Academic Programs 

Psalms and the Negro Spiritual (SC-538)
Summer 2004

The dynamics of lament and praise in the Psalter will be examined in conjunction with the expression of despair and hope in the American Negro Spiritual. 

Meeting Day, Time and Dates:
Monday, June 21 Friday, June 25, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Judy Fentress-Williams
Adjunct Professor of Hebrew Scriptures and Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary

Contact Information:

(860) 509-9500


Course Syllabus


This course is an examination of the Psalms and Negro Spirituals and their contexts and functions in their respective communities.  We will critically examine the contexts that produced Negro Spirituals and Psalms.  Using the texts of the Psalms and Spirituals we will catalogue the various functions of these prayers and songs.  Whenever possible, we will listen to the psalms and spirituals as they are expressed through song or chanting.  The similarities and differences between the music of these communities will create a dialogue that will provide a deeper understanding of the theology that is inherent in the Spirituals and the Psalms.  Wrestling with the theology of these materials will help us better understand how they might best function in our contemporary contexts.



  • Attendance and informed participation in daily class sessions is required. Students will be expected to generate two questions or comments each day from the assigned readings.  
  • Each student taking the course for credit will be expected to give a brief presentation on the final session of class, June 25, 2004, based on the final paper.
  • A fifteen-page paper will be due on Monday, July 5, 2004.  The paper may focus on either the Psalms or the Negro Spirituals, but must form a dialogue with the other.  In other words, if your final paper is on the Psalms of Lament, you will need to make some connection with Negro Spirituals.  If your paper focuses on some genre of the Negro Spirituals, you must uncover the relationship between the Spirituals and the Psalms.  All paper topics must be approved by the instructor and students will be expected to follow the Hartford Seminary Style Sheet.  You may submit your paper electronically to or you may mail it to: Judy Fentress-Williams, 3737 Seminary Road, Alexandria, VA 22304.

TEXTS (Available for purchase and on library reserve):

A recent translation of the Bible, either the NRSV or the Tanakh by Jewish Publication Society

Robert Alter.  The Art of Biblical Poetry.  New York: Harper Collins, 1985.

Walter Brueggemann.  The Psalms and the Life of Faith.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

James H. Cone. The Spirituals and the Blues.  Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1972.

James Weldon Johnson and Rosamond Johnson. The Books of American Negro Spirituals.    Da Capo Press, 1954.

Albert Raboteau.  Slave Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Howard Thurman.  Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death.  Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1975.

NOTE: Bring your Bible and The Books of American Negro Spirituals to each class meeting.



Monday, June 21            

Introduction to the Psalms: Overview of Scholarship, Parallelism,  Genres

Alter, pp. 1-84, 111-136

Tuesday, June 22           

Introduction to the Spirituals: Overview, Slavery and the Invisible Institution, Genres

Thurman, The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death
Raboteau, Slave Religion
Johnson & Johnson, pp. 11-50

Wednesday, June 23            

Function of the Psalms and Spirituals

Brueggemann, 1-97
Thurman, pp. 7-30

Thursday, June 24        

Psalms of Lament and Sorrow Songs
The Dialogic Journey Towards Healing
Psalms of Praise

Brueggemann, pp.98-132
Thurman, pp. 31-40, 53-57

Friday, June 25            

Class Presentations
The Psalms and Spirituals in Context

Brueggemann, 189-211
Cone, pp. 78-130
Thurman, pp. 49-52, 63-94


Hartford Seminary  77 Sherman Street  Hartford, CT  06105   860-509-9500