There’s different opinions about who wrote this beautiful spiritual. Some say the author is unknown. They hold it is connected to the underground railroad and Harriet Tubman used it as a code for directing escaping slaves to a safe harbor.
I agree with those who say it was written by Wallis Willis. He was a Choctaw freedman who was inspired by the Red River that reminded him of the Jordan and Elijah, Kings 2:11, being carried to heaven by a chariot. The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville came to sing the song by way of Alexander Reid who heard Willis singing it at the Old Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding school in Oklahoma. He transcribed the song and sent it to the singers. They made it popular on a tour of the United States and Europe. It’s not unrealistic to think one used the song in the underground railroad without ever knowing that Willis was the author.
I found this article from USA Today:
“Currie Ballard says he was browsing through a bookstore around Christmas when he found Via Oklahoma: And Still the Music Flows by the late Mabel Alexander. Inside, he was startled to find a story identical to one his mother and grandmother had told him when he was a child.
Wallace and Minerva Willis, Ballard’s ancestors, thought up the words and music of Sweet Chariot in the mid-1800s while working at a school for Native American boys in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. The song so moved the headmaster that he sent it to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nashville.”
This is a song that I sang to my grandbabies. It comforted them when they were fussy; I sang it as we were swinging or rocking.