Sometime prior to 1862, Wallace Willis was overheard singing the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” while working at the Spencer Academy on the Choctaw Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. Being originally from Mississippi, the Choctaw Nation adopted the practice of owning slaves and brought them to Oklahoma during their relocation.
Willis was inspired by memories of the Red River in Mississippi, likening it to the Jordan River, and he wrote lyrics inspired by Second Kings chapter 2 verse 11:
“As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
The spiritual song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was written by a slave that was not only a captive in the South, but one that experienced the removal of the Native Americans from their land to Oklahoma. Although several spirituals contain hidden meaning on how to escape to the North, some scholars believe that the song is simply an anthem for eternal life beyond the circumstances of oppression, slavery, and displacement. According to one scholar in a BBC interview, “This fits into that group of spirituals that say ‘I would rather die than be here. Lord, just come and take me right now.’
150 years later, on the steps of the statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, a well-known Black Lives Matter activist committed suicide after years of emotional strain from: a lack of progress drawing attention to police brutality, media scrutiny, and infighting among allies. One of his last facebook posts was a screenshot of a threatening email he had received that promised to “make his life hell until he kept his mouth shut.” Dozens of other activists have shared similar stories of depression, anxiety, and insecurity. Wallace Willis may have shared the same feelings, and so even today it is easy to understand why he hoped for a chariot sent from heaven “coming for to carry him home.”
This song may not have been written out of a hope for a better life on Earth, but it still is a song of hope: hope for a reconnection with a higher power. We can only imagine the life that Wallis had to endure, and there is no doubt that for some people his life is still a reality. We see it in places like the Central African Republic, where violence and war have generated 450,000 internally displaced people, many of which are orphaned children. And we see the same hope in places like Flint, Michigan, where it took 19 months for state officials to address lead poisoned water that threatened the health of people already struggling with poverty.
As a treaty requirement after the Civil War, African American slaves, including Wallace Willis, became citizens of the Choctaw Nation. These former slaves were known as “Choctaw Freemen.” Willis lived the rest of his days in Oklahoma, where his unmarked grave is still located.
Obviously the Lutheran tradition is not to simply remind the oppressed in the promise of eternal life alone, as Wallis reassured himself with this particular song. But God calls us to do everything possible to relieve oppression in this world, in accordance with the gospel. What we are assured of with the image of fire in second Kings and the song lyrics, is the presence of God in our life and death.