Behind the Song: Were You There {When they Crucified My Lord}

When you think of Spirituals, often upbeat songs such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho comes to mind.

However, some spirituals, such as Were You There {When they Crucified My Lord} are much slower and thought provoking.

Were You There enhances the pain those bound to slavery suffered. The tune and words are almost haunting as we are asked if you are there when my Lord was crucified.

One resource stated it accurately, “this put each Christian on the witness stand.”

The imagery grows and with each verse we are placed at the scene of the Crucifixion, where we can see the scene, here the pain of the nails, smell the blood as his side is pierced, feel the tremble of the earth, and witness the darkness cover the sun.

The slaves could relate to the pain and brutality that the Christ suffered while on the cross.

By the late 1800s, the spiritual had moved from the cotton fields into congregations of all nationalities.

This song serves as a reminder that Easter is for everyone regardless of the color of our skin, our nationality, our economic status, our background, age or social standing.

In Stories Behind the Traditions of Easter, the tone and theme is perfectly summed up. “Maybe the fact that spirituals were the joint cries and shouts of Christians looking for the freedom that only God could bring gives the message of this song much more impact. None of us were there in body when Christ died, but all of us need to go there in spirit. To understand the gift of salvation, each sinner must realize that he or she is a slave to the world: only then does seeing Christ on the cross make the impact all the more real.”

The spiritual was first published in the 1899 Old Plantation Hymnal, which was composed by William Eleazar Barton. In 1940, it was included in the Episcopal Hymnal. Were You There was the first spiritual to be included in any major American hymnal.

Many artists have covered the songs including Johnny Cash, Phil Keaggy, Marion Williams, Harry Belafonte, and Neil Tennant.













Imagine if you were present at the crucifixion of Christ. The authors of the spirituals did which is why we have Were You There #songhistory Share on X


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