The term "spiritual" is derived from spiritual song. The King James Bible's translation of Ephesians 5:19 is: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The term spiritual song was often used in the black and white Christian community through the 19th century (and indeed much earlier), and spiritual was used as a noun to mean, according to the context, spiritual person or spiritual thing, but not specifically with regard to song. Negro spiritual first appears in print in the 1860s, where slaves are described as using spirituals for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music.
Musicologist George Pullen Jackson extended the term spiritual to a wider range of folk hymnody, as in his 1938 book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, but this does not appear to have been widespread usage previously. The term though has often been broadened to include subsequent arrangements into more standard European-American hymnodic styles, and to include post-emancipation songs with stylistic similarities to the original Negro spirituals.
Although numerous rhythmical and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources, Negro spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans and their descendants. They are a result of the interaction of music and religion from Africa with music and religion of European origin. Further, this interaction occurred only in the United States. Africans who converted to Christianity in other parts of the world, even in the Caribbean and Latin America, did not evolve this form.
Jubilee Singers of Fisk University
In the 1850s, Reverend Alexander Reid, superintendent of the Spencer Academy in the old Choctaw Nation, hired some enslaved Africans from the Choctaws for some work around the school. He heard two of them, "Uncle Wallace" and "Aunt Minerva" Willis, singing religious songs they had apparently composed. Among these songs were Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I'm a Rolling, and Roll Jordan Roll. Later, Reid, who left Indian Territory at the beginning of the Civil War, attended a musical program put on by a group of Negro singers from Fisk University. They were singing mostly popular music of the day, and Reid thought the songs he remembered from his time in the Choctaw Nation would be at least as appropriate. He and his wife transcribed the songs of the Willises as they remembered them and sent them to Fisk University.
The Jubilee Singers put on their first performance singing the old captives' songs at a religious conference in 1871. The songs were first published in 1872 in a book titled Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, by Theodore F. Seward. Wallace Willis died in 1883 or 84.
Over time the pieces the Jubilee Singers performed came to be arranged and performed by trained musicians. In 1873, Mark Twain, whose father had owned slaves, found Fisk singing to be "in the genuine old way" he remembered from childhood. By contrast an anonymous 1881 review in the Peoria Journal said "they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbaric melody, the passion….They smack of the North…." Some fifty years later, Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 book The Sanctified Church criticized Fisk singers, and similar groups at Tuskegee and Hampton, as using a "Glee Club style" that was "full of musicians' tricks" not to be found in the original Negro spirituals, urging readers to visit an "unfashionable Negro church" to experience real Negro spirituals.