Francis Hall Johnson's (1888–1970) work to preserve and promote Negro spirituals places him among the twentieth century's most influential interpreters of African American religious music. Johnson was most closely associated with Marc Connelly's 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Green Pastures, for which he served as musical arranger and choral conductor. His participation in this production, which became a lightning rod for discussions about the nature of black religious thought, made him sharply aware of the complex terrain of popular culture representations of African American religious life for the consumption of white audiences. This article examines Johnson's 1933 “music-drama,” Run, Little Chillun, through which he hoped to counter the commonly deployed tropes of African Americans as a simple, naturally religious people. Moderately successful on Broadway, the production did particularly well when revived in California in 1938 and 1939 as part of the Federal Theatre and Federal Music projects.
Most critics found Johnson's presentation of black Baptist music and worship to be thrillingly authentic but were confused by the theology of the drama's other religious community, the Pilgrims of the New Day. Examining Johnson's Pilgrims of the New Day in light of his interest in Christian Science and New Thought reveals a broader objective than providing a dramatic foil for the Baptists and a platform for endorsing Christianity. With his commitment to and expertise with vernacular forms of African American religious culture unassailable, Johnson presented a critique of the conservative tendencies and restrictive parochialism of some black church members and leaders and insisted on the ability of the individual religious self to range freely across a variety of spiritual possibilities. In doing so, he presented “the secret at the root” of black culture as not only revealing the spiritual genius of people of African descent but also as offering eternal and universal truths not bound by race.