While many of the great hymns are written out of the pain and anguish of a tragedy and the pain brought on by the ups and downs of life, the spirituals of the black church speak to a life of anguish. The slaves turned to Jesus because they recognized the connection through His suffering.
For African-Americans, the cross allowed them to see, in Christ, a God who saw their suffering and who understood their oppression. James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree:
“In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.”
“Were You There?” is possibly the greatest church spiritual ever written. The author and composer are both lost to history, as is the case with most slave hymns, and it was not put into print until 1899.
This amazing song shows the power and affect of the suffering cross. Mahatma Gandhi once said of it: “I feel that this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.”
The song tells the human story of suffering through the passion of Jesus. As Jesus suffered and died for the sins of all, the slaves sang about His passion in the first person. “O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!”
Just like Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross, When I Survey The Wondrous Cross, Abide With Me, It Is Well With My Soul and others, the greatest hymns are made great because they place the singer at the cross beholding the work of Jesus and marveling at the cross.
“Were You There” takes us to the cross, marveling at the suffering of Jesus and finding a loving and sacrificial God who delivers and saves us from our own suffering.