Article

History of Hymns: “Leave It There”

by C. Michael Hawn

Charles A. Tindley

“Leave It There”
by Charles Albert Tindley.
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 522.

If the world from you withhold
of its silver and its gold,
and you have to get along with meager fare,
just remember in his Word
how he feeds the little bird,
take your burdens to the Lord and leave it there.

Leave it there, leave it there,
take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

If you trust and never doubt,
he will surely bring your out;
take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) was one of the eminent preachers of Methodism at the turn of the twentieth century. 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.’”

Dr. Abbington places Tindley’s hymns alongside those of Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1983), often called the “father of gospel music,” who in the first quarter of the twentieth century represented a new kind of African American sound influenced by the blues and jazz. “Precious Lord, take my hand” (The UM Hymnal, No. 474) was the most famous of Dorsey’s gospel hymns. Dorsey built on the earlier gospel song tradition of Charles Tindley. On the surface, many of Tindley’s hymns seemed to differ little from the gospel songs composed by his white counterparts from the same era, including William B. Bradbury (1816-1868), Robert Lowry (1826-1899), and William Howard Doane (1832-1915). Indeed, in the hymn cited above, the theme of “taking all burdens to the Lord” is common. For example, Elisha Hoffman (1839-1929) wrote in 1894,

I must tell Jesus!

I must tell Jesus!

I cannot bear my burdens alone . . .

Jesus, can help me, Jesus alone!

More recently, William J. Gaither (b. 1936) began the hymn “He Touched Me” this way:

Shackled by a heavy burden,
neath a load of guilt and shame,
then the hand of Jesus touched me,
and now I am no longer the same.*

*© 1963 William J. Gaither. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

African American gospel music scholar Horace Clarence Boyer notes that Tindley’s hymns “concentrated on texts that gave attention to such important concerns of Black Christians as worldly sorrows, blessings, and woes, as well as the joys of the afterlife . . ..  Tindley, himself a cosmopolitan person, wrote songs expressly for his congregation and other Black Christians and attempted to speak directly to them.” With this in mind, let us explore briefly the background of Charles Tindley and the social context of his ministry, relating these this to his hymn.

He was born in Worchester County, Maryland, the son of Charles and Esther Tindley. His mother died when he was only two years old, and his father raised him. Dr. Abbington comments that biographies often refer to Tindley’s slave ancestry, but that an autobiographical reference in his Book of Sermons (1932) implies that his parents were not slaves.

Economic conditions were very 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.”

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.” 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 doctorates of divinity 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, granted a license to preach from Bainbridge Street Methodist Church where he was employed as a janitor between 1880-1885, thus became 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 his 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. Long hours, child labor, and poor working conditions were common.

Most of the hymns on this theme by majority culture composers focus on the burdens of sin or other unspecified struggles. Charles Tindley addresses the social conditions poetically but explicitly in “Leave It There.”

Thus, the opening lines of the first stanza address the underlying financial poverty of many in Tindley’s congregation (For the complete text, see http://www.hymnary.org/text/if_the_world_from_you_withhold_of_its_si):

If the world from you withhold
of its silver and its gold,
and you have to get along with meager fare . . .

Stanza two is explicit about the physical suffering of African Americans under these conditions:

If your body suffers pain,
and your health you can’t regain,
and your soul is almost sinking in despair . . .

Stanza three addresses the conflict among various peoples, some of them probably class struggles, ethnic rivalries, and clashes between labor and management:

When your enemies assail,
and your heart begins to fail . . .

The final stanza, pointing to transition from earthly struggles to the next life, gives voice to those who have labored and striven for their entire lives:

When your youthful days are done,
and old age is stealing on,
and your body bends beneath the weight of care . . .

The final line of each stanza offers hope either through a biblical allusion or an understanding that Jesus is a companion through the difficult journey of life. The refrain, “Leave it there,” offers the potential of lifting the weight of the world from the shoulders of the singer, echoing Psalm 55:22: “Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved” (KJV) .

 

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns