Were You There

Full Text

1 Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

2 Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

3 Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

4 Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

5 Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

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Scripture References

Thematically related:

Confessions and Statements of Faith References

Further Reflections on Confessions and Statements of Faith References

This song reflects the narrative of the suffering and death of Christ on Calvary, events whose significance and purpose is deepened by the confessions of the church. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 15-16, Questions and Answers 37-44 explain the significance of each step of his suffering. Question and Answer 40 testifies that Christ had to suffer death “because God’s justice and truth require it; nothing else could pay for our sins except the death of the son of God.”

The Belgic Confession, Article 20 professes that “God made known his justice toward his Son…poured out his goodness and mercy on us…giving to us his Son to die, by a most perfect love, and raising him to life for our justification, in order that by him we might have immortality and eternal life.”
Consider also the testimony of Belgic Confession, Article 21: “He endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins.”


Were You There

Call to Worship

Today we remember Jesus was crucified.
He was pierced for our transgressions.
He suffered and died for our iniquities.
We remember the sacrifice of our Lord with gratitude
because his death gives us life and brings redemption to the world.
Let us worship our Savior.
[The Worship Sourcebook]
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

Additional Prayers

The following is a script for a dramatic reading of a portion of the passion narrative. Ideally
Good Friday worship can include the entire passion narrative from John 18-19, which can
easily be used as a dramatic reading, following this model. The reading itself may be simple
and stark.
Narrator: They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out
to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called
Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one
on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription
written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the
King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because
the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was
written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of
the Jews said to Pilate,
Chief Priests: Do not write, “The King of the Jews,” but, “This man said, I am King
of the Jews.”
Narrator: Pilate answered,
Pilate: What I have written I have written.
Narrator: When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and
divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his
tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.
So they said to one another,
Soldiers: Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.
Narrator: This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes
among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is
what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus
were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas,
and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple
whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother,
Jesus: Woman, here is your son.
Narrator: Then he said to the disciple,
Jesus: Here is your mother.
Narrator: And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After
this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to
fulfill the scripture),
Jesus: I am thirsty.
Narrator: A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full
of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When
Jesus had received the wine, he said,
Jesus: It is finished.
Narrator: Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
—from John 19:16-30, NRSV
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

Were You There

Tune Information

E♭ Major


Musical Suggestion

Most congregations will already be familiar with "Were You There," but it may still be effective to prepare for the singing with an appropriate organ composition based on this hymn. Three pieces that treat the tune sensitively are the hymn preludes written by Dale Wood (found in Wood Works, Sacred Music Press), Janet Linker (Hymns of the Cross, Beckenhorst Press), and Emma Lou Diemer (Celebration: Seven Hymn Settings, Augsburg).
The first three stanzas of the spiritual need to be sung simply and meditatively preferably with a minimal amount of instrumental accompaniment. Traditionally the singing of spirituals has been mostly a cappella, as one would expect from a folk-music style. It would be very effective in this hymn to have one of the stanzas (especially the third) sung without any accompaniment and in harmony.
"Were You There" could also be accompanied very beautifully by guitar or piano. If the organ is used, the organist should avoid the use of high-pitched stops and rumbling pedal sounds. Solo voices could also be used very effectively perhaps alternating stanzas between a soloist and the congregation. Or a soloist could sing the first phrase of each stanza with the congregation responding for the remaining lines. This would allow the soloist to introduce additional (even improvised) stanzas as desired in a modified call-and-response manner.
The fourth stanza of "Were You There" should present a different tone than the previous three, reflecting the dramatic change indicated with these words. In this verse, the despair and agony of Lent make way for the anticipation of Easter. It must be sung with great joy and a stronger accompaniment to reflect Christ's victory over death.
(from Reformed Worship, Issue 26)
— Kenneth Bos

Were You There

Hymn Story/Background

An African American spiritual that probably predates the Civil War, "Were You There" was first published in William Barton's Old Plantation Hymns (1899). The spiritual's earlier roots include a white spiritual known in Tennessee as "Have you heard how they crucified my Lord?" Additional stanzas are available from oral and written tradition:
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Just as modern Jews identify with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt at their Passover Seder ("When I was in Egypt"), we are encouraged in this text to identify with the witnesses to Christ's death and resurrection. With distances of geography and time removed, we become part of that great body of people who come trembling to the cross of Christ for salvation. ('Tree" in stanza 2 refers, of course, to the cross, but it was undoubtedly significant to black slaves who witnessed lynchings.)
The congregation could sing the entire spiritual, but the tune has a call-and-response structure; try singing unaccompanied with a soloist asking the initial questions in each stanza and the congregation joining in at "Oh, sometimes." The soloist could take significant liberty with the melody and rhythm, and congregations could also treat the "tremble" figure with freedom. Try having the choir hum the parts as background for the solo voice. Although the preferred practice is to sing unaccompanied, 'Were You There" could be accompanied by flute or guitar.
— Bert Polman

Composer Information

The harmony was composed by Charles Winfred Douglas (b. Oswego, NY, 1867; d. Santa Rosa, CA, 1944), an influential leader in Episcopalian liturgical and musical life. Educated at Syracuse University and St. Andrews Divinity School, Syracuse, New York, he moved to Colorado for his health. There he studied at St. Matthew's Hall, Denver, and founded the Mission of the Transfiguration in Evergreen (1897). Ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1899, he also studied in France, Germany and England, where he spent time with the Benedictines of Solesmes on the Island of Wight (1903-1906). For much of his life Douglas served as director of music at the Community of St. Mary in Peekskill, New York, and had associations with cathedrals in Denver, Colorado, and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He promoted chanting and plainsong in the Episcopal Church through workshops and publications such as The American Psalter (1929), the Plainsong Psalter (1932), and the Monastic Diurnal (1932). His writings include program notes for the Denver Symphony Orchestra, various hymn preludes; organ, as well as the book, Church Music in History and Practice (1937). He was editor of both the Hymnal 1916 and its significant successor, Hymnal 1940, of the Episcopal Church. Douglas's other achievements include a thorough knowledge of the life and culture of Hopi and Navajo natives, among whom he lived for a number of years.
— Bert Polman

Song Notes

In a culture that tells us that we should get what we want and what we’re entitled to, and that we ought to live our happiest, best life, it definitely goes against the grain to dwell on something sorrowful. And yet, the words of this hymn invite us to take a journey through the last days and hours of Christ’s life. We join the crowd huddled on the sides of the streets, or at the foot of the cross, or in front of a sealed grave. We are brought together because of our trembling and our tears, but also because of our knowledge of why our beloved Savior had to die. Geography, time, culture – none of these hinder our togetherness in the body and blood of Christ. And so as we sing this hymn, we gather with Christians around the world, remembering. We lift our voices with our brothers and sisters, our voices filled with mourning, but also with hope. For we know that the journey of Good Friday ultimately ends with an open and empty tomb, where the earthquake causes us to tremble in awe and praise.
— Laura de Jong
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