Spirituals functioned on many levels for enslaved Africans. While the songs primarily expressed deeply held religious convictions, especially for newly converted Christians, they also reflected deep longings for freedom, often masked in the form of secret codes or messages imbedded in the lyrics of the songs. In fact, the singing of spirituals often provided the organizational rallying call for numerous slave revolts or insurrections.
While the spirituals trumpeted loudly the enslaved community's insistence that they too - like their white slave holders - had a right to partake of "the tree of life," the songs also communicated a clear set of limits on individual freedom. Woven into the songs, for example, were powerful strictures; the experience of victimization in slavery must never excuse acts of abuse or violence against members of one's own community. The songs underscored the idea that one must never be "free" to mistreat others, and every individual has a clear sense of responsibility to the wider community. During and after slavery, many ex-slaves talked and wrote about their experiences for the historical record.
This overarching value placed on community welfare served to support and complement the principles of democracy that were also prominent in the songs. These strong communal values were compatible with both old African traditions and with the democratic ideals (honor to God and country) that were fermenting in the new, Christian-centered United States of America, even as African captives were ironically excluded from those ideals.
As enslaved Africans continued to create new spirituals, they were also beginning to experience, stronger than ever, their right to be included in the definition of "American." And while the spirituals conveyed poignantly the developing social values of the enslaved community, the songs also mirrored and advanced the ideals of Christian love and respect, in the context of a developing American democracy.