First, it was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s prayerful baritone singing of a grand old gospel song, then the tenor voice of Elvis Presley singing the same song that gave this writer much needed relief for my grieving soul. They also introduced me to the Rev. Dr. Charles A. Tindley, the writer of“Stand by Me.”
Before going further, let me ask how you react when troubles pile up and seem endless? When you’ve prayed and read the Bible for an answer and still cannot be calmed in your grief? That’s when I ofttimes go to my record collection for music that “stills a troubled soul.”
That’s how I came across Tindley’s song, based on Psalm 107:29, which asks the Lord, “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me; When the world is tossing me like a ship upon the sea, stand by me.”
Other verses of the song’s prayer include: “In the midst of tribulation, stand by me” and “When the hosts of hell assail and my strength begins to fail, stand by me.” These words and music brought peace of mind during a time of a severe, near-fatal family illness, plus the dread of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, which has killed thousands and also has attacked Alabama. Listening to the soothing words of the song brought peace of mind.
Tindley’s story is one that truly could be called a miracle. According to various internet sources, he was born in 1851 of a slave father and free mother, giving him an uphill road to start. Growing up, he was sent to work with other slaves. As a “free-born,” he taught himself to read and write by the age of 17. When grown, he married and moved north from his home in Maryland to Philadelphia and worked as a hod carrier (one who totes supplies for builders) at the city’s Bainbridge Street Methodist Church, eventually becoming the church’s unpaid janitor.
As an avid reader wanting more education, Tindley took courses at a local Bible school and by correspondence from Boston Theological Seminary. During this time, he became a Methodist minister, and went on to earn his doctorate and taught himself Greek and Hebrew through correspondence courses.
Tindley’s booming voice and talent for songs made him an outstanding music leader. He’s often credited as the “Father of Gospel Music.” In time, he would write more than 40 hymns that would be found in the hymnbooks of many denominations, such as “I Know the Lord Will Make a Way,” “I’ll Overcome Some Day” (changed into “We Shall Overcome” during the civil rights movement of the 1960s), “I Wonder What They’re Doing In Heaven Today,” “Take your Burdens to the Lord and Leave It There,” “Let Jesus Fix It for You” and “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.”
Emory University hymnologist James Abbington calls Tindley a “pastor, orator, poet, writer, theologian, social activist, ‘Father of African American Hymnody,’ ‘progenitor of African American gospel music’ and ‘prince of preachers.’”
In Volume 2 of his book, “Then Sings My Soul,” Robert Morgan describes Tindley as “ … A striking man, standing 6 feet, 3 inches tall and possessing a strong, deep voice.” He writes that multitudes were attracted to Christ through his preaching, whether in churches or on a street corner.
The former janitor of his church, renamed Calvary Methodist Church, was installed as its pastor in 1902. Tindley was 51 years old. There were only 100 members when he had begun attending there; outgrowing their small building, they bought a much larger Presbyterian church that had closed. This building was enlarged to hold 3,500 worshipers.
Later, in his honor, the church was renamed as the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church. At the time of Tindley’s death, his church had 12,500 members.
Today, Tindley Temple is one of the largest Methodist congregations in the U.S., serving the African-American community on the East Coast. The historic church was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
“The Father of Gospel Music” died in 1933 at the age of 82, but Praise the Lord, Tindley’s music lives on, bringing hope and peace to those who sing, play or hear it.
The final paragraph on Tindley’s life is recorded in Morgan’s book as follows: “Such a prominent ministry also invites attacks, criticism, misunderstanding and heavy burdens. Tindley once said, ‘“It was when I was overburdened with criticisms, abuse and hard and many oppositions – some of them from those whom I took to be my best friends – I wrote ‘Stand by Me.’”
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.
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