by Sean Connolly
Last summer my nine-year-old daughter and I took a road trip from South Bend to Dodge City, Kansas. Along the way, we listened to a biography of Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the underground railroad.
Long before Harriet was stealing away at night with various relatives and friends, she came to understand the threat of family separation. In the dramatized version we listened to, Harriet’s mother, Rit, explained things to her six-year-old daughter. “Harriet, now that you’re worth money, you got to walk a fine line. If you’re too stubborn to work for hire, you’ll be sold south like the others and we’ll never see you again.”
Rit knew the threat was real. Three of Harriet’s eight siblings were sold off as children—gone forever. Rit saved a fourth child by threatening to split the seller’s head open.
Hearing this story gave me the grace to see something new in an old spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” All of a sudden the song changed for me. No longer was it a trite, ubiquitous children’s song, but something exceedingly deep, a psalm, a sung act of faith that helps me even now when death is on the loose, threatening families.
God is the one who holds everything and everyone together, as the song declares. The mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, the little bitty babies, all of them. Because He’s got the whole world in His hands, family ties are real even when the family is violently sundered. Brothers and sisters by blood—and brothers and sisters by water—are all kept close, for, as the apostle Paul put it, “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). God held Harriet and her family together, and He is holding us together, now.
Today, we are sharing some different recordings of “He’s Got the Whole World”—from the great Marian Anderson’s concert version, to another by our own Jim Rolland (Servant Branch). One of my favorite performances comes from Joe Carter, a singer of African American spirituals who died of leukemia in 2006. Mr. Carter wrote, “When I sing this song, I remember it was slave mothers who probably sang this to their babies to tell them to have courage because God was with them.”
Jessye Norman & Kathleen Battle:
Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers: