Hymn of the week: Go down Moses

This morning’s service at Archway was all-age worship and I took the opportunity to tell the story of Moses, concluding with the Old Testament reading of Exodus 14:19-31, the Parting of the Red Sea.

One of the hymns we sang was the African-American Spiritual ‘Go down Moses’. In the UK this seems to have had a burst of popularity in the 1960s and the numerous ‘folk hymnals’ of the day but has not appeared in more recent collections. I was not able to locate the music on my bookshelf; fortunately I found a SATB version online. But it is familiar enough and with the refrain ‘let my people go’ sufficiently repetitive for the congregation to pick it up easily.

The hymn is associated with the Contrabands, slaves ‘confiscated’ from their Southern masters during the American Civil War (1861-5), and was adopted as their anthem. It was apparently composed a few years earlier by slaves in Virginia. After the Civil War it was popularised by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, originally with twenty-four verses. Modern versions generally have five or six of these.

These are the verses we sang this morning:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
let my people go;
oppressed so hard they could not stand,
let my people go.

Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt’s land;
tell old Pharaoh
to let my people go.

The Lord told Moses what to do,
let my people go;
to lead the Hebrew children through,
let my people go.

The pillar of cloud shall clear the way,
let my people go;
a fire by night, a shade by day,
let my people go.

They journeyed on at God’s command,
let my people go;
and came at length to Canaan’s land,
let my people go.

Oh, let us all from bondage flee,
let my people go;
and let us all in Christ be free,
let my people go.

African-American spiritual



About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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