Johnson’s preface to God’s Trombones traces the historical importance of the “old-time Negro preacher.” During and just after slavery, the preacher was a unifying focus for illiterate people who had come from different countries. As African American culture became more and more church-centered, the “narcotic doctrine” that worldly suffering is less significant than rewards in the afterlife was delivered and reinforced by preachers. Although during the eighteenth century whites and African Americans more frequently worshiped and preached together, Johnson writes that the creation of separate churches for African Americans presented new opportunities for leadership and for the development of art forms, including spiritual music and a distinct style of preaching.
Although Johnson was re-creating an African American art form, and although he was a leader in racial politics and the call for social justice, he avoided using the sermons as allegories to shame or accuse white readers or to call African American readers to action. For example, it would have been easy in “Let My People Go” to hint—subtly or not—at the parallels between the enslavement of the Hebrew children of God and the slavery of the African children of God in the United States. That parallel was already firmly drawn, established in spirituals and tales. In this sermon, however—unlike some of the others—Johnson uses little contemporary language or imagery, setting his Hebrew children solidly in Egypt and Israel and referring to weapons, crops, and plagues that clearly did not arise from the American South. In the entire eight-page poem, the longest in the volume, only the single word “overseers” echoes the language of the American slave experience. The language and imagery specific to African American culture in God’s Trombones is there for artistic and religious, not for political, purposes.