42

When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land

Full Text

1 When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
let my people go,
oppressed so hard they could not stand,
let my people go.

Refrain:
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
tell old Pharaoh: let my people go.

2 The Lord told Moses what to do,
let my people go,
to lead the Hebrew children through,
let my people go. [Refrain]

3 As Israel stood by the waterside,
let my people go,
at God’s command it did divide,
let my people go. [Refrain]

4 When they had reached the other shore,
let my people go,
they let the song of triumph soar,
let my people go. [Refrain]

5 Lord, help us all from bondage flee,
let my people go,
and let us all in Christ be free,
let my people go. [Refrain]

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Scripture References

Confessions and Statements of Faith References

Further Reflections on Confessions and Statements of Faith References

The exodus from Egypt has become the key paradigm for God’s gracious deliverance. Our World Belongs to God, paragraph 5 shows God’s response to this event as evidence of the fact that “God holds this world with fierce love,” and paragraph 21 points to the fact that ”God chose Israel to show the glory of his name, the power of his love, and the wisdom of his ways.”
42

When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land

Additional Prayers

A Petitionary Prayer
 
Loving God, your people across the world face hardship and oppression.
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.
Christians are jailed or killed for being Christians.
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.
Christians find their sanctuaries smashed or burned.
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.
Christians find their own governments restricting their rights as Christians.
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go in Jesus’ name. Amen.
— Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
42

When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land

Tune Information

Name
GO DOWN MOSES
Key
g minor
Meter
irregular

Recordings

42

When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land

Hymn Story/Background

This African American spiritual dates from before the Civil War. It was published in the Jubilee Songs (1872), and was made popular by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in their concert tours. Often known by its refrain line, "Go down, Moses," the spiritual was also published in J. B. T. Marsh's The Story of the Jubilee Singers with their Songs (1876). "When Israel Was in Egypt's Land" originally had twenty-four stanzas of which Lift Up Your Hearts includes four narrative stanzas and one stanza of application. Commenting on the spiritual’s message, John Lovell, Jr., writes:  
 
             "Go Down, Moses" does not employ the undercurrent symbolism of "Steal Away to Jesus" and other such poems. Only a very obtuse listener can miss its point. It says flatly that Moses freed these Egyptian slaves boldly and justly because slavery is wrong. It clearly projects the principles of this experience to all the world: wherever men are held in bondage, they must and shall be freed. The "Let my people go!" refrain is thunderous. It does not argue economic, sociological, historical, and racial points. . . . It wastes no words and moves relentlessly toward its goal of filling every listener with a pervasive contempt for oppression and a resounding enthusiasm for freedom.
-from Black Song, 1972, pp. 326-327
 
A stanza not printed in Lift Up Your Hearts reiterates Lovell's point:
 
We need not always weep and moan
Let my people go!
And wear these slavery chains forlorn
Let my people go!
The final stanza in Lift Up Your Hearts is a prayer to God for freedom for all who are oppressed, a petition for liberation in Christ.
 
The spiritual is in the call-and-response pattern: a leader sings the verses with some rhythmic freedom, either unaccompanied or with only light accompaniment; the entire congregation sings the phrases "Let my people go!" and the refrain, probably in harmony. That practice fits well for stanzas 1-4, but the entire group should sing all of stanza 5.
— Bert Polman

Composer Information

The harmonization by John W. Work, Jr. (b. Nashville, TN, 1872; d. Nashville, 1925), was originally published in The Story of the Jubilee Singers (1896). Work is well known for his pioneering studies of African American folk music and for his leadership in the performance of spirituals. He studied music at Fisk University in Nashville and classics at Harvard and then taught Latin, Greek, and history at Fisk from 1898 to 1923. Director of the Jubilee Singers at Fisk, Work also sang tenor in the Fisk Jubilee Quartet, which toured the country after 1909 and made commercial recordings. He was president of Roger Williams University in Nashville during the last two years of his life. Work and his brother Frederick Jerome Work (1879-1942) were devoted to collecting, arranging, and publishing African American slave songs and spirituals. They published two collections: New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1901) and Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907).
— Bert Polman
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