Alan Keyes
'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' as a rugby anthem?
By Alan Keyes
March 20, 2017

The spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has reportedly become an anthem popular among British rugby fans. Recently I read an article about this noting the "solemn origins" of the song as a "slave spiritual." The article mentions that "Josephine Wright, a professor of music and black studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio" says that the spiritual's lyrics "allude to feelings of despair and a desire for release from suffering." She contends that its use as a rugby anthem is an example of the "cross cultural appropriations of U.S. slave songs" which "betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave."

In reality, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is a song of faith, and more specifically, of Christian biblical faith. St. Paul defines faith as "the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things unseen." Spirituals are no more expressions of despair than Christ's plaintive cry from the cross, demanding to know why God has forsaken him. They arise from a spirit that, in the depths of suffering, still looks to God, rejecting despair. Thus, like the crucified Christ, they bear witness to hope. In the midst of material deprivation and torment, which the world fears and despises, the spirit they express defies the world's verdict that all is lost. It holds fast instead to God's purpose of salvation.

The true wellspring of the spiritual is entirely missed or misunderstood by ideologues who worship (give worth to) only measurable, material things. That's because spirituals are a material expression (something that can be heard and felt) of what is otherwise an outwardly imperceptible disposition of one's inner life. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" exactly expresses this spiritual disposition: to look to God, against all odds, for the answer that makes purpose clear, even in the midst of suffering; even when death is nigh.

With this in mind, the story of how the spiritual "Swing low, Sweet Chariot" was first employed as a rugby song makes perfect sense. During a championship game between England and Ireland, England appeared to be down and out. A few fans who refused to lose faith in the English team used the song to express their feelings. (They may have been influenced by the fact that Christ Otis, who "scored a hat trick of tries against Ireland," was the first black to play for England in their lifetimes.) Against all odds, their stubborn faith was rewarded with victory. Taken up by fans throughout the stadium, the song resounded as a rousing anthem of praise and celebration.

This story has interesting parallels with what happened to the spiritual during the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s. It was an anthem of expectant good faith. It helped to inspire the courage of people who defied superior power. Armed with nothing but their faithful zeal for justice, they accepted Martin Luther King's challenge to bear non-violent witness to the truth of their cause, even unto death. As that witness spread, touching America's heart and conscience, the spiritual became a song of thanks and praise, lifted up in gratitude to God for the harvest of support that gave evidence of His goodwill.

Snooty intellectuals can pretend if they like that sports fans dishonor the "solemn spiritual" when they use it to express their faith in a rugby team – but isn't such undaunted faith of a piece with the spirit the British people showed when they answered Churchill's call to "never give up, never give in" to the Nazi menace? Was that spirit any less true and honorable because it was nurtured on the playing fields of Eton? Or should we reject it now because it comes into play in the stands, where working men and women display the resolve they also show in their everyday lives, as their refusal to despair sustains the heart from which they labor faithfully to love and raise their children, sustain their communities, and make known the unsung nobility of their names – names no less immortal because, in ages to come, they may be known only to God.

This dauntless quality of the human spirit is not just the possession of black people enslaved in the cotton fields, or white Britishers enduring the Blitz. In every country, amongst every nation, there have been times when that spirit rose to the occasion – in defense of home and family, right and justice, or joyously to express a community's respect and love for sons and daughters at play, who also refuse to be discouraged, no matter the odds against them.

The fact that "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has morphed into a rugby anthem is proof that it reflects a capacity for faith, hope, and love that is common to all humanity. As a black American, I dare not resent its appeal to others, or the fact that others make use of it in a way closed minds choose to despise as trivial or unworthy. For centuries now, people the world despises as trivial and worthless have been proving (in ways only God expected) that the spirit displayed by conquerors and kings is not exclusive to those who fancy themselves as such. It lives also in the lowly, whom life appears to crucify, but whom God Himself honors, and whom He is willing to remember, beyond time and this place, forever.

I have sung spirituals many times in my life, relying on God, and remembering my enslaved ancestors' faith and trust in Him. I will go on singing them, if only in my heart – pleased to think of their appeal to people in Great Britain, or South Africa, in Israel, India, Iraq, or anywhere in earth and heaven. For their appeal extends wherever hope endures, sustained by good faith; wherever faith prevails, rousing good courage in those who refuse despair. I know what strength God offers to people of goodwill, whether on playing fields etched in the ordinary woes and little victories of everyday life; or on battlefields steeped in the wretched sacrifice of blood. Since His spirit does not despise to make the offer, why is it right to despise those whose answering spirits rise to the occasion? They rise because, even unbeknownst to ourselves, to do so is the natural vocation of our humanity.

To see more articles by Dr. Keyes, visit his blog at and his commentary at and

© Alan Keyes


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Alan Keyes

Dr. Keyes holds the distinction of being the only person ever to run against Barack Obama in a truly contested election – featuring authentic moral conservatism vs. progressive liberalism – when they challenged each other for the open U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 2004... (more)


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