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The term spiritual is derived from spiritual song. The King James Bible's translation of Ephesians V.19 is: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The term spiritual song was often used in the white Christian community through the 19th century (and indeed much earlier), but not the term spiritual. Negro spiritual first appears in print in the 1860s, where slaves are described as using the noun spiritual for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music.

Musicologist George Pullen Jackson extended the term spiritual to a wider range of folk hymnody, as in his 1938 book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, but this does not appear to have been widespread usage previously. The term is often broadened to include subsequent arrangements into more standard American hymnodic styles, and to include post-emancipation songs with stylistic similarities to the original Negro spirituals.

Although numerous rhythmical and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources, nonetheless it is a fact that Negro spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans transported from Africa. They are a result of the interaction of African religious elements with music and religion derived from Europe. Further, this interaction occurred only in the United States. Africans who converted to Christianity in other parts of the world, even in the Caribbean and Latin America, did not evolve this form.

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