This book tells the story in rhyming verse of Charles Albert Tindley, who was a self-educated Methodist minister and “the Father of Gospel Music.”
Tindley was born in Maryland in 1851 to a slave father and a free mother, so he himself was spared from slavery by law. His mother died when he was young, and he was hired out to farms, where he grew to love the words of the Bible that he heard chanted in spirituals by his fellow field workers. Weatherford writes in Tindley’s voice: “I yearned for more – to read the Word.”
The desire to know more about his faith led Tindley to become self-educated, learning to read from scraps of newspapers and walking miles to receive lessons from anyone who would teach him. His quest continued after he moved to Philadelphia, taking night classes while working multiple jobs. Tindley was finally able to pass the test that enabled him to qualify for ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church by virtue of his high-ranking scores.
In 1902, Tindley became the pastor of East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the same church at which he had been a janitor. Under his leadership, the church grew rapidly from the 130 members it had when he arrived, growing over time to a multiracial congregation of 10,000. The congregation had to build a bigger meeting place. [After his death, the church was renamed “Tindley Temple.” The Tindley Temple United Methodist Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.]
In 1901, Tindley had begun composing hymns, popularized when he became a pastor through his booming voice, enthusiasm, and talent. The hymns he wrote include “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There” and “I’ll Overcome Some Day” which inspired the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” Five of his hymns appear in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal. Lyrics from some of his hymns are included in the text as italicized lines, such as his lines from “Stand by Me”:
“When I do the best I can,
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou who knowest all about me,
Stand by me.”
Multiple award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier tells us in a note that he grew up only thirty miles south of where Tindley was born, and is quite familiar with Tindley; in fact, he relates, every year “Tindley Day” is celebrated in his home town. Collier employs dramatic and vivid two-page mixtures of watercolors and collage. His stunning imagery enhances the text, adding unique touches such as snippets of book pages and sheet music to the background as Tindley continues to learn and grow.
An author’s note and illustrator’s note follow the text as well as a list of popular Tindley hymns, a brief bibliography, and a guide to further resources. One of the books referenced is another book for children, I See the Rhythm of Gospel by Michele Wood that explores the historical, cultural, and spiritual influences that produced gospel music. There is also a link that leads you to a short video produced by the Tindley Temple telling the story of Tindley’s life.
It is worth repeating the remarks of Rev. Robert L. Johnson, of today’s Tindley Temple:
“We lose so much of our history and so much of who we are. And our generations to come need to understand that this belongs to you. I heard a kid sing the other day, ‘By and By.’ He had no idea that ‘By and By’ was a Tindley hymn. When I told the young man, and I brought him in here [to the Tindley Temple], the first thing he said was, ‘Wow. I walk by it every day and I never knew it was here.’ And people who don’t understand the history really can’t respect it. But when you understand it, you respect it and you hold it a little bit closer to your heart.”
Evaluation: Weatherford, author of over forty books, many of which have been award-winners, wields her reliably good talent in emphasizing the struggles, persistence, and courage of historical figures who deserve more attention.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2020