THE STORY BEHIND THE SONG
Lincoln in Ebony:
"We’ll Understand It Better By and By"
By Lindsay Terry
Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
On September 14, 2002, 69 years after the death of Charles A. Tindley, who is often called a founding father of American gospel music, a marble stone was placed in a community cemetery in the suburban town of Collingdale, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. The six-foot monument was placed at Tindley’s grave by a group of pastors led by the Rev. Dr. William B. McClain, senior pastor of Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, a major church in the City of Brotherly Love. Charles Tindley was born near Berlin, Maryland, in July of 1851, the son of a slave, Albert Tindley, and a freewoman, Hester Miller Tindley. Hester passed away when Charles was only four, and a year later he was separated from his father. When he became old enough to work, he was hired out to work with slaves, although his status as “freeborn” was recognized. Little did the people of Berlin realize that a theological and musical giant was springing up in their midst.
God had placed within Tindley a desire to excel, and by age seventeen he had taught himself to read and write. At this young age he married Daisy Henry, who bore him eight children, several of whom would later show some musical ability. The young Tindley family moved to Philadelphia where Charles obtained a job as a hod carrier, conveying mortar and other supplies to bricklayers. He later became a custodian of the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, a church that was to play a major role in his life.
He attended night school for a time, and because he felt called of God to preach, he enrolled in a correspondence course from Boston School of Theology. Along with his other courses, he studied New Testament Greek. He also found a Jewish rabbi in Philadelphia who would tutor him in the study of Hebrew. In 1902, after finishing his educational ventures and pastoring several churches in Philadelphia, he became pastor of the church where he had served as janitor 25 years earlier.
The church experienced rapid growth and by 1906 had a congregation of five thousand members. Tindley was a tall, imposing preacher of the gospel, whose sermons reflected his study and attention to a quality ministry. He was an eloquent speaker who was heard enthusiastically by people of all races. In the early 1920s, the church, which by that time had ten thousand members, built a new sanctuary that seated 3,200 worshipers. Over Tindley’s protest, the congregation named the new church the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church. Tindley also became a leader within the denomination. His wife, Daisy, passed away in 1924, the very day the congregation entered the new sanctuary for the first time. Three years later, Tindley remarried.
Music played a major role throughout Charles Tindley’s life. It is said that during his preaching he would often break into song, allowing the congregation to join him on the chorus. He composed gospel songs in his mind, and not having the ability to put them on paper, would dictate them to a transcriber. Often he would hold several songs in his mind before having them put on paper.
C. Austin Miles, who composed “In the Garden,” published eight of Tindley’s songs in his New Songs of the Gospel in 1901. Over the next twenty-five years, Tindley himself published thirty-four additional songs. A later book, Soul Echoes: A Collection of Songs for Religious Meetings, contained many of his musical offerings. Tindley and his sons formed the Paradise Publishing Company, which first published New Songs of Paradise! volume 1. Volume 6 of the series contained all of Tindley’s works.
“We’ll Understand It Better By and By” is one of several C. A. Tindley songs that found their way into the hymnals and then into the repertoire of a host of Southern Gospel Music touring groups. It is still being sung to this day. A host of musicians owe a debt to Charles Tindley—including, by his own admission, Thomas A. Dorsey, author of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Many have called Tindley and Dorsey the fathers of gospel music. Other Tindley songs that have stood the test of time include “Nothing Between (My Soul and the Savior),” “Stand by Me,” and “Leave It There.” One Tindley song, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” written in 1901, gave rise to the popular civil rights song “We Shall Overcome,” although more in reflection and concept than in actual words or tune.
Dr. McClain, professor of preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., has helped disseminate the music of C. A. Tindley. In 1980, he created Songs of Zion, published by Abingdon Press, which included approximately sixteen songs by Tindley, and sold more than 1.2 million copies.
Tindley died in 1933, at the age of 82. Thousands in Philadelphia felt the loss and went into mourning. It is reported that approximately 5,000 people crowded into the church, which seated only thirty-two hundred, to hear the memorial tributes to this spiritual giant. Some had openly recognized him as a “Lincoln in Ebony.”
When thumbing through various hymnals, you will often find, among other songs by Charles A. Tindley, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By”:
We are often tossed and driv’n on the restless sea of time,
Sombre skies and howling tempest oft succeed a bright sunshine,
In the land of perfect day, when the mists have rolled away,
We will understand it better by and by.
By and by when the morning comes,
When the saints of God are gathered home,
We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome,
For we’ll understand it better by and by.
Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand,
All the ways that God would lead us to that blessed promised land,
But He’ll guide us with His eye and we’ll follow till we die,
For we’ll understand it better by and by.
Tindley Temple United Methodist Church is on the “tour of historic sites” in Philadelphia, allowing many visitors each year to see the famed edifice. Tindley’s study is still intact with memorabilia and displays of his writings, books, programs, and correspondence.
Tindley seemed to write for suffering people. In most of his songs there is a great anticipation of heaven, when the trials of God’s people will finally be over. He could have been writing for millions of people in our day and age.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Taken from Stories Behind 50 Southern Gospel Favorites © 2005 by Lindsay Terry.
Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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