WHERE BLACK HISTORY AND ISRAEL’S HISTORY INTERSECT:
“OH MARY DON’T YOU WEEP”
Celebrating the Commonality of Black American History and Israel’s History
by William Dwight McKissic, Sr.
The two most persecuted people-groups in the history of mankind are the Jews and Blacks. This has been a major point of identity and bonding between these two groups. Jewish Americans strongly supported the Civil Rights Movement more so than any other ethnic group. They often marched with Civil Rights Leaders to provide a shield of protection and support.
The most celebrated African-American preacher besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil-Rights Era was Aretha Franklin’s late father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. Rev. Franklin pastored the New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit Michigan, from 1946-1979. He was also a co-laborer with Dr. King in the Civil Rights Movement and worked to end discriminatory practices against Black United Auto Workers members in Detroit. Dr. King was the premier Civil Rights leader of that Era. Rev. Franklin was the premier revivalist-evangelist in Black churches. These two men cooperated with each other for the common good of God’s people and the advancement of His Kingdom.
After attending the Baptist World Alliance in London in 1955, Rev. Franklin journeyed to Israel to visit the biblical cities and sites. In 1959 on a return trip from India, Dr. and Mrs. King stopped in Jerusalem, rented a car and took the meandering road down to Jericho, “where the walls came tumbling down.”
Did you know that iconic African American pastors now in the arms of Jesus often traveled to the Old Jerusalem, before taking the journey to the New Jerusalem? Dr. E.V.Hill, Dr. Manuel Scott, Sr., Dr. J.H. Jackson, Drs. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr., Dr. J.C. Wade, Dr. A. Edward Davis, Dr. Sandy Ray, C.L. Franklin, and Bishop G.E. Patterson would be listed in that number.
Many of the most prominent Black gospel singers have also toured Israel, including Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar and Andre Crouch. They often sang and preached about the geography, the glory, the story and the God of Israel. These preachers and singers are not just satisfied having a spiritual and musical connection with Israel; they also wanted a physical connection. Thus, they made the journey.
It is my belief that Christians, particularly those of us who preach, teach and sing, ought to love Israel and make a pilgrimage to Israel. Just as Muslims love Mecca; and devout ones want to make at least one visit there, Christians ought to more so love Jerusalem. It was the story and Scriptures of the Israelites that God used to provide the salvation and inspiration for our spiritual and physical deliverance.
Think about it: Jerusalem, Israel is the only city in the world that the Bible indicates that peace and prosperity may be granted to those who love the city of the Great King (Psalm 122:6-9; Matthew 5:35). Jerusalem is the only city on earth that can claim to be the geographical center of the world. Israel is the only nation that can claim to be the fountain of vocal and instrumental music (Ezekiel 5:5, 38:12 and Psalm 87:7).
A popular Negro spiritual of yester years is named, “I Want to Walk in Jerusalem Just like John.” Walking in Jerusalem, just like John, has become a physical and historical reality for many. African-American Christians love Jerusalem spiritually and historically. She has loved us back physically; there is a street in the modern day country of Israel named in honor of Martin Luther King. Those of us who love the Kingdom of God today ought to travel to Israel, so that we can walk in Jerusalem just like John. Where does Black History and Israel’s History intersect? My thesis is Black History and Israel’s History intersect in our songs, sermons, scripture readings, names of our churches, names of our sons and daughters, and the common legacy of slavery. Nothing illustrates this thesis better than a historical and biblical analysis of the African American gospel song, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.”
“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” was one of the most popular gospel songs during the Civil Rights Era. It addressed the hopes, aspirations, fears and courage of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King and Rev. Franklin understood the significance of this song to African American people. Dr. King preached a sermon called “The Death of Evil on the Seashore,” that captures the biblical message of the song. His text was Exodus 14:30, “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore.“ The Exodus event was the biblical basis of the song. The historical basis and inspiration for this song was worship event in a Southern church during the slavery era involving an elderly slave woman named Mary. Rev. Franklin preached about the roots and relevance of the song. Rev. Franklin explained why Mary was weeping.
“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” was first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Male Quartet in 1915. The original version and various revisions of this song throughout its one hundred plus year’s history, encompasses the themes of dilemma, deliverance, heritage and hope, and comfort and care.
Various versions of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” has transcended the African American community and has been recorded by soloist and groups as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, the Swan Silvertones, Peter Seeger, Burl Ives, Inez Andrews, the Caravans and Yolanda Adams.
It was the lead song featured on the bestselling gospel album in history, “Amazing Grace” by Aretha Franklin, recorded in 1972. This song was a guaranteed “house wrecker,” which means it simply went over extremely well with Black congregations and gospel music lovers. It remains a favorite and often requested song among older African Americans. Dr. Wallace Best, a current Princeton Religion Professor, selected this classic as one of the “Ten Best Gospel Songs” in a Huttington Post February 2012 blog.
In a biography entitled Give me This Mountain; Life History and Selected Sermons of Rev. C.L. Franklin, edited by Jeff Todd Titon, Aretha’s father provides us with the history of this simple, Scripture based, celebrated, and enduring song. While preaching from the text Psalm 137:1-4 that reveals the reluctance of Israel to sing songs of Zion in a strange land; Rev. Franklin argues the point that it is important for oppressed people to have a song to sing and the benefits thereof. Here is how the song “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” originated, according to Rev. Franklin:
“The story is told by Dr. Miles Mark Fisher about an old woman, either in the Carolinas or in Georgia, in those days when a great English preacher, the brother of John Wesley, came over to preach. Many of the Negroes wanted to see this great preacher. Frequently they could sit in the church, at least in the balcony, if the balcony was not crowded, if most of the regular members were on the main floor. But on this particular occasion the place was packed, and they stood on the outside, looking through the window, listening at this English preacher preach the gospel. And when the sermon was over and the invitation was extended, one old lady walked in the front door, and walked down the aisle, and took the seat to join the church. Pastor came up and said, “Lady, you can’t join this church.” She said, “But sir, I got ‘eligion. I’ve been converted. I felt the power of God here today while the man preached, and I want to jine the church.” He said, “But you can’t join this church. Go and join some other church, some of your own churches.” And when he insisted that she could not join, she went on down the aisle, mumbling to herself, saying, “I’m going to tell God one of these days how you treat me,” as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“It is said that those who were looking in the window began to sing a song. As the old lady’s name was Mary, they sang,
‘Oh Mary, don’t weep, don’t mourn;
Pharaoh’s army got drownded;
Mary, don’t weep, and then don’t mourn.’
“Think of the message that is wrapped up in that song. I think that everybody ought to have a song. I think that Israel should have sung down in Babylon.”
Although rejected for church membership and fellowship by a Southern White Pastor during slavery, Mary the slave was comforted, encouraged, and given hope by fellow slaves when they put to melody the story of Exodus 15:4-5:
“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea;
His chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea.
The depths have covered them;
They sank to the bottom like a stone.”
The Hebrew Scriptures have inspired the songs, sermons, success, salvation, and aspirations of African Americans throughout her sojourn in America. However, the relationship between Africans and the God of Israel did not start in America, but actually can be traced back to the biblical period, as we will examine in the next chapter.
Just as God used the Exodus experience to provide inspiration for physical deliverance, Israel can also inspire deliverance from spiritual bondage. The relationship between Israel and Africa should be strengthened, studied, and celebrated; so that future generations may be inspired, enlightened, and encouraged as previous generations were. The two most persecuted people groups in the history of mankind are the Jews and Blacks. This has been a major point of identity and bonding historically, between the two people groups.
The Bible commands that one generation should praise the Lord’s works to another (Psalm 145:4). The Bible commands that fathers should teach the history of Israel and the wonderful works of God to their children, so that future generations would know God’s acts in history, and “set their hope in God, And not forget the works of God” (Psalm 78:1-7). The Bible commands believers to “Remember the days of old” and what took place in previous generations, so that it might inform our current realities (Deuteronomy 32:7). The Jewish prophet Isaiah informs us that God established Israel and promised to keep her in order to be a “light” to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6). Holding the baby Jesus in His arms (Luke 2:28), Simeon declared that He would be “A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
The Divine purpose of the nation of Israel is to be a “light” to the Gentiles. The purpose of the Incarnation of Christ was to be a “light to bring revelation to the Gentiles.” John said that Jesus was the “true Light which gives light to every man that come into the world” (John 1:9). Jesus came to bring us light and life.
This elderly slave woman named Mary needed light and life in her dejected, downtrodden and discouraging situation. Where did she find that light? Her fellow slaves sang to her to look to Israel for that light.
If ever there was a time in the history of America and Black America that we need a light, it is right now. Mary was weeping not only because of her condition, but the condition of her people.
We ought to be weeping today over the destruction of the family. We ought to be weeping over the divorce rate. We ought to be weeping over the teen-age pregnancy rate. We ought to be weeping over criminal acts, violent senseless acts, and the incarceration rates of our people. We ought to be weeping over the gang and gun violence racking our inner cities. We ought to be weeping over the school shootings in the suburbs. We ought to be weeping over Black on Black crime as well; not just when a White man kills a Black man. We ought to be weeping over the senseless acts of violence and death in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Little Rock. We ought to be weeping over the high dropout rates in our high schools. We ought to be weeping over the drug and alcohol addiction and abuse that affect many of our families. We ought to be weeping over the hundreds of people lined up in the streets to legally buy recreational marijuana in Colorado. We ought to be weeping over the proliferation of strip clubs, pornography addictions, adultery, fornication, child abuse, and homosexuality that’s sweeping the land. We ought to be weeping over the approval of same-sex marriage in the United States. Modern Israel remains steadfast opposed to it. We need to ask ourselves, why is it that modern Israel is not experiencing gang violence and school shootings? We ought to be weeping over the high unemployment among our people. We ought to be weeping over the hopelessness, despair, discouragement and depression that have many of our people in a vice-grip. We ought to be weeping over motherless and fatherless children. We ought to weep over the spiritual condition of our nation.
However, because of the God of Israel, we still have hope; the same hope the slaves found effective and fruitful. “Mary, Don’t You Weep” because we serve a God that drowned Pharaoh’s army. We serve a God who gives light in the midst of darkness. We serve a God who leads us in the path of righteousness for His Name sake. We serve a mighty God who is able to keep us from falling and to present us faultless before His glory with exceeding great joy. God has given us the “light” of Israel and the light of Christ to guide us out of the current darkness we face.
C.L. Franklin is right: “Everybody ought to have a song.” Our problem may be that we are simply without a song. Don’t under estimate the power of a song. The Bible commands us “to be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spirituals songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:18,19). A song can be a sermon put to music (Colossians 3:16). The Book of Psalms was used as a hymnbook in Solomon’s Temple.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)
This generation and future generations need to understand what God has done in previous generations to deliver His people from darkness and bring them into the light. We need to take the word of God and put it to song again.
God gave Moses a song when He delivered His people from Pharaoh’s army. It is recorded in Exodus 15. He gave Miriam and the women a dance. Whenever God sends deliverance, it’s time to dance. God gave the slaves a song, when essentially, that’s all they had. There was a time when Black people put sermons to song.
When faced with the brutal realities of slavery, and the seemingly, insurmountable, impossibility of freedom and deliverance; they sang, a sermon in a song:
“Go Down Moses, Way down in Egypt Land and Tell Old Pharaoh, to let my people go.”
They sang about the mysteries and majesty of Christ in the midst of a miserable, demeaning, and maniacal situation. They sang:
“Ezekiel saw the wheel
Way up in the middle of the air
Ezekiel saw the wheel
Way up in the middle of the air
And the little wheel run by faith
And the big wheel run by the grace of God
A wheel in a wheel
Way up in the middle of the air”
The old preacher would then say, “Jesus is a Wheel, in the middle of the wheel”! They sang a sermon in a song.
They sang, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” They later added another line, “Tell Martha not to moan.” Why? “Because Pharaoh’s army got drowned in the Red Sea, Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, Tell Martha, not to moan.” They sang a sermon in a song.
They sang the songs of Zion (Israel) in a foreign land. They sang the “Samson” story in “Witness for my Lord.” They sang the drama and the deliverance in “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” “Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace,” and “David and Goliath.” They sang, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.” They sang the victory when they sang: “Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John.” They sang “Joshua Fought the Battle At Jericho.” They sang “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” They sang “Twelve Gates to the City.” They sang about the “New Jerusalem.” They sang a sermon in a song.
First Baptist Church Charleston, SC, a predominately White church, was the first large prominent Baptist Church in the South during the days of slavery. They were of a high church tradition—what we call a “silk stocking” church. They sang hymns. The hymn, “All Hail the Power of Jesus,” was written in 1779 during the days of slavery. No doubt the slaves at First Baptist who worshipped in the back pews (section where slaves sat) sang this great Hymn that was born in that Era. I visited this church facility a few years ago and saw where the slaves sat. This song not only exalts Jesus, but also the Israel that produced Jesus. The slaves and the slave masters sang together:
“All hail the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall;
bring forth the royal diadem, and crown Him Lord of all.
Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown Him Lord of all.
Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race, ye ransomed from the Fall,
hail Him who saves you by His grace, and crown Him Lord of all.
Hail Him who saves you by His grace, and crown Him Lord of all.
Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball,
to Him all majesty ascribe, and crown Him Lord of all.
To Him all majesty ascribe, and crown Him Lord of all. ”
The Christian slaves understood that they were grafted into the family of Abraham and they made Israel’s story, their story. How did the slaves endure, overcome, and find hope while being in physical bondage for over 200 years? I’ll tell you how!!! They learned the story of Israel having been delivered from Egyptian slavery. They heard sermons based on the story. They originated songs based on the story. The most succinct, simplest, inspiring and empowering song sang by the slaves that provided hope, encouragement, and care, in the midst of despair was the song-“Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep.” But they also sang based on the story of Israel: “Deep River,” “Didn’t It Rain Children,” “Twelve Gates to the City…”
We are no longer in the bondage of physical slavery, but we are in slavery to debt, drugs, family feuding, fatherlessness, and spiritual bondage. May the Lord continue to bless His people with a song!
There are three things that we should remember that can deliver us from our dilemmas:
- God gave us the Scriptures that He gave to Israel. God promised us that if we would read, study and apply the Scriptures to our lives, we would be successful (Joshua 1:8).
- God gives us songs inspired by His land and people, Israel. Speaking of Israel and her ability to inspire singing, the Psalmist wrote, “Both the singers and the players on instruments say, All my springs are in you.” Israel is the home, the foundation and “springs” of all true Kingdom-centered God-glorifying instrumental and vocal music (Psalm 87:7). God wants you to sing to Him a song everyday throughout the years. He said the origin of that song would “spring” from Israel.
- God gave us a Savior who was born in Bethlehem (Israel), hid in Egypt (Africa), raised in Nazareth, baptized in the Jordan, tempted in the wilderness, performed miracles along the roadside, raised Lazarus from the dead at Bethany, walked on the water in Galilee, brought salvation to Zaccheus house in Jericho, prayed all night long in Gethsemane, was crucified on Calvary, raised from the dead in Jerusalem, and will one day return to the Mount of Olives.
You ought to sing about Him. You ought to shout His praises. You ought to say “Blessed is He who has come in the name of the Lord.” You ought to sing “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, Pharaoh’s army got drowned in the sea. Oh Mary don’t you weep, tell Martha not to moan.”
You ought to go to Jerusalem and see the place where they crucified Him, because, “Surely He Died on Calvary.” You ought to go to Jerusalem and see the garden where He prayed. Then sing, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” You ought to stand in the dungeon where they kept Him all night long before they crucified Him, and then sing “Were You There?”! You ought to sit in the Upper Room in Jerusalem and sing with Mahalia Jackson, “In the Upper Room.” A trip to Israel will physically connect us to what we are already spiritually connected to.
1) Later versions of the song inter-mix Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus into the song, without noting the distinctions within the song between Mary the African slave and Mary the sister of Lazarus. When it’s understood that Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, are added to embellish the deliverance—dilemma motif, then this song is not theologically problematic.
Some have criticized and others have rejected this song, because of the seeming inaccurate participation of Mary the sister of Lazarus into the Exodus story. If the historicity of the song is properly understood, then it does not pose any doctrinal accurate questions.
2) Dr. Martin Luther King did not reference this song in his sermon, “The Death of Evil on the Seashore.” I made mention of his sermon because it documents the popularity of the Exodus event in the Black Christian community. Secondly, the song was at its zenith of popularity during Dr. King’s lifetime. Therefore, it was inevitable that he was familiar with it.