Posted by: rcottrill | May 27, 2013

Were You There?

Words: (unknown origin)
Music: (unknown origin)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: This is one of those American folk hymns whose true origin is lost in the proverbial mists of time. But it is worth including because of its historical significance, and because it has something to teach us. The song Were You There? originated with the African-American slaves of the early 1800’s (though the tune may actually be of prior British origin).

According to George Pullen Jackson (in White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands), there was a similar song from the Cumberland plateau of Tennessee that began, “Have you heard how they crucified our Lord?” but my belief is that the African American version is likely of an earlier origin.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,
Tremble, tremble!
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Though slavery was a tragic blight, rooted in both ignorant prejudice and selfish greed, it did have this positive effect: it exposed multitudes to the Christian gospel who might never have heard it otherwise. Most slaves in America could not read or write, but they listened and learned, and many came to personal faith. Out of that there developed a rich culture of African American hymnody, passed on orally long before it was written down–with understandable variations in the songs because of this.

Eventually, there were those among the slaves who could lead services and preach. And black preachers would often break off in the middle of a sermon to sing, sometimes extemporizing, adding stanzas to a familiar selection. The lyrics were simple and repetitious, allowing all of those present to join in. Then, when the song ended, the speaker would return to his message.

The slaves could readily identify with the suffering Israelites in bondage in Egypt, described in the book of Exodus. In the record of the New Testament, the slaves could relate in a powerful way with the sufferings of Christ. His abuse at the hands of both the Jews and the Romans seemed to echo their own mistreatment. And though their songs often spoke of suffering and death, the resurrection of Christ and the gospel of grace infused them with a ray of hope.

The earliest known printed version of this anonymous song is found in a book called Old Plantation Hymns, published in 1899. In that book, by William Eleazar Barton (1861-1930), four stanzas are included. “Were you there when: They crucified my Lord… They nailed Him to the cross… They pierced Him in the side… The sun refused to shine…?”

John Wesley Work II (1872-1925) was a composer, choral conductor and educator. He was also an ethnomusicologist who, with his father before him, and his son afterward, hunted down and sought to preserve the music of the slave culture. In his 1907 book Folk Songs of the American Negro, John Wesley Work II includes another stanza: Where you there when they laid Him in the tomb?” Other versions of the song added a stanza about the resurrection of Christ:

Where you there when He rose up from the dead?
Where you there when He rose up from the dead?
Oh! Sometimes I feel like shouting glory,
Glory, glory!
Where you there when He rose up from the dead?

That repeated “Were you there?” calls our attention to the fact that there were eyewitnesses to these significant events. The Bible’s description of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ was garnered from those who were present. These are not made-up stories and myths that somehow came into being centuries later. They are a record of the observations of Jesus’ contemporaries.

Luke, a medical doctor, and a careful historian, gave us the Gospel that bears his name, and the book of Acts. He tells us the information was delivered to him by “eyewitnesses” (Lk. 1:2). Speaking of the revelation of Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-8), Peter declares, “We did not follow cunningly devised fables…but where eyewitnesses of His majesty” (II Pet. 1:16). And John assures us, “We have seen with our eyes…our hands have handled…we have seen and bear witness” (I Jn. 1:1-2).

This has an application to Christians today in a slightly different way. We were not physically present to witness the events of Jesus’ life. But we’re able to view them with the eyes of faith, and by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, as we “believe in [Him] through their [the apostles’] word” (Jn. 17:20). Peter commends his readers for having this kind of spiritual perception of Christ, “Whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (I Pet. 1:8). And the Lord Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29).

1) What evidence do you see in the New Testament that the events dealt with in the song are not made up stories, but actual accounts of things that really happened?

2) Other than the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, what Bible event would you most like to have been there to witness?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: