Romancing History

Category: History Behind the Hymns

The Story Behind “Go Tell It on the Mountain”

Photo by Danilo Ćalić on Unsplash

Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born (Chorus)

While shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night
Behold throughout the heavens there shone a Holy light

“Go Tell It on the Mountain” is one of the most well-known and beloved Negro spirituals and represents just one of the countless contributions made to American music by enslaved people. These songs represented a passion for life and living despite the suffering, humiliation, and unimaginable cruelty of slavery.

The shepherds feared and trembled, when lo! Above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus that hailed the Savior’s birth

Because most slaves were uneducated, these songs were passed along through a vibrant and rich oral tradition and were eventually captured and written down by one special American family. Not long after the Civil War, John Wesley Work, a Black choir director in Nashville, Tennessee, began a mission to write down melodies and lyrics of these well-known songs, often traveling hundreds of miles to seek former slaves who had sung this and other songs while they labored.

Down in a lowly manger, our humble Christ was born
And brought us all salvation that blessed Christmas morn

Work’s passion for the music and history of these plantations songs was passed on to his son, John Wesley Work II, whose wife was the music teacher at nearby Fisk University, one of the first universities for Blacks in the south. Beginning in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers went on tour introducing the world to the genre of Negro spirituals while raising funds to keep the doors of their school open. Before long, their repertoire of uplifting spirituals not only saved their university but earned them world-wide recognition including notable audiences with President Chester Arthur and Queen Victoria.

When I was a seeker, I sought both night and day,
I asked the Lord to help me, and he showed me the way.

During the Great Depression, John Work III, also embraced his family’s passion for preserving old Negro spirituals and took special interest in “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Through his own interviews and research, he changed the arrangement and added a stanza. In 1940, he published his rendition in his book American Negro Songs and Spirituals and is the version we know today.

Although the creators of spirituals like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” will forever remain anonymous, the Work family and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers have played an important role in preserving and popularizing this uniquely American genre of music.

He made me a watchman upon a city wall
And if I am a Christian, I am the least of all.

I have several versions of Go Tell It on the Mountain in my Christmas playlist: The Golden Gospel Singers, Sara Evans, and For King & Country.

Your turn: Do you have Go Tell It on the Mountain on your Christmas playlist? If so, which version? If not, which version above is your favorite?

The Inspiring Story Behind “It Is Well With My Soul”

Can you imagine everything in your life going well? You’re happily married, have five beautiful children, at the pinnacle of your career and you’ve even managed to squirrel away enough money to provide for your family’s every want and need. Under circumstances like that, it’s easy to say ‘it is well with my soul.’

But what if tragedy struck? Not once, but multiple times. What if your golden life, your ticket to easy street, was taken away in the blink of an eye, at no cause of your own?

That is exactly what happened to Horatio Spafford, the man who wrote one of the most soul-stirring hymns in the Christian hymnal, “It Is Well with My Soul.”

Horatio Spafford was a successful lawyer in Chicago who had invested heavily in real estate along the shores of Lake Michigan. Horatio was a prosperous man, a devoted husband and father, and a devout Christian. But in 1870, a series of events began to turn his life inside out.

Horatio and Anna’s only son, Horatio Jr., died of Scarlet Fever at the tender age of four. The following year, while still mourning the loss of their son, every single one of Horatio’s investments were lost in the Great Chicago fire.

A few years later, aware of the toll these events had taken on his wife and four daughters, Horatio decided to take the family on a holiday to England where they would accompany his friend, the famous evangelist D. L. Moody, on his next crusade. Shortly before they were to set sail, a last minute business development threatened to derail the trip. Horatio persuaded his wife to go ahead saying he would follow along shortly.

The Spafford Children. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

In November 1873, Anna and the girls boarded the French ship, Ville du Havre. Four days into their trans-Atlantic journey, Horatio received the devastating news that the Ville du Havre had collided with the Lock Earn, an iron-hulled vessel. The Ville du Havre sunk in 12 minutes taking with her the lives of 226 of her passengers. It was the worst disaster in naval history until the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic forty years later.

Several days later when the survivors had reached Cardiff, Wales, Spafford received a brief, six word telegram from his wife: Saved alone. What shall I do?

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

As soon as possible, Horatio boarded a ship to join his grieving wife. En route to England, the captain called him to the bridge and said “a careful reckoning has been made, and I  believe we are now passing the very area where the Ville du Havre sunk.” According to Bertha Spafford Vester, a daughter born after the tragedy, her father wrote “It Is Well With My Soul” while on this journey.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul


Horatio and Anna’s faith in God never faltered. He later wrote to Anna’s half-sister, “On Thursday last, we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe….. dear lambs”.

Naturally Anna was utterly devastated, but she testified that in her grief and despair, she had been conscious of a soft voice speaking to her, “You were saved for a purpose!” She remembered something a friend had once said, “It’s easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a fair-weather friend to God.”


It’s incredible to think such encouraging and uplifting words were born from the depths of such unimaginable sorrow. It’s an example of truly inspiring faith and trust in the Lord. Perhaps that’s why this hymn, like no other, demonstrates the power our God has to comfort our weary souls when the darkest tragedies overtake us.


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