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History of Hymns: "We'll Understand It Better By and By"

By C. Michael Hawn

"We’ll Understand It Better By and By"
Charles A. Tindley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 525

Charles A. Tindley

We are tossed and driven
on the restless sea of time;
somber skies and howling tempests
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists have rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by.

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.'"

He was born in Worchester County, Maryland, the son of Charles and Esther Tindley, but 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 he was not a slave.

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.

His return to the congregation as pastor was not universally appreciated since he had served more than fifteen years earlier as the janitor; but the 150th Anniversary Journal of the congregation notes that "All were pleasantly surprised, for as Tindley mounted the rostrum, wearing a Prince Albert Coat -- then the garb of many African American Protestant preachers -- he had the dignified bearing acquired during his previous appointments. They were further surprised when Tindley delivered a masterful, soul gripping sermon that brought loud amens and praise God exclamations from his listeners."

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.

The Rev. Carlton Young notes "We’ll Understand It Better By and By" was "one of eight hymns . . . written during a difficult period in Tindley’s life when negotiations were underway for the purchase of Westminster Presbyterian Church on Broad Street. It reflects aspects of Tindley’s ministry through preaching aimed to lift the spirits of turn-of-the-century urban African Americans."

One can imagine Tindley using this song to punctuate his sermons, offering hope to those assembled not only through exegesis of the biblical text, but also through a lyrical sung theology. African American scholars C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya clarify that "by and by" was "not simply other-worldly. [These hymns] are also addressed to helping the oppressed survive this world."

Stanza one paints a picture of "restless seas" and "howling tempests" that will eventually give way to "that land of perfect day, when the mists have rolled away." Stanza two speaks to the economic condition of many of Tindley’s parishioners:

destitute of the things that life demands,
want of food and want of shelter,
thirsty hills and barren lands;

Stanza three invokes the image of the "promised land" found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Just as the children of Israel followed the pillar and fire through the desert, Tindley exhorts, "he guides us with his eye, and we’ll follow till we die."

Stanza four cautions the singer to watch out for "Temptations, hidden snares [that] often take us unawares." Perhaps like Job, "we wonder why the test, when we try to do our best."

The refrain beginning, "By and by, when the morning comes," echoes Psalm 30:5: "Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning" (New American Standard Bible). In the morning we will experience the community of "the saints of God . . . gathered," "we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome," and finally, "we’ll understand it better by and by."

Indeed, Tindley’s theology is not escapist "pie in the sky by and by." It is a theology of hope that exemplifies I Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known " (KJV).

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.