Hymn by Hymn

STLT#210, Wade in the Water

I’m feeling at a bit of a loss this morning.

On one hand, this is an important code song from the Underground Railroad, a warning to follow the river and keep an eye out for the friendly folk.  As Walter Rhett at Black History 360 writes, “People think the song is about Moses and Exodus, but the troubled waters the spiritual refers to are in a New Testament verse. The conventional wisdom of history contends the song sent a signal to runaway slaves: Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.”

That new testament verse is John 5:4 – “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

So there’s that.

On the other hand, I am simultaneously preparing my remarks for the Teach In on White Supremacy, and I am keenly aware of how damaging misappropriation can be, and how much I wish more notes could have been included in the printed hymnal rather than as a extra book.

And… in the middle of those hands is my experience singing, which was full and rich and deep as I thought of all the people for whom this song might have been a lifeline.

Wade in the water,
wade in the water, children,
wade in the water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

See that band all dressed in white.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
The leader looks like an Israelite.
God’s gonna trouble the water.


See that band all dressed in red.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
It looks like the band that Moses led.
God’s gonna trouble the water.


I’m uncomfortable right now, and I should be. I know that my English and Dutch ancestors settled in New England and New York in the 1600s, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t complicit in the spread of slavery. And still I want to honor ancestors that weren’t mine, ancestors of my friends who are descended from the enslaved Africans, because they did survive, and their descendants live today, fighting for what should always have been theirs – freedom.

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