Mary Had a Baby: An Advent Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals

Mary Had a Baby: An Advent Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals

by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Marilyn E. Thornton

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Mary Had a Baby: An Advent Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals, written by Marilyn E. Thornton with material from the first edition by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. Mary Had a Babyhas four sessions, one for each week of Advent, and is perfect for small groups, Sunday school, midweek sessions, and choir workshops. Each lesson includes Scripture…  See more details below


Mary Had a Baby: An Advent Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals, written by Marilyn E. Thornton with material from the first edition by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. Mary Had a Babyhas four sessions, one for each week of Advent, and is perfect for small groups, Sunday school, midweek sessions, and choir workshops. Each lesson includes Scripture, song lyrics, devotional and contextual information, and discussion questions to stimulate deepening faith and a sense of community. The book includes leader helps. The four spirituals featured in Mary Had a Baby are “Mary Had a Baby,” “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” “Children, Go Where I Send Thee, “ and “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” A mp3 file of the four songs is available free with purchase of the study.

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Mary Had a Baby

An Advent Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals

By Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Marilyn E. Thornton

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-9551-0


Mary Had a Baby
Mary had a baby, oh Lord!
Mary had a baby, oh my Lord!
Mary had a baby, oh Lord!
The people keep a-coming and the train done gone.


1. What did she name him? 2. She named him Jesus.

3. Where was he born? 4. Born in a stable.

5. Where did she lay him? 6. She laid him in a manger.

KEY VERSE: Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. (LUKE 1:31)

LUKE 1:30-31

30 The angel said, "Don't be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus."

MATTHEW 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant with the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn't want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means "God with us.")

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn't have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.


Babies are awe inspiring! The birth of any child is a miracle that in the best of circumstances begins with conception in a loving relationship. So much more the case with Mary's baby, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit because of God's love for humanity. A scared, pregnant, and unmarried teen, Mary went off into the Judean highlands to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting. When Mary entered the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Elizabeth's baby jumped for joy (Luke 1:44) inside her womb. Mary then began to praise God for her situation. Rather than being scared, she celebrated a sacred trust; rather than being fearful, she accepted that she had been favored. She recognized God as being one who can turn any situation around, raising up those of low estate, and humbling the proud. Rather than feeling punished, she knew that her baby was one of promise. Mary had a baby, oh my Lord!


Dear God,

Help us to know that every baby is your baby, one for whom we should anxiously await and gladly welcome. Help us to know that each child represents wonderful possibilities for new life in a brand new world. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Watching, Waiting, Wondering (Luke 1:30-31)

Most families know the watching, waiting, and wondering of expecting a baby. What is it going to be? Will the baby be a girl or boy? What shall we name him or her? How will we decorate the room? What clothes should we buy? Pregnancy is a time of waiting. Once the pregnancy has been determined, family members watch for signs of growth. The baby moved! It's kicking! May I touch your stomach? Ah, here is the head!

These days, there are sonograms and all the tests of modern technology for answers. Sometimes an ailment is diagnosed and surgery can be performed in the womb. Of course, Mary and Joseph had a much more secure sign than even the tools of twenty-first century technology. They had a message from God that the baby would be a boy so healthy he would save the people from their sins. And even as the angel told Mary, "Don't be afraid!" pregnancy, especially a first one, is always scary.

But then, Mary had the baby. Oh my Lord! There is wonderment and awe. People may know the mechanics of the birth process; but when new life emerges, we are still amazed. And while all births are miraculous, the magnitude and power of the gift of the Christ Child called forth a divine proclamation. God loves humanity so much that God sent a gift of the Christ Child to come and show us how to live. How can we keep from singing? How could even those enslaved in America's "peculiar institution" not express the awe of that baby, who like them slept in a rough bed, layered with straw?

Each verse of "Mary Had a Baby" continues the story. Mary had a baby! What did she name him? She named him Jesus. Where was he born? Where did she lay him? In a stable, in a manger. Naming is important in the Bible as well as in African cultures, with naming rituals occurring on the eighth day after birth. The name indicates the new person's character and the expectations of the community. Both Mary and Joseph were told to name the baby, Jesus (Luke 1:31; Matthew 1:21). Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Joshua, meaning "YHWH (God) is salvation." Jesus would grow up to save, to deliver, and to liberate people from death-dealing circumstances.

Discussion Questions

1. How are children named in your family and community?

2. How do names affect the social reception of children as they mature?

This Train Is Bound for Glory

In this version of "Mary Had a Baby," every stanza ends with the refrain: "The people keep a-comin' and the train done gone." Along with the African American spiritual, trains were a new reality in the emerging industrial age of the early nineteenth century. Trains connected places that had been previously isolated, representing a way out, whether physical, spiritual, or imaginative. Train imagery figures prominently in African American lore. In the spiritual "Get on Board, Little Children," "The gospel train is coming. I hear the car wheels movin' and rumblin' through the land." People are challenged to reach the land of spiritual freedom.

There is also the historical image of the Underground Railroad, with conductors who led passengers (escapees) to stations (safe houses) on the way to physical freedom in the North. As the century progressed, there were the real trains that ran through tunnels built by heroes of legend such as John Henry, who died in a contest with a steam drill (invented in 1870). Even in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement (1960s), the Impressions were singing about trains. "People get ready, there's a train a-comin.' Don't need no ticket; you just thank the Lord!" In every case, the train is bound for a more glorious state of being, moving toward liberation and opportunity.

What did the slaves mean by placing the image of Mary's newborn baby beside that of a train station? "The people keep a-comin' and the train done gone." The phrase may constitute a spiritual warning. Mary's baby represents freedom, salvation, and deliverance, "Oh my Lord!" Do not miss your opportunity to worship him. Jesus is the way out from sin and death. Don't be too late! This phrase, however, could also constitute a reality check. On many plantations, Christmas was the one time of year in which everyone was allowed to relax, making it a better time to attempt an escape from slavery. In Roots: The Gift (often shown on TV during the Christmas season), Alex Haley reconstructs how an escape at Christmas might have been accomplished more easily. While the slaveholders and their guests at the big house were partying, the slaves in the quarters might plan a get-away. The television version demonstrates how utterly important it was for potential runaways to get to the meeting place on time. Don't be too late! You don't want the train/the conductor to be gone by the time you get there.

In "Mary Had a Baby," awe and wonder are side by side with reality. Eschatology, the branch of theology that is concerned with the end times, of which Advent is a part, is mediated by the narrative of what must be done right now. You've got to take care of that baby. With feet firmly grounded in theirpresent situation, proclaiming a way out of oppression, in one simple song these enslaved theologians retold the story of Jesus' birth and expressed the end-time belief and the present reality that some might get left behind. You might get left behind in slavery if you are not ready to go. You may also miss the opportunity to experience eternal freedom if you do not take care of the business at hand.

Another spiritual expresses it a different way: "I got shoes, you got shoes, all God's children got shoes. When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes and gonna walk all over God's heaven. Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't going there, heaven!" This speaks to a readiness for the coming of God's justice. As a child born in poverty, Mary's baby would not have shoes any more than the slaves did. Like Mary's baby, they were presently lying on a bed of straw; but they planned to be on that train to a brighter tomorrow. By faith they awaited a train that was bound for glory, where they could walk all over God's heaven and be free in that life from those who would deny them freedom in this one.

Discussion Questions

1. How does this spiritual enlarge your understanding of African American history and culture?

2. How do the biblical story and the story of American slavery complement and/or challenge each other?

Immanuel (Matthew 1:18-25)

Matthew sets the stage with an account of Jesus' genealogy (1:1-17). He wants to prove to his audience that the story is about a Hebrew and a figure of royal lineage. The story is about Jesse's family. His son David brought the tribes of Israel, the Hebrew children, to unity and glory. Particular women such as David's grandmother Ruth are also included. The account also serves to remind of God's saving action in history. From the nomad Abraham to King David, from exile in Babylon to the return to Judea, God was present. God was with the people. After this appropriate introduction, Matthew is now ready to tell the story. Here's what happened:

Mary and Joseph were engaged. In ancient times, betrothal meant that couples were as good as married legally and socially but not sexually. Joseph had a dilemma. He had observed the social mores of the day and refrained from sexual relations with Mary during their engagement, but Mary came up pregnant. By law, Joseph could have had Mary stoned to death. Her pregnancy appeared to be evidence of her unfaithfulness to him and to the community. The penalty for adultery was death (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). Because Joseph was a righteous man, he did not want to expose her to public humiliation and death. After making the decision to call off the engagement quietly, Joseph received a revelation from an angel. In a dream, the angel told Joseph that Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and not to be afraid. The angel also provided the child's name: Jesus. In verse 23, the angel makes the link with Old Testament prophecy, telling Joseph that Mary's baby is part of the promise of salvation for God's people, an indication that God has not forgotten; God is with us still. A young woman has conceived and will bear a baby boy. He will be called Immanuel, "God is with us." Joseph awoke and obeyed the voice of God by completing the contract with Mary, marrying her and naming the baby Jesus.

By singing about the birth of a Savior so long ago, by acknowledging the arrival of Immanuel, the enslaved demonstrated an understanding that even in slavery God was present as they brought forth new generations. Hope is the gift every child brings to the world. Each child carries the light of God within by which it may receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every pregnant woman bears a potential liberator, one who may be anointed to increase freedom and justice in the world and point someone to Jesus Christ. The gift of new life and the presence of Immanuel help us experience the immediacy of God right here and right now.

Discussion Questions

1. What can we learn about family dynamics from the interactions of angels, God, Mary, and Joseph?

2. How have you experienced God's presence during Advent? How do you experience it during the Christmas season?

Twenty-first Century Nativity: Honoring Mother and Child

Too many in twenty-first century America take for granted that a pregnant woman will have a safe delivery. Yet throughout the world, childbirth remains a major cause of death for mother and child. In fact, the African American infant mortality rate of 13.1 per 1,000 is higher than that of Romania (11 per 1,000), and more than double the rate of white American women (5.6 per 1,000), which is beaten by Japan (2.6) and many other countries, although not by any in Africa or South America. Studies show that while lifestyle choices (smoking, obesity, HIV/AIDS) can make an impact, the mortality rate is the same for black women without these factors. Birth weight is also important. A 2007 study in Chicago revealed that the birth weight of babies born to first-generation African and Caribbean women dropped to 6.8 pounds compared with their immigrant mothers' babies (7.3 pounds), while the babies of white women remained at 7.5 pounds. Befuddled doctors concluded that the stress of racism, endured by black women spending their entire lives in America, affects mother and child.

For children born during slavery, their families knew that they were being born into hard times. In slavery, it could mean the disruption of a family line by means of the auction block. Nevertheless, in hope the ancestors would always ask a question at the birth of each child, "Is this the one?" "Is this [our Moses], the one who will get us out of slavery?" "Is this the one through whom God will bring salvation?" In childbirth, mother and child are performing a sacred act. What would happen if we were to greet every birth as an indication of the promise of God's love and saving purpose in the world?

While neither Mary nor Joseph speak in Matthew's birth narrative, our featured song returns Mary's voice to her. Mary is questioned. Mary names. Mary acts. Perhaps the powerless slaves identified with the many women of the Bible whose voices and names are often obscured. In the twenty-first century, the people of God are called to acknowledge and listen to the voices of mothers, women, and girls. Girls and boys must be taught self-respect and the importance of speaking for themselves: not letting others rob them of their voices or put words in their mouths. Let us remember the case of 2013 Nobel Peace Prizenominee Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl (born in 1997) who in 2012 was shot in the head in a botched assassination attempt, for speaking in favor of education for women. In the twenty-first century, we must advocate equality for women in every aspect of life, including the church. Honoring mothers is a first step in honoring all people.

The next step is to honor the children. It is hypocritical to drool over the Christ Child while failing to be concerned about the birth, health, and wealth of children in the twenty-first century. For more than 30 years, Marian Wright Edelman has honored children through the nonprofit advocacy organization she founded in 1973. Through the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman is striving to level the playing field for children through education, health insurance, food programs, housing, and violence prevention.

While Mary's story is one of the divine hand at work in human history, it can be interpreted as a cautionary tale on teen pregnancy. Her potential plight is a reminder that parenting is not a game and bringing children into the world and raising them is a shared responsibility. Having sex outside the covenant of marriage can lead to a serious situation. What happens if Joseph is not honorable? Critical to loving the Lord, our neighbor, and ourselves is cherishing the sacredness of our bodies, respecting the bodies of others (thus doing no harm), and honoring the gift of sexuality and procreation. As such, our beliefs are foundational to our values and our activity. And yet children are not responsible for how they come into this world. The children keep a-comin'. We must be the train in the station that welcomes the gift of life, and honors mother and child, living with hope for the salvation of our community through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Discussion Questions

1. The number of children born out of wedlock in the black community has actually decreased in the twenty-first century. What do you think accounts for this?

2. What can churches do to help children in their communities flourish?


Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

Verse 1

There's a star in the east on Christmas morn; rise up, shepherd, and follow. It will lead to the place where the Christ was born; rise up, shepherd, and follow.

Verse 2

If you take good heed to the angel's words; rise up, shepherd, and follow. You'll forget your flocks, you'll forget your herds; rise up, shepherd, and follow.


Follow, follow, rise up, shepherd, and follow; rise up, shepherd, and follow.

Follow the star of Bethlehem; rise up, shepherd, and follow.

KEY VERSE: When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. (MATTHEW 2:9)

LUKE 2:15

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, "Let's go right now to Bethlehem and see what's happened. Let's confirm what the Lord has revealed to us."

MATTHEW 2:1-12

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We've seen his star in the east, and we've come to honor him." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.


Excerpted from Mary Had a Baby by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Marilyn E. Thornton. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan is Professor of Theology and Women's Studies and Director of Women's Studies at Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has authored many books, including Mary Had a Baby and Undivided Soul, both published by Abingdon Press.

Marilyn E. Thornton (Master’s of Divinity, Vanderbilt) has degrees in music from Howard University and from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the lead editor for Abingdon Press’s Bible study series based on spirituals, the songbook Zion Still Sings: For Every Generation, and VBS programs. She has taught at Howard, Tennessee State, and Trevecca Nazarene universities and serves as Campus Minister of the Wesley Foundation at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

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