History of Hymns: 'I Have Heard of a Tree ('Heaven's Christmas Tree')
By C. Michael Hawn
“I Have Heard of a Tree” (“Heaven’s Christmas Tree”)
by Charles A. Tindley
The Africana Hymnal, 4036
Zion Still Sings, 61
I have heard of a tree, a great Christmas tree,
It was fixed in you Bethlehem’s stall.
The blessings of heaven for you and for me,
A Christmas present for all.
There is a package for me on that tree;
A precious token that someone loves me.
O yes, I can see, on Calvary’s Tree
That there is a package for me.
Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) was one of the eminent preachers of Methodism at the turn of the twentieth century. Emory University hymnologist James Abbington has called Tindley a “pastor, orator, poet, writer, theologian, social activist, ‘father of African American Hymnody,’ ‘progenitor of African American gospel music’ and ‘prince of preachers’” (Kimbrough and Young, 2006, p. v).
Tindley was born in Berlin, Maryland, under difficult circumstances; his mother died when Charles was just two years old. Economic conditions were difficult after the death of his mother, forcing his father to “hire him out.” African American scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon notes, “This practice was not unusual for freed Blacks. Hired-out workers often labored alongside slaves, experiencing much of the reality of the slave plantation. The major differences were that there was some remuneration … and hired-out workers did get the opportunity to go home” (Reagon, 1992, p. 41).
Tindley moved to Philadelphia as a young person, attending school at night. He said, “I made a rule to learn at least one new thing—a thing I did not know the day before—each day” (Kimbrough, 1992, p. vi). He was self-taught, never graduating from college or seminary, yet acquiring and reading more than 8,000 books in his library. He took Greek through Boston School of Theology and Hebrew through a synagogue in Philadelphia. Tindley was awarded two honorary Doctorate of Divinity degrees from colleges in North Carolina and Maryland.
From 1887-1900, Tindley served short-term itinerate positions until he became the presiding elder in the Wilmington District in 1900. Tindley was granted a license to preach from Bainbridge Street Methodist Church, where he was employed as a janitor between 1880-1885, becoming a member of the Delaware Annual Conference. In 1902, he was assigned to Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church, this time as its pastor.
In 1906, the congregation moved from Bainbridge Street, having gone through difficult negotiations to purchase Westminster Presbyterian Church, a sanctuary that seated 900. In its new location, the name was changed to East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church. As the church grew to a multiracial congregation of 10,000, the facility was strained to its limits. After Tindley’s death, the church was named Tindley Temple. Tindley Temple United Methodist Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century in the northeastern United States were caught in the promise and the poverty of the Industrial Revolution. Unemployment was high among African Americans, many of whom had migrated from the South in search of work and a new life, only to find that overseas immigrants were competing for the same jobs, especially between 1880 and 1920, the same time that Tindley was developing his ministry in Philadelphia. Long hours, child labor, and poor working conditions were common.
African American scholars C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya describe the social conditions of the day surrounding Tindley’s hymns:
Tindley wrote songs incorporating the black folk imagery which attempted to interpret the oppression African Americans faced as they settled in the cities of the North, an experience not essentially different from that which produced the spirituals. The Tindley hymns (which are congregational songs) admonish those who suffer the storms of life to stand fast in Christ . . .. They are also addressed to helping the oppressed to survive this world [Italics in original] (Lincoln and Mamiya, 1990, p. 360).
African American scholar Horace Clarence Boyer connects Tindley’s hymn writing with his sermons:
It was not unusual for Tindley to punctuate his sermons by singing verses or choruses of his own songs. The second or third time, the congregation would join in the singing with Tindley as the leader. Beginning in the 1950s, this kind of performance would be called a gospel songfest. His sermons as well as his songs testify to a strong person, both in conviction and in musical talent (Boyer, 1992, pp. 55-56).
This hymn is integrally connected with Tindley’s most famous sermon, “Heaven’s Christmas Tree,” a sermon demanded each year. The sermon was based on Revelation 22:2, “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river was the tree of life” (KJV). The delivery of this sermon each year was so popular that Olympia Boxing Hall, a special auditorium, had to be rented to accommodate a crowd of 5,000. This arena was stretched beyond capacity, and some were turned away. Following the sermon, unchurched attenders were invited to the altar for prayer. After a second presentation of the sermon the following year, Tindley felt that something was missing. He was questioned about this, and responded, “I need a proper hymn for this sermon. Next year I’ll have one” (Kimbrough and Young, 2006, p. xi). The following year, 1915, he prepared this hymn.
Tindley’s niece Stella and granddaughter-in-law Gertrude describe the sermon:
Well, on Christmas he preached about “Heaven’s Christmas Tree,” which had these packages: love, charity, salvation . . . He would take each package from this tree, which was the “Heaven’s Christmas Tree,” and he preached on love this year, hope, and charity. The next year, he would preach on a different package, salvation, forgiveness, and that’s how the sermon would go. Each year it would be “Heaven’s Christmas Tree” but with different packages (Reagon, 1992, p. 48).
Stanzas 2, 3, 4, and 5 unpack a specific “package” on different limbs of the tree. Stanza 2 holds a package of “salvation” on one limb of the tree. Stanza 3 has a limb that holds the package of “love . . . marked by a deep crimson stain.” Another package labeled “I will help you” is the subject of stanza 4. This is a package of “faith” that is experienced by “holding his hand.” In stanza 5, Tindley mentions, that while there are many other gifts, the package he chooses is one that contains “happy home” – a place “with God near the throne, / a place where the weary shall be free.”
Unlike some other Tindley hymns such as “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” (The UM Hymnal, 525), “When the Storms of Life Are Raging” (“Stand By Me”) [The UM Hymnal, 512], and “Beams of Heaven as I Go” (The UM Hymnal, 524), “Heaven’s Christmas Tree” did not find a place in the repertoire beyond Tindley’s church – until recently. Thanks to the advocacy of African American scholar James Abbington, it now appears in African American Heritage Hymnal (Chicago, 2001), Zion Still Sings (Nashville, 2007), Total Praise (Chicago, 2011), Lead Me, Guide Me, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 2012). For a recording of “Heaven’s Christmas Tree” performed by the Morgan State University Choir directed by Dr. Abbington, go to the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SAmHGw7Q4E.
Sources and Further Reading
Horace Clarence Boyer, “Charles Albert Tindley: Progenitor of African American Gospel Music,” in We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, Bernice Reagon Johnson, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Bernice Reagon Johnson, “Searching for Tindley,” in We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, Bernice Reagon Johnson, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
S T Kimbrough, Jr. and Carlton R. Young, eds. Beams of Heaven: Hymns of Charles Albert Tindley (New York: GBGMusik, 2006).
C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990).
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.