I’ve always loved a certain gospel song called “The Purple Robe,” also known as “The Scarlet Purple Robe.” It’s “a story so unkind in the Holy book we find, And it tells how Jesus stood alone one day, False accused and there condemned yet they found no fault with Him.”
I’ve heard the song done by several artists, particularly among bluegrass musicians. For example, Ralph Stanley sings it with that old-time Clinch Mountain sound. And it’s certainly among the best hits and most requested numbers of The Lewis Family from Lincolnton, Georgia. Known as "The First Family of Bluegrass Gospel Music," they’ve inspired my own bluegrass group (Umpqua Valley Bluegrass Band) to add this song to its repertoire about a year ago.
The Lewis Family has sung together for over fifty years, and they’ve been great song carriers of bluegrass gospel material. They had their own Augusta, Ga. radio show from 1954-92. In 2006, The Lewis Family was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame. In 2009, the group officially retired, but only after winning two more Dove Awards (Gospel music's highest award). Some family members, however, continue the tradition in a newer band (since 2010) called “The Lewis Tradition.”
“The Purple Robe” is based on a story in John 19 that tells how Jesus was sentenced to be crucified. Pilate had taken Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers “placed upon his head piercing thorns and blood stained red.” They clothed Jesus in a purple robe, and they mocked and hit him. Pilate had no basis for a charge against Jesus. But the multitude cried “Take him away! Crucify him!” When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, including his seamless garment which was woven in one piece from top to bottom. As the song’s chorus concludes, “His raiment was a scarlet purple robe.” References in the Bible to the purple (or scarlet) robe can also be found in Mark 15 and Matthew 27.
Many have expressed views about the meaning of the scarlet purple robe. Purple was a color of royalty. As a military cloak, the robe was used to mock Jesus of his royalty as king of the Jews. Others point out that the perfectly woven garment is a likeness of Jesus’ flawless nature. The robe’s purple coloring also represents a perfect blending of blue and red to indicate royalty and humanity. It’s also interesting that about a quarter million mollusks would have been harvested from the Mediterranean Sea to make an ounce of purple die to color the robe’s thread. Thus, a purple robe signifies great sacrifice. This song certainly reminds you of the crucifixion of Jesus and gets you thinking about the meaning of the purple robe.