What Have We Learned About Prince’s Theology Lately?

By Jonathan H. Harwell, co-editor, Theology and Prince (now released in paperback)

Theology and Prince, the inaugural volume of the rapidly growing Theology and Pop Culture series from Lexington Books/Fortress Academic (see the review at Reading Religion here), has now been published in paperback at a lower list price of $39.99.  I am honored to be a co-editor of this volume along with my friend and colleague, Rev. Katrina E. Jenkins.  

Since the manuscript was completed, along with a wealth of posthumous music releases, we have seen new books published about this famously spiritual musician, including Prince’s own unfinished memoir (The Beautiful Ones) as well as a number of first-hand accounts by those who knew him, including The Time lead singer Morris Day’s On Time, Prince & the Revolution bassist BrownMark’s My Life in the Purple Kingdom, journalist Neal Karlen’s This Thing Called Life, and hair stylist Kim Berry’s Diamonds and Curlz.  Each individual’s perspective is informative, as Prince tended to show different facets of himself to different people, and he was continually evolving in every way throughout his lifetime, from music to fashion to theology.  The music and the writings continue to shed more light on the enigmatic musician’s approach to theology and how it affected his life and art.

Among the new releases of music from Prince’s legendary Vault have been The Originals, featuring tracks he made with guide vocals for other singers to emulate (including “Love…Thy Will Be Done,” a gospel song released by Martika), as well as super deluxe editions of the 1999 and Sign o’ the Times albums, with long lists of previously unreleased tracks, some of which had been unknown to the most dedicated fans of the widely bootlegged artist.

The Sign o’ the Times set includes a handful of previously unreleased gospel songs.  “A Place in Heaven” is presented in three versions, with vocals by Prince, by keyboardist Lisa Coleman, and recorded backwards as “Neveah Ni Ecalp A.”  In a line that prefigures the title track “Sign o’ the Times” composed four months later (“Some say a man ain’t happy truly until a man truly dies”), he asks, “Why are the ones so afraid to live much more afraid to die?” and imagines that the world could be safer from hate if young children from heaven (“three-year-old leaders of all colors”) were in charge.  In the end, he notes that while “we all want a place in heaven,” we’re each in control of our own destiny.  “Let’s not be lazy, there’s no room service.  It’s all up to me and you.”

Also in 1986, Prince was planning a musical entitled The Dawn, that never materialized.  One of the tracks, a gospel number called “When the Dawn of the Morning Comes,” looks ahead in celebration of a future existence with “no more pain” and “no more shame,” when “we will dream in color while we look into the sun unafraid.”  “The dawn” had already been a common image for Prince, who often closed liner notes with the benediction, “May u live 2 see the dawn.”  The refrain “oh what a day” would also be used by Wendy & Lisa in their own 1989 gospel song “I Think It Was December.”

“Walkin’ in Glory” was composed a couple of months later, independently of any planned album.  This is a straight-up pronouncement of the penal substitutional atonement theology popularized by John Calvin and still common in evangelicalism, which holds that Jesus died to save us from God’s wrath.  (For a contrasting view, see Keith Giles’ Jesus Unforsaken.)  Prince repeats in the chorus that the Lord gave his son “to save us all from damnation,” and that “this world is fading fast, it’s all in Revelation.”  He exhorts the listener to “say his name, pray up on the hill, and ask him for forgiveness.”  He prays directly, “Help me, Lord, don’t you let me lose my way.  I only wanna tell your story and be with you every day, I wanna walk in glory.”  This is echoed in the song “Anna Stesia,” recorded just over a year later for one of his most spiritually focused albums, Lovesexy.  There, he promises to Jesus, “From now on, for you I shall be wild, I shall be quick, I shall be strong.  I’ll tell your story, no matter how long.”

As Prince explains in The Beautiful Ones, long before he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2000“Early on I believed another power greater than myself was at work in my life.  We grew up 1st attending 7th Day Adventist Church…” (94).  He noted to Neal Karlen in 1985 that he attended a Baptist church in North Minneapolis growing up.  His friend Andre Cymone also confirms that Prince’s father would take him to the Seventh-Day Adventist church as a child (This Thing Called Life, 98-99).  

Prince writes about an aunt who he considers “overly religious (this woman talked about the Bible more than Jesus),” and who remained married to a man who cheated on her with a friend from church.  Prince’s father explained that she didn’t leave him because of “her religious faith.”  Prince muses, “How, why, & when did religion get so complicated?” (The Beautiful Ones, 109-110).  As he remarks to Dan Piepenbring, his writing collaborator, “Religion is about self-development.  That’s all it is” (103).  We might presume he would have elaborated further on his theology if he had lived long enough to finish his memoir, which he also wished could “solve racism” (18).

Karlen recalls a fascinating instance in 2003 when Prince was accompanying him in meeting with Hasidic rabbis in St. Paul, Minnesota, for Karlen’s research on kabbalah.  A portion of this story is excerpted in the Minneapolis StarTribune here; however, I recommend reading the full narrative in the book (205-210).

For our own book project Theology and Prince, I’d like to give special thanks to Rollins College and the Winter Park Public Library for hosting three series of online course discussions on the book, and to Rev. Katrina Jenkins, Erica Thompson, Zada Johnson, Racheal Harris, Rev. Suzanne Castle, Terrance Hunter, and Jim Coffin for their gracious collaboration in addressing the groups and discussing a number of probing questions about Prince’s spirituality, as well as the influence of Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses on his life and work.

In celebration of the paperback release, here’s a new playlist of relevant tracks that have been released since the book manuscript was completed, primarily from the massive Sign o’ the Times Super Deluxe Edition as described above, along with his prescient title track from the forthcoming Welcome 2 America, composed in 2010 (and strongly reminiscent of the lyrical tone and sparse musicality of “Sign o’ the Times”).

Perhaps you’ll appreciate the book, as well as the music that continues to arrive.  We look forward to the release of the Welcome 2 America album on July 30, and rumor has it that a super deluxe edition of the Parade album (my personal favorite album) might be coming soon.  To explore what might be included in such a release, as well as the back stories on the Sign o’ the Times tracks, check out Duane Tudahl’s excellent new volume in his ongoing series of archival histories of Prince’s studio work.

Jonathan H. Harwell is head of collections and systems and associate professor at Rollins College’s Olin Library.

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