Rose: Hymns – Were You There?

Unlike most of our more modern hymns, there is no way to trace who first put together the words of this song, though we do know who sung the words. The hymn “Were You There?” was first put into a hymnal called Old Plantation Hymns by William E. Barton in 1899. As the title implies, these were hymns, now commonly referred to as Spirituals, composed by African-Americans who at the time lived on plantations in slavery. “Were You There?” is assumed to have been composed during the time before the Civil War. Though this hymn did not appear in a hymnal until 1899, there had been other Spiritual hymnals. The first was Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War. However, “Were You There?” was the first Spiritual to appear in a Protestant hymnal, this being The Hymnal of 1940 for the Episcopal Church. Though we do not know who first composed the song, or if it was even one person and only one melody, the spiritual fervor has been preserved by those who came afterwards and for that we are thankful. 

Perhaps the reason it first took so long for any Spiritual to enter a widely circulated hymnal was because most Americans saw this form of music, influenced by African worship and music-making, as strange, and to some even idolatrous despite the nature and purpose of the songs. But the Spiritual is an American form of music, and the spiritual was as much influenced by American Folk songs as it influenced American Gospel music. In fact, similar styles were utilized in the camp meetings that became popular after the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800’s. All people attended these meetings, so it was inevitable that their singing preferences and styles would influence each other. Additionally, there is some evidence that this Spiritual was likely derived from a former song called “Have you heard how they crucified my Lord?”.

“Were You There?” is a rather decent example of the Spiritual form of music. It follows a repetitive pattern, there is a response or “echo” within the verse, and there is a central line in each verse. The tune is also slow and easy to follow, which was typical of Spirituals going back to the 1600’s. As not everyone could read, both free and slave alike, one person would say part of the text, typically Scripture and often a Psalm, while others would put a familiar tune to it. This process was slow, thus leading to a slow, graceful, and adaptable tune, such as the one applied to “Were You There?”. But by using this method, people could learn the songs more easily. 

But what made the Spiritual somewhat unique is that there was no set harmony accompaniment. Any number of chords could be, were, and are sung to the Spiritual, giving the resulting tune a sound that could be mesmerizing, haunting, angelic, a sound imperfect and likely never to be repeated twice as it might be in an ordered and written form. This uniqueness is often lost in provided sheet music. Though preserving the melody for those who do not sing these once familiar tunes in our daily life, it often cuts off creativity and emotion that was in many ways central to the Spiritual form of music making. 

While many Spirituals coming from slaves had to do with bondage, work, longing for freedom, and other woes, the Spiritual would not be called so if it did not have to do with the Spirit. Indeed, the name itself comes from Ephesians 5:19. As the Gospel song is ultimately derived from this form of music, the Spiritual often contained the subject of stories from Scripture, teachings of grace, and songs about God. Clearly, “Were You There?” fits these themes by capturing the night our Lord died and the day He rose again in a manner that causes us to think, feel, and consider a question: Were you there?

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?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

As is clear from the text, this song is simple in form and lyric. There is little left to decipher from the words themselves and there is not much, or much new, in the form of teaching. This song’s depth pulls heavily on emotion from the music and vocalist rather than from the text. “Were You There?” leads us through the familiar passion story.

The hymn starts with the overarching event: the crucifixion.  The events of Good Friday begin with people shouting for our Lord’s death, and this to be in the form of crucifixion. From there, the song goes onto the process of crucifixion: nailing someone to a tree (Acts 5:30, Gal. 3:13, Matt. 27:1-56, Luk. 23:18-38). It is up to debate what a cross looked like then, but there is little left to the imagination of what nailing someone to a tree means (Psa.22:16, Zec. 12:10, Matt. 27:55-56, Phil. 2:8). The crucifixion was an agonizing, slow, shameful death endured for us. 

The hymn does not mention Christ’s death itself, but we know from the crucifixion to the piercing that by then Christ had died. We can imagine His mother, the women, and John standing there watching this happen from a distance, knowing certainly by then that Jesus had died, the Lamb had been slain (Psa. 34:20, 1 Cor. 5:7, Rev. 5:6). There is something of a despair in this verse as it leads to the next: the land was covered in darkness, the temple curtain was torn, and God’s wrath, judgement, was finally met (Luk. 23:44-46, Isa. 53:5).

We then follow these mourners from the cross to the garden, a fitting ending for how sin entered the world (Gen. 3:1-15). Jesus is laid in the tomb, leaving the disciples in hiding and fear (Luk. 23:55, Jhn. 20:19). But God did not end the story here. For in God raising Christ from the dead, we too have hope in the resurrection (Matt. 28:1-7, Acts 2:24-28 & 32)! This is why we are Easter Christians. 

But we all know this story, and this is not the only hymn that tells it. In addition to the retelling of a rather familiar story, there is still something to learn from this song. Despite the fact that the text is limited and straightforward, it is neither simple nor unimportant. Almost like the stages of the cross, “Were You There?” causes a person to consider the stages of suffering of Christ until resurrection Sunday. But through this familiar story, the question “Were you there?” is repeated over and over again. I can only think there is a purpose to the insistence.

In answer to the question: no, I was not there, and neither were you. We were not there when Jesus was condemned as a criminal for our sins. We were not there when they pierced His hands, feet, and side. We were not there when the land went dark, He breathed His last, and was laid in the tomb. We were not there when the stone was rolled away. We were not there when Mary was greeted by the Lord, or when the disciples saw Him appear. We were not there. 

We were not there and it would not have mattered if we were, other than maybe it would better help us understand the severity of suffering our Lord endured for us. As we do not baptize ourselves, so too did we not save ourselves. We were helpless, powerless, and without hope. All creation was. But before the creation of the world, God foreknew how He would save us (Isa. 53:3, Eph. 1:4, 1 Pet. 1:20). At the Rebellion, He told of His plan. Without our aid and while we were guilty, Christ died for us. This is what causes us to tremble. Christ suffered, died, was buried, and rose again for us! I was not there, but because Christ died for me, I now live for Him and will one day join Him in paradise. This is our hope. This is why we call that Friday “good” and why we celebrate on Resurrection Sunday! The paths of life have been made known to us, and in this we have joy (Psa. 16:8-11).

Blessings to you and yours, 

~Rose


Works Referenced

“African American Spirituals.” Library of Congress. 

Allen, William. Slave Songs of the United States

Barton, William. Old Plantation Hymns: A Collection of Hitherto Unpublished Melodies of the Slave and the Freedman, with Historical and Descriptive Notes.  40. 

Glover, Raymond. The Hymnal 1892 Companion. Vol. 1. 29. 

McKim, LindaJo. The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion. 91. 

“Spiritual.” Encyclopeadia Britannica

“Were You There.”

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