Long before Charlton Heston, Elijah took a chariot ride.
If you are a fan of classic movies, you know about the chariot scene in the 1959 film Ben-Hur. This song is about a different chariot rider, though: the Old Testament prophet Elijah.
According to the Books of Kings, Elijah was a holy man who denounced the wickedness of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in Samaria. Ultimately, Ahab and Jezebel were killed for their evil ways, and Elijah was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire as a reward for his holy service.
While the line was clearly inspired by the Old Testament, Christians also find a more personal message in this line, a reference to the heavenly reward that awaits them. They believe that, in return for their faith, they will be carried home to spend eternity with God.
Yet some have argued that the line also conveyed a coded, worldlier message to slaves. According to some students of slave spirituals, the song was sung to announce the impending arrival of a conductor from the Underground Railroad. When slaves heard that a sweet chariot was coming to carry them home, they knew they should prepare to take flight to the North and freedom.
While most trace this line to the Old Testament kingdom of Samaria, some say it was inspired by the Red River that separates Oklahoma and Texas.
The Old Testament also helps unravel this line. Like the line that precedes it, this one can be traced to the account of the prophet Elijah. According to the Second Book of Kings, Elijah travelled to the Jordan Valley to anoint his successor, Elisha, as his own period of service approached its end. There he struck the waters of the Jordan River with his cloak, parting them so that he and Elisha might cross. Once on the other side, Elijah was scooped up by a chariot of fire and carried home to heaven “on a whirlwind.”
Wallis Willis, the slave most commonly identified as the song’s writer, clearly knew his Old Testament. But some have argued that this particular reference resonated with Willis because he likened it to the Red River that ran near his home in Oklahoma. Although most likely born in Mississippi, he moved with his owner, a Choctaw Indian, to Oklahoma when the Choctaws were forced west under the Indian Removal Acts of the 1830s. They settled in Doaksville, in what is now southern Oklahoma, near the Red River.
The songwriter strays a bit from the Old Testament script in this line.
Up to this point, the song’s lyrics stick pretty close to the Old Testament account of the prophet Elijah, but here the song departs from the Second Book of Kings. Rather than a band of angels, this Old Testament book describes a chariot and horses of fire driven by the “horsemen of Israel.”
The Bible is filled with horsemen, most commonly in accounts of ancient wars. The most famous New Testament horsemen are the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. As described in the Book of Revelation, these carriers of conquest, war, famine, and death are supposed to wreak havoc and destruction at the end of time. Not surprisingly, the writer of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” decided to present a more comforting image, turning the horsemen into angels.
The song jumps from the Old to the New Testament in this line by referencing one of the central beliefs of Christianity.
While the Old Testament account of Elijah inspired most of the song, the songwriter shifted to the New Testament in this verse. This line draws from the core Christian belief that the sins of humankind were washed clean through Jesus’s death on the cross. According to the Doctrine of Atonement, humankind was alienated from God through the sins of Adam and Eve. Their “original sin” scarred all of the people that followed, and only Jesus’s sacrifice was capable of reconciling humankind to God.
Christians ritually reenact this cleansing of their sins through the rite of baptism. Different denominations interpret this ritual in their own way, but all believe that the washing or immersion of sinners in water parallels a deeper spiritual cleansing that occurs when a person becomes a Christian.