Hymn Story

Were You There?

Hymn lists

by book of Bible

This is an African-American spiritual—author known only to God.  These spirituals were popular among American slaves quite early—how early we can’t say.  They started becoming known in the wider church (white congregations) after the Civil War, which ended in 1865.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, African-American students from Fisk University, made a major contribution to the awareness of these spirituals when they went on a tour in 1871 to raise money.  They performed to acclaim in the United States, England, and Europe—and made $150,000 to support their college.

This song has captured the hearts of people for at least a century and a half.  One reason is that it speaks clearly of the death and resurrection of our Lord—the central events of our faith.  We often sing it (or hear it sung) whenever the preacher is preaching from a crucifixion or resurrection text—but it is always appropriate to bring the death and resurrection of Jesus to the forefront of the worshiping community.

Another reason for this song’s popularity is the simplicity of the words.  It repeats “Were you there?” over and over again.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?

Were you there when they laid him in a tomb?

Were you there when he rose up from the dead?

The phrases are short, and the words are common and easy to understand.  They are words that we use in the context of our ordinary lives––but in this song they take on the character of a sacrament.

The song is intended to be sung slowly––thoughtfully––even mournfully, because it speaks of the Lord’s suffering and death.  However, the mood changes sharply in the last verse––the one that speaks of resurrection.

Were you there when he rose up from the dead?

Were you there when he rose up from the dead?

Oh!  Sometimes I feel like shouting glory, glory, glory!

Were you there when he rose up from the dead?

A choir performing this song could hardly restrain itself from shouting GLORY, GLORY, GLORY when singing that last verse.

Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan