By Carole Boston Weatherford
Before Thomas Dorsey wrote “Take My Hand (Precious Lord)” or Martin Luther King Jr. was even born, Charles Albert Tindley, the so-called “Prince of Preachers,” laid the groundwork for gospel music and a social gospel.
If Dorsey was the father of gospel music, then Tindley was the rightful grandfather. One-time bluesman Dorsey turned to religious music in 1932 after losing his wife and son in childbirth and hearing Tindley’s hymns at a Philadelphia convention.
By then, Tindley—a prominent local minister—had already composed dozens of gospel hymns expressing contemporary strivings and struggles. “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me…”
In a life that spanned slavery and the Great Depression, Tindley saw his share of storms. During slavery times, he was born free to an enslaved man and his free wife in 1851. Young Charles lost his mother when he was barely two and by age seven was hired out to live and work.
He worked long hours in the fields and had no opportunity to go to school. But the spirituals he heard as he worked made him yearn to read the gospel for himself. Late at night, Tindley taught himself to read from scraps of newspapers.
Eventually he felt drawn to worship. Tindley arrived at church barefoot in a wrinkled shirt.
Embarrassed, he wanted to hide. But when the minister summoned children who could read, Tindley walked down the aisle. The mostly White congregation hissed and jeered—until he read Scripture. Then, they applauded.
Tindley was more determined than ever to learn all he could. After working all day, he walked seven miles for lessons from a schoolteacher. By age seventeen, he could read and write.
And he was married. In Philadelphia with a wife and family, he worked as a bricklayers’ helper and bought every book he could. To become a minister, he took courses by mail, at a Hebrew synagogue and with tutors.
In 1901, Tindley began composing hymns that blended faith and everyday experience. Among his most popular songs are: “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” “Leave It There,” “The Storm Is Passing Over,” and “I’ll Overcome Someday,” a forerunner to the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
I’ll overcome some day,
I’ll overcome some day,
If in my heart I do not yield,
I’ll overcome some day.
Tindley overcame educational and economic obstacles to become minister of the Philadelphia church where he had once been janitor. During the Great Migration, he punctuated booming sermons with song. And Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church’s integrated congregation grew from 130 to 10,000, rivaling today’s megachurches.
The church’s Depression-era ministries included book clubs, music lessons, and homeownership initiatives as well as a soup kitchen and a clothing ministry that still serve the community today. To accommodate Tindley’s growing flock, a new church was built in 1924.
Tindley’s hymn, “A Better Day Is Coming,“ reflects his social conscience.
No more shall lords and rulers their helpless victims press,
And bar the door against the poor and leave them in distress
When Tindley died in 1933, he left a rich musical legacy—thirty-some hymns now deemed gospel standards. And the church he pastored was renamed Tindley Temple in his honor.
Carole Boston Weatherford, is the author of more than 50 books. Among those on spiritual topics are Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights and By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, The Father of Gospel Music. Her latest release is R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul. A professor at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, Weatherford has written for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Horn Book and elsewhere. Find her online at: cbweatherford.com.