Hymn #572: When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land

This text, like many others of the spiritual tradition, kept hope alive for those African Americans living in slavery in the United States. It recalls the time of bondage endured by the nation of Israel, as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the promise of God’s liberation.

African American spirituals were often based on the stories of the Hebrew people found in the Scriptures, as the enslaved saw in the Bible stories similarities between the bondage of the ancient Hebrews and their own slavery and persecution.

This tune, named GO DOWN MOSES, may be of African American or Hebrew origin. It was identified by people of both backgrounds as being a folk song called “Cain and Abel.” Obviously, it is used here with words echoing freedom themes of the Hebrew Scriptures often used by black preachers.

In the late nineteenth century, some African Americans began to be afforded increased educational opportunities. This led to the preservation of songs and melodies that had been sung ever since the first slaves had been brought from Africa, when musicians began writing down traditional words and melodies.