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Go Tell It On The Mountain – Theology in Song

The hymn, “Go Tell it On the Mountain” has had a past of oral tradition. The chorus has remained consistent throughout its history. However, the verses have changed over time. The hymn began as an African American spiritual dating back to at least 1865, and has been sung by many gospel and secular performers. It is considered a Christmas carol because of its reference to events surrounding the birth of Christ.  

In October of 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded as a 10-member touring ensemble, were credited with being the first to make the song known internationally. It was then published in Religious Folk Songs in 1909, with the heading “Christmas Plantation Song”.  John Wesley Work Jr. made the song even more broadly popular with the stanzas taken directly from Luke 2:8-20, the Christmas story. 

Chorus

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

Oldest Verses – Note that in these original verses from the plantation spiritual song, the focus was on seeking the Savior, Jesus Christ with humility.

When I was a seeker I sought both night and day I asked the Lord to help me And He showed me the way He made me a watchmanUpon a city wall And if I am a Christian I am the least of all 

More Recent Verses – Keeping the same chorus, the verses below show a subtle transition from humbly seeking the Savior (underlined above), Jesus Christ, to a focus on the actual event of the birth of Christ (below, left verses). 

*While shepherds kept their watching Over silent flocks by night Behold throughout the heaven There shone a holy light. *Down in a lowly manger. The humble Christ was born And God sent us salvation That blessed Christmas morn.
*The shepherds feared and trembled,When lo! above the earth, Rang out the angels That hailed the Savior’s birth. I too am like a shepherd, My flock of days to guard, Each day finds time for praying, From this I won’t retard.
And lo! When they had heard it,They all bowed down to pray, Then traveled on together, To where the Baby lay. 
  

Current Verses – Marked by an * above are the contemporary verses we may be most familiar with. Note (highlighted in yellow) the difference between the second to last stanza of our current version – where Christ was the humble baby in a lowly manger, to the original lyrics where the last verse ends with humanity as “least of all”. Also note that the stanza regarding our responsibility as “shepherds” and “praying” are no longer in common use.

Summary

It is interesting to note the verse changes over time, starting from a reference to the author humbly seeking the Lord, and God leading the way to Salvation to what we now sing, which has as its focus a “lowly manger” and a “humble Christ”. From its inception, “Go Tell It On The Mountain” has always been a Christmas song. However, the message of an adult Jesus ‘showing the way’ along with our own responsibilities as shepherds and the need for prayer have been replaced by the message of the baby in the manger. 

Jeff HillesBCWorldveiw.org

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