Carol Story: Africans in America Go To The Mountain

It may be fair to conclude that the first Christmas carol created on the shores of the U.S. was by Americans of African descent. That is, African-Americans.

Keep in mind that, in #CarolStory, the ten-minute play by Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries, the definition of a Christmas carol is a song that includes the salvation message of Christ amid the story of the birth of Jesus.

Until “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was put to paper by John Wesley Work Jr., in 1906, the traditional carols sung in the States originated in Europe. Work collected, transcribed and published numerous songs born from the oral traditions of African-American slavery. Many were sung by the original Fisk Jubilee Singers after the Civil War.

LEARN MORE: John Wesley Work & Fisk University Singers

“Go Tell It…” embodies the faith many slaves deeply held in Christianity as their route to freedom once they unraveled the scriptures for themselves. This contasted with acquiescence to the limited Bible knowledge misappropriated by their owners to justify enslavement.

As with many slave songs, “Go Tell It…” is coded. The title implies the direct evangelical imperative to go and tell others of Him that Jesus gave after His resurrection; His earlier declaration that even the rocks would tell who He is, and the post-birth sharing by the birth by the shepherds and the Wise Men. Such allusions made the song palatable to owners who missed the potential abolitionist cues “to go” from place to places and prepare for liberation.

The latter idea was not lost upon civil rights advocates in the 1960s who adapted the tune and lyrics as a freedom song.

Many recorded arrangements of “Go Tell It…” embellish the lyrics with joyous gospel funk rhythms, and live choirs embrace the audience sing-along qualities. Either interpretation is effective. The #CarolStoryPlaylist includes video versions that show the universality of the lyrics, and represent the sacred passion of the Negro spirituals which Works captured from the Jubilee Singers.

The playlist again employs a rendition by the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, that reflects the soulful hope characteristic in spirituals.
The universal influence of “Go Tell It…” is illustrated in two videos borrowed from the playlist of “Freedom Song,” the Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries historical program about African-American music and Biblical scriptures. One is a recording by a choir in Oslo, Norway. The other, by the 1960s folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary, captures the abolitionist spirit by adapting the lyrics as a civil rights anthem show.

LEARN MORE:Adapted Lyrics and Recordings History.

One More Thing…

John Wesley Work Jr.
John Wesley Work Jr.

Not as well known as the European composers before him, many of the authors of gospel and Christmas songs afterwards, or even the Fisk Jubilee Singers whose music he catalogued and chronicled, John Wesley Work Jr. Is an important person to know and study. And so, we link.

LEARN MORE: John Wesley Work Jr. Biography.

LEARN MORE: Songs Adapted, Arranged by John Wesley Work Jr.

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson’s classic, unplugged recording, 1950.

Mahalia Jackson was an American gospel singer. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.”  She became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.

LEARN MOREMahalia Jackson Biography

Mahalia Jackson is also one of the individuals whose story is included in  the Kingdom Impact Theater production, “Faith, Hope & Love:  History-Making Women of Faith,” a one-woman performance by Vikki J.  Myers.

The Oslo Gospel Choir

Oslo Gospel Choir is a Norwegian gospel choir centred in Oslo, Norway conducted by Tore W. Aas. The choir started in 1988 and has become one of the most successful in Europe and America. They have released around 20 albums. They are very much influenced by the American black gospel sound and Andraé Crouch is a major source of inspiration, with his approach in taking the gospel out of the churches and into other arenas, reaching a larger audience. The choir has sold over 1.5 million albums.

LEARN MORE: Oslo Gospel Choir History

Peter, Paul & Mary

Peter, Paul and Mary was an American folk group formed in New York City in 1961, during the American folk music revival phenomenon. The trio was composed of tenor Peter Yarrow, baritone Noel Paul Stookey and alto Mary Travers. The group’s repertoire included songs written by Yarrow and Stookey, early songs by Bob Dylan as well as covers of other folk musicians. After the death of Travers in 2009, Yarrow and Stookey continued to perform as a duo under their individual names.

LEARN MORE: Peter, Paul and Mary History.


Carol Story: Elvis & The Prophecy

This carol is one of 61 on the playlist of “Carol Story,”  a 10-minute play that tells the story of Christ solely through lyrics of Christmas songs as dialogue.  Learn More.

O Little Town of Bethlehem” is the fulfillment of prophecy that was proclaimed in Micah 5:1-2.  This eloquently recording by Elvis Presley, backed up by his compatriots The Jordanaires, is from  his simple beginnings and reflect his deep, yet embattled faith in Christ. 

Elvis was poster-child for conflicted Believers, especially those in performing arts.  He was among the first of countless recording artists — such as  Sam Cooke and Whitney Houston — who began singing in church and, in many cases, started their musical careers recording gospel, worship and praise songs, but who later passed away because of dubious life choices.

LEARN MORE:  Micah’s Bethlehem Prophecy

Before the glitz and worldly temptations led to “Blue Christmas” and its ilk, Presley’s pure baritone resonated in gospel selections. Even backstage before concert, Elvis and his posse would warm up with songs of the gospel genre. He occasionally included some onstage.

His interpretation here presents the crispness of the night, the peace on earth, the calm before the storm of activity.  

We cannot tell #CarolStory without the lyrics which introduce new characters and setting in which to act the events of travelling to Bethelehem to see this thing that had been fulfilled.

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” The Script

“Carol Story” Live

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires

Elvis Aaron Presley was an American singer and actor. Regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, he is often referred to as the “King of Rock and Roll” or simply “the King.”

LEARN MORE:  Elvis’ Biography

More Christmas MEMos and Wonderings

Advent Revelations

Christmas and All The (Indy) News

Shopping at 15

Combatting Cultural Christmas

Sinterklaas, Piet and Me

Sophomoric Christmas

Worship in The Barn

The Virgin Shall Be With Child: Really?

When the 25th Is Over

Family Affairs

“These commandments I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (New International Version)

The motto – mission – of my home church is “developing a family of Christ-followers.” The goal is multi-faceted: to encourage the members and regular attendees to interact with each other as a family; to recognize that we are of diverse ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, ideas, temperaments yet united by blood…the blood of Christ. In the months which have five Sundays, the fifth Sunday is designated Family First Sunday.

In many cases a church-family relationship is stronger than that of bloodkin…those siblings, cousins, or others of the biological chain. Celebrations, like Christmas or Easter, have a different level of joy among a church family because of the mutual understanding of certain rituals. At the same time, as family we are reminded that there will be moments of dysfunction. We are to work to overcome dysfunction and disagreements through Christ rather than on our own. Face it: without the accountability of Christ, when family feuds occur, it’s easy to say no…to walk away from a family relationship. To walk away from the family, period.

Naturally, there are critiques that it’s not necessary to be Christian to have family cohesion…that Christian faith doesn’t have exclusive claim on holding families together…and that, indeed, Christianity can be the REASON for familial discord. Consider the number of people who have been “disowned” for choosing to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Those familiar with the Scriptures recognize this familial rejection isn’t a surprise. Christ himself explained to his disciples,

“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:53-55)

Such discord happened in his own family when religious leaders tried to get his mother and siblings to stop him from performing miracles, declaring he was possessed by Satan. In setting the leaders straight, Jesus introduced the “concept” of the extended family:

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? (Matthew 12:40) Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:48).

Disagreements notwithstanding, there’s another part of “developing a family” to take into consideration: Bonding of biological kinfolk who recognize dysfunctions of the family, their own physical or emotional MALfunctions, understand who Jesus is, and unabashedly call to Him for strength and comfort in the midst of their maladies. Indeed, they readily, audibly praise him for little things: like taking a step, a breath, or remembering what breakfast was. A personification of this perspective appeared during a holiday celebration.


Dinner had ended. Family fun festivities were about to begin. Dinner was the first time they’d ever met, many of these relatives. A grandma, two daughters, a husband, a grandson, a granddaughter and two great grandchildren spread out across two rooms surrounding the dining table and assorted décor. Their seating arrangement was framed. Still-life posing for a Renaissance painter. Each life contained a story of faith in the face of misfortune.

Grandma struggled with memory voids that frustrated her, tested the patience of youngsters, and saddened those who knew her mental acumen back in the day — particularly the daughters. So, they tapped into the credo an Ancestor-in-Law printed on envelopes of all his family and business correspondence in the bygone era:

“The family that prays together, stays together.”

Without fanfare, they prayed. Regularly. Aloud. Whenever. Prayed for patience, the absence of outbursts, deliverance from depression, liberation from blood pressure spikes. They prayed for, fill-in-the-blank. Daughter No. 1 prayed not only for her mother, but also for her Husband, wheelchair-bound across the room, felled by diabetes-related kidney malfunction. He had been sitting in the chair for all of the four hours since they had arrived. It was restful. Once he got out of the car which transported him, it took him a good 15 minutes of standing and leaning on his walker to figure out how to position his body to climb the two steps to get into the door and collapse into his chariot. With each sweaty, shuffled step, he said, “Thank you, Jesus,” in earnest. He knew that, without the power of Christ, he had neither to strength to stand, nor turn, nor drop his bulky frame into the chair. “Thank you. Thank you, Jesus.”

(He again intoned the praise when the evening ended, two hours later…the last 30 minutes of which he spent working out how to lift from the chair and go DOWN the two steps in order to walk to the car 10-feet away. Reaching the auto, The Husband paused and intoned, “I am tired of this,” to “Thank you, Jesus.” Not as a matter of complaint, but as confession, a request and a goal.)

Seated in the room, The Husband stroked his beloved Bree, a sweater-clad lapdog, the closest he and Daughter No. 1 had to offspring. Bree was a blessing to him. As were the great-grandchildren — his niece and nephew — who bandied about, as single-digit children should at holiday time, noisily and free, yet within boundaries. The boundaries were set, and quietly reinforced, by their father — The Grandson — whose patience was essential on a day such as this. They had driven six hours, half of them in heavy snow, and had arrived a couple of hours later than expected because of a late start. The delay only slighted infringed upon the time of Daughter No. 2 – his aunt — who had driven three hours to rendezvous with him and his family at the state border.

On the return ride, they did some long overdue catching up. It had been years. The Grandson was now a single dad with shared custody. The previous five years had been contentious and life-changing. Only five months earlier Jesus had evolved from a concept to reality. Despite only part-time parent duty, he developed full-time presence; so much so that when he stepped into the garage to help The Husband from wheelchair to car, his daughter quietly melted down indoors, fearing she had been abandoned.  Despite her brother’s reassurance, she mellowed only when her father returned and assured her he was always around…an embodiment of the commandment of Deuteronomy 6, not confining the instruction to a specific day, time, or other individual — say, a professional theologian — but teaching them:

“when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up;”

The prodigal had learned the children were his responsibility…and the church’s..together. Each would put the family first.


There are several reasons we declare fifth Sundays “Family First Sunday.”

One is to publicly display speaking, performing or musical gifts of various members of our church family. This is an element of “developing a family of Christ-followers.” Another reason is to remind us that we are  an intergenerational church, thus mutually accountable, and that paid staff or elected leaders are not the only ministers in our midst. This particular Sunday included an uncle baptizing his nephew; two child dedications; a mother-daughter duet; stories of faith by a teen worker, a first-year teacher, a new dad; a sermonette by a college intern, and an all-ages brunch served by the teens.

Interaction of ages within a church family has a positive impact in passing down values or uplifting dispositions. Faith values passed among bloodkin produce a unity that transcends years of separation and state lines.  The gathering of the family, only three of whom attend our church, embodied these concepts:

The arrival of the great-grandchildren revived The Grandma and The Husband from midwinter funk.  The presence of men, the active presence of men, was settling among the children and reassuring for the women.  Prayer was a universal response to situations, good and bad, not simply words muttered so food could be munched.

Family First is to remind parents, grandparents and children to seek and grasp family moments: to enjoy traditions, to establish traditions; to see God at work in triumph, tragedy, good times and bad; to put down the gadgets, notebooks, work schedules, even ministry responsibilities, and embrace each other.

This idea of family is harder to embrace in our fast-paced, instant “Like,” microwave, iPod, want-it-now world of 140-character communication, and fleeting BFFs. Yet long before there were schools, Sunday schools or TV teaching, surmounting this task was God’s instructions to the adults, recorded in Deuteronomy 6:6-7: “These commandments I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children.”

“The Virgin Shall Be With Child” Really?

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. — Isaiah 7:14 (New International Version)

A favorite film is the classic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” starring John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin.  Its climax includes one of cinema’s most iconic lines of dialogue:

“This is the West, sir,” a newspaper editor says at the end of an interview.  He rips his notes from their notebook.  “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  And he tosses the notes into a fire.

The film came to mind during a Christmas trivia game with our youth group and several adults.  Games, of course, are supposed to be fun.  They also are used to unveil pretense and get to the core of human behavior.  Gaming experiences, it’s said, “are worth a thousand pictures,” bringing to the surface deep-seated emotions and values.

This particular game challenges a person’s knowledge of the Christmas story according to the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth.  The goal of the game:  “How much of the story we know is Scriptural; how much the stuff of Hallmark — its cards or movies?”


Lee Marvin, John Wayne & James Stewart, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

There was true-false, multiple choice, the occasional “none of the above,” and “we don’t know”  answers.  Among the latter was how many Wise Men were there, and where was Jesus born:  in a cave, a tree, an inn, a stable?  There were just enough “we don’t knows” that they ignited a teen rebellion.  One, a group leader, flung her game sheet across the room in mock exasperation.  Another teen, a newcomer and cynic about Christian faith, seized the moment to strengthen her perspective that the Bible couldn’t be trusted.  In another room, adults — all of whom were long-time Christ-followers, including two pastors and two Sunday school teachers — struggled with some of the questions, too, muttering several awes and wonders.

The most earth-shattering moment, however, came not from a game question but in response to a straight-forward true-false statement:  “Mary was a virgin when when she delivered Jesus.”

From the powerful lungs of a skilled nine-year-old reader, these words cut the air:  “What’s a VIRGIN!?”

Eyes turned toward her mother in the next room as silence loomed in the air.  The adults cleared back, mentally at least, like onlookers in the Liberty Valance showdown.  Finally, the mom’s alto emerged:  “Baaaahhhh-b!” she said, hailing the youth pastor who’d initiated the game.

“Well?” said the child“What’s a vir-gin?”

Eventually, the adults collectively declared for nine-year-old comprehension:  “A virgin is a woman who hasn’t had a baby yet.”  This response sated the preteen, who returned to answering questions, and bought time for the mom to talk with dad about fast-tracking certain  forthcoming family biology discussions.

Meanwhile, in the basement the same True-False interrogation had an equally “stop the presses” affect upon the teens who have taken biology.   “Wait?” blurted a freshman girl. “Wait. What?  WAIT!  How…?  Uh-uh!  No way.  Really? What?” The sequence of utterances would not have been as mind-boggling from, say, the cynical newcomer.  However, this lass had recently completed confirmation classes at her Catholic church.  Now, not having a Catholic background, I’m not familiar with the specifics of the class content; however, I know enough about the Catholic faith to realize that the Virgin Mary is revered — so much so, I assumed that the significance of Jesus’ mother being a virgin would not be a foreign concept.   The other teens were equally surprised that a girl with her background was so thunderstruck.  Perhaps we can chalk it up to a teen’s proverbial, “Uh, I missed that day.”

Or, we can chalk it up to something that happens to many people on a spiritual journey that involves Christian faith.  There are moments in our lives when the words in the Bible become more than words, but begin to connect with our everyday lives.  They make sense in ways we didn’t expect, didn’t want, and sometimes don’t want to acknowledge.  hgjh

At the same time, there are moments when people of Christian faith who have been believers in Christ for many years, are slapped in the face with the fact that we often take for granted what we’ve been taught and, having gotten accustomed to the annual — what?  play, song, traditions, rituals, teachings?– that we forget to go back to the source.  Sometimes we print our own legends instead of re-reading the facts.

That was a purpose of the game which wasn’t clearly articulated in the moment because of the detours.  But they were humbling lessons that came later.  God has a way of doing that.


One of the offshoots of this experience was that it solidfied a structure the Lead Pastor was considering for the Christmas Eve service.  “We don’t read the Christmas story much anymore,” he said.  The Christmas story of Christ, in our culture, has gotten lost.  So, on Christmas Eve, we read The Christmas Story at church as recorded in the two New Testament gospels, Matthew and Luke.  Here is the sequence.  Read it for the first time, or the umpteenth.  Just remember,  for the record, a virgin is a woman who has not had sexual relations.   I added that in case you were absent that day.