgotten. But with persuasion they relented. The tour was a success.
Today the school counts many prominent activists as its alumni. Grammy Award-winning Gospel singer Mandisa also went through the gates of Fisk University.
And of course, ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ is now a beloved Christmas carol joyfully ushering the birth of Jesus.
God used the song not only to transform the dark, ugly past of slavery into something beautiful but also practically uplift the lives of many former slaves. All from the heartfelt worship of humble, illiterate slaves.
‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ Lyrics
Go tell it on the mountain,
over the hills, and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain
that Jesus Christ is born.
While shepherds kept their watching
o’er silent flocks by night,
behold, throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light. [Refrain]
The shepherds feared and trembled
when lo, above the earth,
rang out the angel chorus
that hailed our Saviour’s birth. [Refrain]
Down in a lowly manger
the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation
that blessed Christmas morn.
Reflect & Respond
- God used the heartfelt worship of slaves who were probably told how unworthy they were to impact thousands. Do you feel unworthy to worship God, or that your worship is minuscule and unworthy? What view of your worship to God do you have now that you know this fact?
- The slaves were under oppression but found joy in praising God. How does this inspire you to praise?
- God could transform the dark, ugly past of slavery into something beautiful. How does this encourage you about a past you would rather just forget or a present situation you are going through?
- Who can you go tell of the Good News to this Christmas?
About the author: Kristine Lee a.k.a. Jin Pyn Lee is an author, writer, aspiring filmmaker, dreamer, motorcycle rider and fulltime Christian. That just means she shares the love of her life Jesus wherever and whenever. In her eulogy, she would simply like to be known as someone God loves. Connect with Kristine on www.jinpynlee.com