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Singing Spirituals

Singing Spirituals

by Rev. Hilary Marchbanks on January 30, 2024

Singing Spirituals

...as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves,
singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,
giving thanks to God the Father at all times
and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

~ Ephesians 5:19-20

Singing Spirituals
by Hilary Marchbanks

When we sing “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” "Go Tell it on the Mountain,” or “This Little Light of Mine” in worship, did you know we are singing African American Spirituals? Every season in the church has an African American spiritual well-associated with it -- during Lent, Advent, All Saints’, funerals, and baptisms, Spirituals are prevalent in our worship.

Spirituals are religious folk songs sung by African Americans in the American south mostly from the late 1700s to mid-1800s. Spirituals are one of the largest categories of American folksong. In worship, Saint John’s sings a variety of hymns, including African American spirituals. Because these melodies and lyrics were passed down orally from generation to generation, most spiritual composers are unattributed. Churches pay annual license fees for songs which are attributed each year. We pay between $500 and $600 annually to hymn licensing companies to distribute royalties to known hymn composers and lyricists.

In the fall, member Pat Stewart approached Music Director, Cina Crisara and me with an idea around African American Spirituals. The idea was to donate to a fund that supports African American musicians when we sing a spiritual, recognizing the disparity between attributed and unattributed composers. “The idea came after a conversation with Dr. Debra Johnson,” explained Pat. “At Saint John’s, African American spirituals are an integral part of what we sing. Because their creators are not known, donating to support African American musicians is one way to recognize these contributions of the unnamed. It is important to recognize their contributions.”

This year Saint John’s donated $550 (in line with other licensing fees) to the Draylen Mason Fellows Program. The money this year comes from the  Saint John’s Endowment Fund grant for Diversity and Inclusion. Austin High School student Draylen Mason died tragically during a series of package bomb explosions in 2018, and this fellowship in his name supports young Austin musicians of color. We plan to donate annually to this worthwhile cause.
Saint John’s Diversity and Inclusion Research team is currently learning about racism’s history and anti-racism’s future through a multi-month workshop called Project Curate. Our intentional faith development program offers anti-racism classes; stay tuned for the next class starting in late spring. It is my prayer that opportunities like this donation will continue to be revealed as we -- a predominately white church -- continue to understand the ongoing effects of the sin of racism. Thank you for your participation in this holy work.


Rev. Hilary Marchbanks
Saint John's Senior Pastor

Tags: endowment fund, diversity and inclusion, african american spirituals, paying artist royalties

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