History of Hymns: 'He Understands, He'll Say, 'Well Done''
By C. Michael Hawn
“He Understands, He’ll Say, ‘Well Done’”
by Lucie Eddie Campbell-Williams
Songs of Zion, 178
If when you give the best of your service,
Telling the world that the Savior is come;
Be not dismayed when men don’t believe you;
He understands; He’ll say, “Well done.”
Oh, when I come to the end of my journey,
Weary of life and the battle is won;
Carr’ing the staff and cross of redemption,
He’ll understand, and say “Well done.”
Lucy Eddie Campbell-Williams (1885-1963) is one of the most fascinating and significant gospel song composers in the first half of the twentieth century. Hymn writer, singer, music director, educator, and mentor to scores of African American church musicians, Campbell, one of nine children, was the daughter of formerly enslaved African Americans in Mississippi. She rose to be one of the most important figures of her era in African American gospel song and the most prominent voice in shaping musical culture of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. for nearly half a century. She was elected music director of the Sunday School and the Baptist Training Union, a position she held from 1916 until her death in 1963.
Early Years and Education
African American scholar Horace Clarence Boyer describes her birth:
Lucie E. Campbell . . . has the unenviable distinction of having been born on a train just outside of Duck Hill, Mississippi. Her father, Burrell, worked on the railroad, and her mother, Isabella Wilkerson Campbell, would deliver him his lunch each day on the train that carried workers back and forth. While Isabella was returning from this lunch one day, Lucie decided to enter this world. Miss Lucie, as she was called by the members of the National Baptist Convention, delighted in telling this story, because it testified to her uniqueness (Boyer, 1995, p. 138).
Shortly after her birth, her father was killed in a railroad accident, forcing her mother, with nine children, to move to Memphis, Tennessee, in search of work; Lucie was not yet two years old. Because of the dire financial situation, only her older sister Lora was given piano lessons. Listening to Lora’s lessons, Lucie taught herself to play and write out songs in manuscript. Following graduation from high school (1899), where she was named valedictorian, Lucie was immediately hired by Carnes Grammar School (1899-1911) at age fourteen. She continued teaching at Kortrecht (later Booker T. Washington) High School, a position she held for 33 years. Campbell insisted that her role as public school English and history teacher was her “vocation, [and] music is my avocation” (Gilkey, 1947, n.p.), with no intention of supporting herself though her compositions. She graduated from Rust College (Holly Springs, Mississippi) in 1927, majoring in liberal arts. Her college choral director provided her some assistance by reviewing her compositions. She received a master’s degree from Tennessee’s Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University, Nashville) at the age of sixty-six.
Music Leadership of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.
The reputation of “Miss Lucie,” as she was known, rests primarily in her role as a “feisty and authoritative woman who exercised a great deal of power in the National Baptist Convention” (Boyer, 1995, p. 140). In this role, she introduced a new song each year at the national conventions from 1930-1962, with many of her songs becoming the “standards” for the gatherings (Boyer, 1992, p. 82). Because of her skills in organization and leadership, she auditioned everyone who wanted to sing on the program; no one sang before the convention without her approval. She helped develop, both as composer and promoter, the newer gospel song tradition of her era. Her vocation as a teacher influenced the Chautauqua-style teaching sessions she held for the purpose of education, recreation, and promotion of materials (George, 1992, pp. 112-113). African American scholar Horace Boyer describes the extent of her influence and authority:
Campbell exerted her musical influence throughout the entire African American community. Campbell was a woman of strong conviction and a person who required all others to bow to her wishes; there was no question that the National Baptist Convention, the largest denomination of African American Christians in the world, would sing what she and her colleagues preferred. . . What kind of songs did Lucie E. Campbell want the National Baptist Convention to sing? The answer is simple: the songs she wrote and the songs and singing of the new pioneers of gospel who came to this music with the same conviction she possessed (Boyer, 1992, p. 82).
Miss Lucie introduced several young musicians at the annual gatherings of the National Baptist Convention, and in doing so, provided them with a stage from which their careers could ascend. Among these was J. Robert Bradley (1919-2007), who came to Campbell’s notice at age 12. Nicknamed “Mr. Baptist,” he was a performer of lieder and gospel songs and a favorite singer of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahalia Jackson asserted that he was the greatest voice she had ever heard. Miss Lucie accompanied Marian Anderson (1887-1993) at the 1919 convention. (Anderson was the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.) She invited Thomas Dorsey in 1930 to the convention based on his promise as a nascent gospel song composer. Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) delighted in telling the story that, during her audition for Miss Lucie to sing before the convention, Campbell stopped the audition and said curtly, “Stand up straight, young woman” (Boyer, 1995, p. 140).
Civic Leadership and Honors
As significant as her leadership was with the National Baptist Convention, her witness extended beyond the Baptist context. Luvenia A. George, one of her former students, notes, “She was a woman who made politicians think religion” (Memphis Music Hall of Fame, 2018, n.p.). Her citation as the 2018 posthumous inductee into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame recalls,
In the same city that saw Ida B. Wells [1862-1931] once take a determined stance against segregation, and coming a decade before Rosa Parks’ [1913-2005] galvanizing act of civil disobedience, Campbell too defied the era’s Jim Crow laws by refusing to relinquish a seat in the whites-only section of a streetcar. She carried those convictions into her professional life, from the gospel pageants she produced such as Ethiopia at the Bar of Justice, which promoted racial pride, to her many appointments and engagements in the educational and political arenas (Memphis Music Hall of Fame, 2018, n.p.).
Her appointments included an invitation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to attend the 1938 Negro Child Welfare Conference, service as president of the Tennessee Negro Teachers’ Association (1941-1946), where she fought for equal pay and benefits for black teachers. She was also vice-president of the American Teachers Association and served on the National Policy Planning Commission of the National Education Association (1946) (Wynn, 2017, n.p.). In 1984, the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.) dedicated an entire conference to her. The Lucie E. Campbell Elementary School in Memphis is named for her (Memphis Music Hall of Fame, 2018, n.p.).
“He Understands and He’ll say, ‘Well done.’”
Campbell began publishing songs in 1919. Two of these were widely sung and continue to be included in collections: “Preachers and teachers would make their appeal” (“Something Within”), and “The Lord is my shepherd” (“We Will Walk Through the Valley”). Her most published song, “If when you give the best of your service” (“He Understands: He’ll Say, ‘Well Done’”) was published in 1933. Horace Clarence Boyer notes:
From 1930 to 1962, [Campbell] introduced a new song each year at the National Baptist Convention. Her songs became gospel standards, sung by all races and creeds. Campbell had the distinction of having composed the second most popular song in all Black Christendom after Thomas A. Dorsey’s song ‘Precious Lord’, which is, of course, “He understands; He’ll Say, ‘Well Done’.” One can go to a Black church at the time of a funeral and find Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and Holiness singing this song, and they will be singing it without sheet music (Boyer, 1992, p. 82).
This hymn, much like Dorsey’s “Precious Lord,” is a hymn often sung at funerals. These two hymns, as well as Charles Albert Tindley’s “We’ll understand it better by and by,” were composed as a bridge from the sorrow and pain of human suffering on earth to the joy and painlessness of the next life. The text draws upon Jesus’ teaching conveyed in the parable of the talents: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” (Matthew 25:21. KJV)
Each stanza indicates that no matter what happens when you have done your best, even when you seem to fail, God understands. Stanza 1 states, “Be not dismayed when friends don’t believe you.” Stanza two, identifying with the ministry of Jesus, asserts that when Christ was “misunderstood,” his response was “Not my will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). Stanza three assures the singer that “when this life of labor is ended, / And the reward of the race you have won,” God has prepared “sweet rest . . . for the faithful.” The final stanza is one of encouragement:
But if you try and fail in your trying,
Hands sore and scarred from the work you’ve begun;
Take up your cross, run quickly to meet Him;
He’ll understand; He’ll say, ‘Well done’.
One can imagine how the many African Americans attending the conventions felt when, in the pre-Civil Rights era, they sang this final stanza in their capacities as industrial laborers, sanitation workers, domestic employees, and farmers—professions that that scarred and bruised their hands.
The first stanza begins in the present tense—“He understands; and He’ll say, ‘Well done’.” The final stanza and refrain conclude with —“He’ll understand . . .”—emphasizing the shift from this life to the next. When all four stanzas and the refrain are sung, the singer will have been reassured seven times by the words, “Well done.”
The refrain carries the theme and drives it home:
Oh, when I come to the end of my journey,
Weary of life and the battle is won;
Carrying the staff and the cross of redemption,
He’ll understand, and say, “Well done.”
The metaphor of the “staff” and the “cross of redemption” may refer to Christ’s role as both Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and as Savior (John 3:16).
Recording artists, black and white, frequently included this song on their albums. Those artists included Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, James Cleveland, Ann McCrary, Hank Snow, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. On one occasion, Campbell’s protégé J. Robert Bradley, performed the hymn at a church service, and one hundred persons came forward immediately to unite with the congregation (George, 1983, n.p.). This song is also a favorite of male quartets in various styles from white country (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fJQi6X-Ry4) to upbeat African American gospel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgUbMiLQ2uM). Occasionally, it is regrettable that credit has not been given to Campbell in recordings and publications, perhaps because she self-published many of her songs and the hymns were conveyed via oral/aural practice. On the other hand, this may indicate that the song has become so identified with the African American faith experience that it takes on the quality of a traditional folksong.
Later Years and Legacy
Campbell married long-time friend and associate C. R. Williams on January 14, 1960. Decades before they had formed a publishing company solely for the distribution of her songs. Williams had long taken responsibility for selling copies of her songs at National Baptist Convention gatherings; but around 1945, they began to publish her songs from her home (Reed, 2003, p. 179).
Her long-time service to the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. was recognized when the National Sunday School and the Baptist Training Union Congress declared June 20, 1962, as Lucie E. Campbell Appreciation Day in gratitude to the denomination’s “first lady of music.” Regretfully, while preparing to attend the celebration, she became gravely ill and died six months later in Nashville on January 3, 1963. Her body was returned to Memphis, where her funeral service was held on January 7 at Mount Nebo Baptist Church. She was interred at Mount Carmel Cemetery (Wynn, 2007, n.p.), where her headstone reads, “Lucie Eddie Campbell Williams: Composer—Educator—Baptist Leader.”
Recent scholarship recognizes that Lucie Campbell was a pioneering woman in gospel music, a field heretofore dominated by men such as William Herbert Brewster (1897-1987), Thomas Dorsey, and Charles Tindley. She predated Dorsey as a gospel song composer and assisted him in his transition from blues to a fresh voice in gospel music (Boyer, 1992, p. 106). Roxanne Regina Reed argues that “Gospel music provided women with an alternative to traditional male-centered pulpit ministry” (Reed, 2003, p. i). Furthermore, gospel music eventually paved the way for more female than male performers, the latter who were more closely identified with jazz and blues. Thus, gospel music performance allowed women to manifest “spiritual leadership roles [and became for women] a mode for expressing and attaining power” (Reed, 2003, 53).
Invitations for Campbell to participate beyond the National Baptist Convention indicated that her leadership extended to civic, state, and national organizations where her strong voice made an impact in education and teachers’ rights, including collective organization for African American teachers. Though a powerful, blunt, at times officious, and exacting leader, her compositions, mentoring, planning, motivating, and visionary leadership were not for self-aggrandizement or personal gain, but composed a gospel music ministry corollary to male-dominated preaching that empowered African Americans for spiritual service and perseverance in the pursuit of social and political justice.
Sources and Further Reading
Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1995).
_____, “Lucie E. Campbell: Composer for the National Baptist Convention,” in We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, Ed. Bernice Johnson Reagon (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Press, 1992), 81-108.
Luvenia A. George, “Lucie E. Campbell: Her Nurturing and Expansion of Gospel Music in the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.,” in We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, Bernice Johnson Reagon, ed. (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Press, 1992), 109-119.
Ada Gilkey, “Music Came Naturally, but She Had to Eavesdrop to Nurture that Talent,” Memphis Press-Scimitar (March 5, 1947).
Memphis Music Hall of Fame, “Lucie Campbell,” 2018, http://memphismusichalloffame.com/inductee/luciecampbell.
Roxanne Regina Reed, “Preaching and Piety: The Politics of Women’s Voice in African-American Gospel Music with Special Attention to Gospel Music Pioneer Lucie E. Campbell,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2003.
Linda T. Wynn, “Mrs. Lucie E. Campbell-Williams (1855-1963), Pioneer Composer in African-American Music,” Pan-African News Wire (March 2, 2007), https://panafricannews.blogspot.com/2007/03/mrs-lucie-e-campbell-williams-1855-1963.html.
_____, “Lucie Eddie Campbell-Williams,” Tennessee Encyclopedia (October 2017): https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/lucie-eddie-campbell-williams.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.