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Making History Today: Joyful Music Leads Us Sunward

Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest

James S. Currie, Executive Secretary

“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: …”(Exodus 15:1a).

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 96:1).

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). 

One of the great gifts of the church and to the church is that of music. In one part of his wonderful book, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic, 2007), Jeremy Begbie talks about music and theology – Barth’s love for Mozart and his theological interpretation of Mozart’s music, Bonhoeffer’s love for Bach and how Bonhoeffer himself was an accomplished pianist. Begbie writes, “Bonhoeffer coined the term ‘polyphony of life’ when his own sense of loneliness was at its most acute” (p. 160). He also refers to Bonhoeffer’s theological notion of the cantus firmus, a musical way of describing the central theme that runs through a polyphonic piece of music. Incidentally, in a chapter in another of his books, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts (Baker Academic, 2001) Begbie describes the notion of the Trinity in terms of three notes played simultaneously and harmoniously (pp. 147-149). A wonderful and intriguing interpretation. 

Whether it’s a hymn or an anthem or a larger work of music (for example, oratorios such as Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah or Haydn’s Creation), most of us have been moved, inspired, uplifted in one way or another by these and similar works. Wasn’t it King George III who stood when the “Hallelujah Chorus” was played? And what of Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from his Mount of Olives oratorio. 

It has often occurred to me that the Presbyterian hymnal, whether the current Glory to God or any of its predecessors, is as theologically and historically diverse as any one volume could be – Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Paul Gerhardt, Marty Haugen, Martin Luther, Charles Wesley, Charlotte Elliott, Synesius of Cyrene, Frances Ridley Havergal, and various spirituals, to name only a few. And yet, as broad a spectrum as they are, these hymns may speak to us in different ways at different times in our lives, even those hymns whose theology we might question. Music has a way of feeding the soul. 

This column is supposed to be about the witness of the Presbyterian church in the Southwest. So, first, we need to recognize and be grateful for those musicians and choirs that contribute, week-in and week-out, to the richness of our worship experience. I cannot play a musical instrument and don’t even understand the skill it takes to play a piano or an organ. My voice has changed so much that I cannot even sing much anymore. But I am so terribly grateful for those who can play beautiful music and sing so well. 

Nevertheless, as one who grew up in the church and in the Southwest, I can testify that music has contributed much to my life. For over 40 years Bill Everitt directed the music program at Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church in Dallas. Part of that program was directing a 100-voice youth choir that, in addition to singing every Sunday evening in worship and recording for a local radio station, took annual tours to various parts of the country to sing concerts in churches along the way. I had the privilege of being part of that choir for two years. What we learned through that music has stayed with us over the decades since then – an appreciation for good sacred music, a growing awareness of the way Scripture is reflected in music, and the importance of music to the life of the church. In addition, the organist and pianist, Rosie Kuhn, was an immense talent. She could play anything, no matter how difficult. 

Hal Hopson, composer and musician, lives in Austin and is internationally known for his compositions and music clinics. There are 13 of his musical compositions or arrangements in the Glory to God hymnal. Austin Seminary has hosted a music symposium in honor of Hopson for three years. In 2023 the guest speaker was Dr. Mel Bringle, professor at Brevard College, and chair of the committee that produced Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Marvin Gaspard is an extraordinarily gifted composer and musician. He has served as organist and choir director at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Houston for over 25 years. While he has composed and arranged many pieces, his arrangement that joined Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with the hymn “Abide with Me” is especially creative and moving. 

I think of those musicians and choir directors who have served churches I have also served: Mary McCue, Mary Agnes Mitchell, Martha Mosby, Jane Sievers, Robert Schlessiger, Marvin Gaspard, Barbara Jennings, Carolyn Baker, Martha Braswell, and Marilyn Wilkins. Then there are those gifted musicians and soloists in the church where I currently worship: Helen Foster, Austin Bradley, Grace Bradshaw, Priscillla Mojica-Rust, Faye Smith, and Lynn Fisher. 

There are, without doubt, similarly talented musicians, choir directors, choirs, and soloists throughout the Presbyterian landscape covered by the PHSSW. They carry on a rich tradition in the church that has gone on for centuries. They contribute mightily to the lives of those of us in the congregation. They themselves are “making history today.” 

May the words of the hymn penned by another Presbyterian pastor, Henry van Dyke, serve as a coda to this column: 

Mortals, join the happy chorus which the morning stars began. 

Love divine is reigning o’er us, joining all in heaven’s plan. 

Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife. 

Joyful music leads us sunward in the triumph song of life. 

Thanks be to God! 

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to: 

PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.  

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