Don’t get carried away on this chariot
I am not a Rugby fan and perhaps that is why I don’t understand why rugby supporters would wish to sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. But why not if they wish? The words have been taken out of the original context of slavery and altered to fit a new situation, which is now about bringing home a triumphant rugby team. And the original context emphasised how bad slavery was.
There is a parallel with the hymn: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord. This is derived from the song John Brown’s Body lies a’moulding in the grave, which was sung in the American Civil War to celebrate a certain John Brown who lost his life fighting against the slave trade. One might as well say: because this once had something to do with slavery, we shouldn’t sing the hymn – even though John Brown opposed the slave trade!
So, what was the original situation? It seems it was a song written by a slave called Wallace Willis. He was thinking of the Biblical story where Elijah was taken up to heaven in a chariot, and the song probably represents a wish to leave this world in similar fashion. But it was also probably a coded message about taking the railroad “chariot” (code for the undercover escape route for slaves), in which case “heaven” would be freedom in the North/emancipation.
So it actually emphasises the plight of the slaves. One learns that life was so tough that the slaves either wanted to die, or escape. The song in no way celebrates slavery! The fact that it is still sung – both in its original form and in altered form by Rugby fans – is also a tribute to the slaves.
The original song is testimony to the Christian faith of the slaves. To me this faith is remarkable because they could only have learnt this faith from their “owners” – the white plantation owners. And their trust in the Lord was not dented by all that they had to endure. The massive Christian presence in the American deep south today is a testimony to this.
The original religious sense of the song is captured in the full words as follows (though there is debate about whether some may have been added later).
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home;
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan,
And WHAT did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home,
A band of angels comin' after me,
Comin' for to carry me home
Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down, Comin’ for to carry me home But still my soul feels heavenly bound. Comin’ for to carry me home
The brightest day that I can say, Comin’ for to carry me home When Jesus washed my sins away. Comin’ for to carry me home