Climbing Jacob's Ladder: Reconstructing the Ladder in African American Spirituals

Article excerpt

And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28: 10-12, The Holy Bible, King James Version, 1611)

Jacob's Ladder-like the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, and the Tower of Babel-can be counted among the oldest images of western culture. Rooted in the oral traditions of Judaism of the second millennium BCE, the story of Jacob's Dream at Bethel recounts Jacob's flight from home, his arrival at a certain place in the wilderness, his pillow of stone, his dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending, God's covenant with Jacob and his people, and Jacob's commemoration of the site as Bethel (Genesis 28, 10-22). Across the centuries, this brief story, with its powerful image of a ladder to heaven, has been interpreted and reinterpreted by religious communities in sacred text, visual imagery, music, and other forms of cultural expression.

The complex history of Jacob's Ladder within American culture has only recently been addressed (Hummon, Envisioning Jacob's Ladder, Stein), and the varied ways that the image has been represented and interpreted at different historical moments are only partially understood. As Roger B. Stein perceptively notes in his essay on the origins and diffusion of the image in American culture, Jacob and his ladder would have been well known to seventeenth-century Puritans as typological symbols of Christ and the cross (3440). Drawing on the typological tradition of biblical exegesis, Puritans read and interpreted the Old Testament as a symbolic foretelling of the New Testament. Jacob, the type, foreshadowed the coming of Christ, the antitype; the ladder, with its angels ascending and descending, prefigured the cross with its promise of salvation and eternal life.1 During the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, Protestant evangelicals, such as George Whitefield (1714-70), revitalized this tradition, using Jacob's vision to preach Christ's atonement for man's sin on the cross, salvation through grace, and the promise of heaven through heartfelt conversion.2 Notably, in the new hymnody of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Protestantism, Charles Wesley (1707-88), John Newton, (1725-1807), William Cowper (1731-1800), and other anonymous writers would use Jacob's Ladder in more than a dozen hymns to symbolize grace and salvation of Christ, God's protection, and faith amid personal trial (Hummon, "What Doth the Ladder Mean?"). By the opening decades of the nineteenth century, even visual representations of Jacob's Ladder could be found in the illustrated Bibles and Protestant devotional literature for children (Hummon, Envisioning 10-14, 23-25). Thus, while nineteenth-century Protestantism would increasingly emphasize a New Testament, Jesus-centered gospel rather than an Old Testament, God-centered Christianity (Prothero 43-52), the typological significance of Jacob's Ladder would insure its spread and currency in American religious life.3

One particularly important though less wellunderstood chapter in the history of Jacob's Ladder in American culture involves the African American community's adoption and use of this Biblical image in the language of spirituals (see, however, Stein 44-47). This story is complex, situated at once within the emergence of spirituals as a form of song and religious practice and also within the broader encounter of the enslaved community with white evangelical Protestantism. Nor is it easily documented: spirituals, as part of oral tradition, were only transcribed and collected in the decades following the Civil War. Yet, it is a compelling and instructive story. In appropriating this ancient Biblical image, African Americans reconstructed the ladder, reworking its meaning and significance in terms of their experiences and aspirations in this world as well as the next. …