The other day, I wrote a post about the fact that many journalists struggle to understand, to be perfectly honest about it, the role that Christian faith plays in the African-American church. There is a tendency to see the black church as a political institution, and that’s that.
I also mentioned that there is another common assumption, which is that the music of the black church is primarily an expression of culture, as opposed to faith. You know, those black spirituals are so lovely and so powerful, but they don’t really mean anything in particular.
I thought of that second point again when reviewing a recent New York Times piece that several GetReligion readers brought to my attention. It seems that something strange has been happening down on Broadway in recent weeks.
You see, there’s a Broadway revival — never has that word been more accurate — running of one of the greatest American plays ever about faith and family and the ties that bind.
I am referring to Horton Foote’s classic “The Trip to Bountiful,” which focuses on an elderly woman’s quiet, but desperate, flight from Houston in an attempt to visit her family homestead one last time, near a town called Bountiful. In this production, the great African-American actress Cicely Tyson is playing the lead. In this case, her race is a key element of the news hook. The Times article notes, early on:
She is on the run from her abusive daughter-in-law and henpecked son in Houston, desperate to see the family farm in Bountiful once more before she dies. Overcome with emotion, she begins singing an old Protestant hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”
From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its all-black cast, draws in large numbers. When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.
“I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson said in a recent interview, referring to her preview performances. “I said, ‘Where?’ I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear it.”
After the play opened, on April 23, she began tuning in. “At that point, I was relaxed enough to let other things seep in,” she said. “It was absolutely thrilling.”
Thrilling but unexpected.
This phenomenon happens the most in the Sunday afternoon shows, you say? That would be, well, right after, uh, church? That might have something to do with large numbers of people in the audience stepping over this line in Broadway tradition and joining in.
Now, the Times team did find an expert who knows something about this hymn (even if that expert incorrectly says that this particular Fanny Crosby text has something to do with “fundamentalist” faith). The story also features quality quotes from people in the audience.
“It is almost as ubiquitous as ‘Amazing Grace,’ ” said Anthony Heilbut, author of “The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times.” “It’s one of those low-church Protestant hymns central to fundamentalist worship, black and white.” He cited classic versions recorded by greats like Clara Ward, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Albertina Walker and Marion Williams. Country singers like Alan Jackson and Randy Travis have recorded the song.
Several black audience members, interviewed after a recent performance, seemed surprised that anyone might not know the hymn. “A lot of people in the audience grew up with that song,” said Michelle Crawford, who first sang it when she attended the Thessalonia Baptist Church in the Bronx as a child. “Nobody had to put the words out there in front of anybody. They knew that song.”
The singalong, too, struck black audience members as unremarkable. “I chimed in,” said Pinkey Headley, who sings the hymn at her Methodist church in Brooklyn. “It’s the natural thing to do.”
Denise Wells, a member of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Jamaica, Queens, agreed. “It’s an old Sunday song,” she said. She put a hand over her heart and began declaiming the hymn’s opening verse, nodding emphatically after each line: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!”
The hymn, the article notes, was written in the late 19th century by two members of John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan, which doesn’t sound all that fundamentalist to me. Perhaps its the hymn’s connection to the crusades of the great evangelist Dwight Moody that give it that reputation.
The article also, to the credit of the Times team, notes how important this particular gospel classic is to the actress who is singing it:
Ms. Tyson needed no introduction to the hymn. “It was one of my mother’s favorites,” she said. That ranking counts for something. Like Carrie Watts in the play, Ms. Tyson’s mother was a storehouse of hymns. “I don’t remember any Sunday, when she was in the kitchen making family dinner, when she wasn’t singing a hymn,” Ms. Tyson said. A pew in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem has a plaque, endowed by Ms. Tyson, that reads, “To Mother — Blessed Assurance.”
This hymn had similar stature in the family of Foote, the author of the play.
So what is missing from this fine story?
Simply stated: Not much.
Once again, however, note that this unusual turn on Broadway has artistic significance and it also appears that this hymn has great meaning, at a cultural level, to African-American believers. But is that all? Is there no spiritual element to what is happening here? I mean, there are people sitting in the heart of elite American culture singing:
Blessèd assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
Refrain: This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior, all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior, all the day long.
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
Perfect submission, all is at rest
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.