This folk spiritual was first published in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1901 by John Wesley Work II and his brother, Frederick J. Work.
The song relates to both the Old and New Testaments. The verses reflect the Israelites’ escape out of Egypt as found in Exodus:14. The chorus refers to healing: see John 5:4, “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”
Many online sources and popular books maintain that songs such as “Wade in the Water” contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom.
An example of this is cited in the Pathways to Freedom: Maryland & the Underground Railroad. This website explains how Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure that the dogs employed by slavers lost their trail.