Friday, December 2, 2022

Today on the show, we remember the father of African American spiritual hymnody: H.T. Burleigh.

It is the 2nd of December 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


From time to time, I am taken aback by the number of things- historical artifacts- we don’t have. Before our current age, with our ability to record and save vast amounts of information, how much was passed on orally or in memory and then extinguished with the last of a line?

And while the negro spiritual tradition was certainly vast enough to make it down through various family and cultural lines, the fact that we have something of a canon of spiritual songs and arrangements is thanks to one remarkable man- Henry Thacker Burleigh, who was born on this, the 2nd of December in 1866 in Erie Pennsylvania- just over a year since the end of the Civil War and the Grandson of Hamilton Walters- a former slave who purchased his own freedom years earlier and served to the town of Erie as a lamplighter and town crier. Henry would accompany his grandfather, and along with his mother (a teacher), he learned the old slave spirituals as a young boy.

He became a popular attraction in his church and sang around town. In 1892 he was assisted by Francis MacDowell- the mother of composer Edward MacDowell- in gaining a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music. And it was there that the famed Bohemian conductor Antonin Dvorak was serving as the Conservatory’s director. He took an interest in Burleigh and encouraged him to develop the spiritual as a distinctly American style. You might know that Dvorak was popular in part for making the tunes and folk songs of his home into orchestral staples. Dvorak would write, “In the negro melodies of America, I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”

One of Dvorak’s more famous pieces- his Symphony no. 9 in E Minor- also called “From the New World,” borrows from the pieces that he would have Burleigh sing to him. In the second theme of the first movement, you can hear a flute intimating “Swing Slow, Sweet Chariot.”

In 1894 Burleigh was a featured soloist for Dvorak at Madison Square Garden and sang on Dvorak’s interpretation of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.”

In 1894 he also auditioned to be the soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City (listeners might recognize that as the home to the yearly Mockingbird Ministries conference where yours truly spoke last Spring). Many in the congregation were unwilling to have an African American in such a position, regardless of his voice. The congregation would soon allow it when one of the church’s members, J.P. Morgan, argued on Burleigh’s behalf.

Burleigh would serve at St. George’s for 52 years while also compiling and arranging old spirituals such as Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, Couldn’t Hear No­body Pray, Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler, Were You There?, and Everytime I Feel de Spirit.

He would also be an in-demand singer from some of the biggest names of his day, from President Theodore Roosevelt, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and twice King Edward VII of England. His 1916 collection “Jubilee Songs of the USA” and his arrangement of “Deep River” inspired a renewed interest in these old spirituals. He noted of them:

“In Negro spirituals my race has pure gold, and they should be taken as the Negro’s contribution to artistic possessions. In them we show a spiritual security as old as the ages. . . . These songs always denote a personal relationship. It is ‘my Savior,’ ‘my sorrow,’ ‘my kingdom.’ The personal note is ever-present. America’s only original and distinctive style of music is destined to be appreciated more and more”.


Very few recordings of his voice exist. He was believed for a time not to have any recordings because of his aversion to being recorded (certainly a quality issue, not a nervous thing). If you go to the Internet Archive at and search for his name, you can find the existing recordings. Among other accolades, he would also be a founding member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, aka ASCAP.


Henry Thacker Burleigh, H.T. or Harry to his friends, would die in 1949. Born on this the 2nd of December in 1866, he was 82 years old.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- from Acts 13 and a sermon from Paul:

After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’

23 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. 25 As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of December 2022, brought to you by 1517 at


The show is produced by a man who reminds you that the monopoly man was based on J.P. Morgan- he is Christopher Gillespie.


The show is written and read by a man who reminds you that Monopoly was invented to show the deleterious effects of unbridled capitalism. I’m Dan van Voorhis


You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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