Barren Table Faith

Barren Table Faith

By Steve Beard –

Charles Albert Tindley was one of Methodism’s premier pulpiteers and song writers. Image: Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia.

Charles Albert Tindley arrived for his first pastoral appointment in Cape May, New Jersey, in the middle of a snow storm. With small children to feed, Charles and his wife had only a stale piece of bread. As parents, they dipped the bread in water to soften it for the kids.

Charles asked his wife to set the table as if there was food for breakfast. Swallowing her reluctance, she agreed to do as he asked. As the story has been relayed by his youngest son, the parents got on their knees to thank God for their lives, their health, for the snow storm, and the rising sun in the morning.

“Not once did he complain about the shortage of provisions, but thanked God for what they had,” E.T. Tindley writes. They got up from their knees and sat at the barren table. When they did, there was a loud commotion outside. They heard a man commanding a team of horses.

“Whoa! Whoa!” They then heard loud stomps on the front porch. “Hey! Is anybody alive here?”

Tindley opened the front door and was face to face with a man with a large sack on his shoulder. Dropping it to the floor with a thud, the stranger said: “Knowing you were the new parson here, and not knowing how you were making out in this storm, my wife and I thought you might need some food. I’ve a cartload of wood out here, too. I’ll dump it and be on my way.”

Tears streamed down Tindley’s face. “You are an answer to prayer, for we didn’t have anything to eat except a stale crust of bread … We are not going to worry though, for we know God will provide a way.”

Later that night, Tindley was seated in a rocker thinking over the blessings of the day. In the afterglow of the miracle, he wrote the song, “God Will Provide For Me.”

Here I may be weak and poor,
With afflictions to endure;
All about me not a ray of light to see,
Just as He has often done,
For His helpless trusting ones,
God has promised to provide for me.

Charles Albert Tindley went on to become one of Methodism’s greatest pulpiteers and a pillar of faith. His life was bookended by the Civil War and the Great Depression. Tindley’s father was a slave, but his mother was a free woman of color. Tragically, he lost both his parents at very young age and had to live with strangers who did not permit him to read or go to church.

Seemingly every step of the way, Tindley (1851-1933) faced adversity and challenges. Nevertheless, he showed steadfast determination, ingenuity, and faith. From his Methodist pulpit, he became known as the “Prince of Preachers,” composed dozens of popular gospel songs, launched one of the first soup kitchens in his city, and spurred economic development for African Americans in Philadelphia through a savings and loan that helped secure home ownership. The church he shepherded – now called Tindley Temple – is still a historic and vibrant fixture in its community.

Tindley was filled with intellectual curiosity and passion. As a child he began to learn to read by picking up scraps of newspapers along the roadside. He studied the shape of each letter and attempted to use bits of coal to teach himself to write.

After the Civil War, Tindley and his wife moved to Philadelphia and attended Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church. He eventually became the janitor at the church. Although he had never been to college, he began studying for the Methodist ministry in order to pass the denominational examination with a high enough score. He learned Greek through a correspondence course offered by Boston Theological School and studied Hebrew with a rabbi at a synagogue in Philadelphia.

At the time of the exam, an arrogant college graduate snidely asked Tindley, “How do you expect to pass this examination? I and the other candidates hold diplomas in our hands. What do you hold?”

“Nothing but a broom,” replied Tindley who had just been sweeping around the church. Tindley passed second among a large class of candidates, all of whom had academic degrees.

When the storms of life are raging, stand by me;
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me;
When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea,
Thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.

After several different pastoral assignments, Tindley was eventually appointed to the very church he had previously swept as a janitor. As a young boy, he once wallowed in shame because he had no shoes to wear to church and had to sneak up into the balcony and hide behind boxes to attend a worship service. Now, because of a lifetime of walking barefooted in faith, he became the pastor of one of the largest congregations in Methodism and was routinely preaching and breaking into song at “standing room only” Sunday services.

Tindley is rightfully considered the “Grandfather of Gospel Music,” serving as an inspiration to Thomas Dorsey, usually indentified as one of the pivotal founding fathers of gospel music. Tindley’s songs are still found in the United Methodist Hymnal, as well as those of other denominations. His songs were recorded by gospel legends such as Mahalia Jackson (“Beams of Heaven”), the Soul Stirrers (“By and By”), the Ward Singers (“Take Your Burden to the Lord”), Blind Joe Taggart (“The Storm is Passing Over”), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“What Are They Doing in Heaven”), and Elvis Presley (“Stand By Me”).

So pervasive was his influence that one of his hymns was the inspiration behind the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

Tindley had witnessed some of the worst chapters of the unfolding American experiment. He preached faith, protested against injustice, provided food and shelter, and sang from his soul. His artistry dealt honestly with suffering and hardships. At the same time, he lived and saw through the eye and heart of faith. He knew that one day – someday – things would be redeemed and transformed. In “Beams of Heaven,” his vision shines through:

I do not know how long ‘twill be,
Nor what the future holds for me.
But this I know; if Jesus leads me,
I shall get home someday.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Barren Table Faith

Celebrating A Founding Father of Gospel Music

By Jim Patterson

Art from the book By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, The Father of Gospel Music, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Image: Simon & Shuster.

Disbelief is the most satisfying response Carole Boston Weatherford gets from children about her books featuring notable African Americans.

“Kids just can’t believe that our nation allowed those kinds of injustices to visit upon so many people,” said Weatherford, a poet who has written children’s books on Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Lena Horne, and others.

“I want them to be appalled,” she said. “I want them to be shocked that (slavery and racial discrimination) happened, but I also want them to be inspired that my subjects overcame those injustices … and persisted in reaching their potential and in making contributions to their communities and to larger society.”

Weatherford, who grew up as a United Methodist and was married for 20-some years to a United Methodist minister, considers it a mission to help correct the dearth of books about African Americans she experienced growing up.

“There were hardly any,” she said. “But when I became a mother, I noticed that there were more books that featured children of color for them.”

Her latest subject is Charles A. Tindley, a Methodist Episcopal clergyman sometimes called “The Prince of Preachers” and one of the founding fathers of gospel music. He was pastor of East Calvary Methodist Church in Philadelphia — now named Tindley Temple United Methodist Church — from 1902 to 1933.

His hymn, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” was one of the roots of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” He wrote other gospel music standards, such as “(Take Your Burden to the Lord and) Leave It There,” “Stand by Me” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven?”

Tindley, born in 1851 the child of a slave father and a free mother who died young, received no formal schooling as a child — instead being hired out as a field hand. He taught himself to read from newspaper clippings lit by glowing pine knots.

Pursuing whatever education he could afford — night schools and correspondence courses, mostly — while working to support himself, he relocated to Philadelphia with his wife, Daisy, and worked as a church custodian. From there, he progressed to being the pastor of the very same church and writing many memorable gospel songs.

In By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, The Father of Gospel Music, illustrated by Bryan Collier, Tindley’s rather incredible rise is told in lilting verse by Weatherford.

“My life is a sermon inside a song/I’ll sing it for you/Won’t take long,” the book opens.

The illustrations by Collier are vivid and striking, mixing collage and watercolor painting. He has illustrated many children’s books about African Americans including Rosa Parks, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and contemporary musician Trombone Shorty.

“I think Tindley is a testimony to endurance and aspiration,” Collier said. “His insatiable need to learn and read, you can see that theme through a lot of different people like Frederick Douglass and many others growing up in the era of America that he grew up in, when the odds were totally against them to do what he did.”

Collier said his illustration style is influenced by his grandmother, who made quilts when he was a kid. “That’s the collage aspect of it. I try to use earth tones and bright colors for juxtaposition to make it pop. I use family members and friends to pose for the book, so we see ourselves and they can see themselves in books.”

Collier used to play as a child in an abandoned Pocomoke City, Maryland, church named for Tindley. It has since been torn down. Tindley was born in Berlin, Maryland, about 30 miles north of Pocomoke City.

“Every year, they do Tindley Day in Maryland as well as in Philadelphia,” he said. “So I had known about it and had been at the celebration picnics on Tindley Day.”

Collier has projects coming up about a mother’s writing directed to her unborn son and a reinterpretation of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

Weatherford is working on a book about Henry Box Brown, who in 1849 mailed himself in a wooden box from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia to escape slavery.

No matter how much historical context Weatherford shares when addressing children about her books, she says many are “confused” and ask the same questions:

“Did it really happen?”

“Who made those stupid rules?”

“Why did white people treat black people so badly?”

“They’re constantly trying to figure out how they should respond to history and also to injustices they see in their own lives,” she said. “Bullying in school, how do I respond to that? So kids are learning to navigate situations and they are forming their own values.

“I do hope that my books play some role in shaping their values and helps them form their own system of justice.”

Jim Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee.