“THERE IS A BALM IN GILEAD” – Circa 1800
Devotional by Carolyn Wood
Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness – by whose stripes you were healed. I Peter 2:24
The first Africans on American shores arrived in chains. Their hellish voyage aboard slave ships was only the beginning of their sorrows. The breakup of families, the oppression of bondage, the whips and shackles, their loss of dignity . . . it all combined to kill both body and spirit.
But the souls of the slaves found release through singing, and a unique form of music evolved called the “Negro Spiritual.” Spirituals differed greatly from the hymns we have thus far studied. The classics of English hymnody were largely written by pastors like Isaac Watts and John Newton out of their studies of Scripture. African-American slaves, on the other hand composed their songs in the fields and barns, the words dealing with daily pain and future hope.
Often the slaves were allowed to sing while working. If, for example, they were hauling a fallen tree, they would combine muscles and voices, using the musical rhythms for a “heave-ho” effect. Other times, risking the lash or branding iron, they would slip into torch-lit groves to worship the Lord. With swaying bodies, they would stand, eyes half-closed, singing, “Go, Down, Moses,” “Roll, Jordan, Roll, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and the classic “There is a Balm in Gilead” based on Jeremiah 8:22: Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
“Hymns more genuine than these have never been sung since the psalmists of Israel relieved their burdened hearts,” wrote Edith A. Talbot.
Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, was established after the Civil War, and the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers popularized these Negro spirituals around the world. Composers began arranging spirituals in a way that appealed to the larger population and this gave rise to another type of Christian music, tagged by composer Thomas A. Dorsey as “gospel songs.”
Few Negro spirituals can be precisely dated, nor are many specific authors known, but they have mightily influenced American Christian music. The roots of the children’s Sunday school chorus, “Do Lord,” for example, is in an old spiritual.
As we are in and continue to celebrate the season of Easter, the simple words of “There is a Balm in Gilead” come hauntingly to us bringing the comforting balm of reassurance in the knowledge that Christ died for us all:
Chorus: There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
Verse 1: Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit, Revives my soul again.
Verse 2: If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus, and say He died for all.
The second verse of this song melts away our excuses for contributing to the spreading of the Gospel. How many times have we said, Oh, I can’t pray in public, I don’t’ have words, or I’m too embarrassed? Well, we can learn – make the effort.
I remember attending a seminar years ago, to which I had to be dragged, kicking and protesting LOUDLY! My church in Atlanta was sponsoring this seminar, based on the book, “What Happens When Women Pray”, written by Evelyn Christenson. Of course, being a Methodist Church, we had offered to have the author stay with one of our members instead of a hotel. After two weeks of asking for a host home, no one stepped up, so…. As was very unlike Carolyn at the time, I finally offered my home. God certainly knew what he was doing as the entire experience was so beautifully orchestrated – three days that changed my life!
Evelyn was in her sixties at the time and could have easily been my grandmother. As both of my own had died very young, I had not known them and felt a great emptiness as a result. Evelyn was a widow who had been married to a more than amazing man, as she described him. As she lovingly said his name, Morris, you knew that they had shared a great love for many years, but that, most of all, they had shared their love of Jesus and sharing that love with others.
We were told that anyone could learn to pray; all we had to do was come and participate in this seminar. The word “participate” had me in a tizzy. As I busied myself preparing breakfast for my guest that Saturday, I was making noise in every possible way in hopes that we wouldn’t have to engage in a discussion of this upcoming “participating”. Oh, I could pray in my closet, but that was all. Evelyn was such a kind soul who quickly sized me up as someone who needed to hear the lessons and learn how Jesus could open up my heart and mind to this new journey. What a journey that weekend was! Not only was the seminar life challenging and changing for me, but the opportunity to spend time with this amazing person in my home has proven invaluable throughout my life. In addition to being a great teacher, she had the gift of listening intently to every word and of reading between the lines perfectly. Although kind and soft spoken, she became known to me as one to put her finger firmly on a problem and apply pressure until a solution was found. Evelyn remained a friend, influencer and comfort in my life until her death. In addition to learning to pray, I learned from Evelyn that my lips should stop moving often so I could listen to what God had to say.
As the song and Evelyn suggest, “Just tell the love of Jesus, and say He died for all.” God has a plan for each of us to tell the love of Jesus if we would but listen.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXVLT0pcGTU
Nana Mouskouri: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6ZprK9m0Do
Grace and Peace to you!