Rev. Charles A. Tindley

by Dana Kester-McCabe

This is the story of one of America's great gospel music composers and a Delmarva native.

Charles Albert Tindley may not have started out with much. But he educated himself and rose up to become known as the "Prince of Preachers", one of America's great gospel music composers. Born right here in Berlin, Maryland, in 1851, he was the son of a slave and a free woman of color. Rather than making him bitter his impoverished beginnings taught him to have a deep faith and a rich appreciation for all that he had.

Charles' mother passed away when he was only two. As soon as he was old enough to handle chores his father began hiring him out to help make ends meet. Charles taught himself to read by collecting bits of newspaper from the trash. His first big accomplishment was to read the Bible.

One Sunday he snuck into a nearby church to hear the preaching. Blacks were supposed to sit in the back or the balcony out of sight. When the minister invited all the children who had read the Bible to sit up front, he bravely took his place among them despite the discouragement of the white parishioners.

Years later, after the Civil War, young Charles and his wife Daisy left the Eastern Shore for Philadelphia. There he found work hauling bricks, and serving as a janitor at the Bainbridge Street Episcopal Methodist Church where the couple became active members. Ever curious Charles sought out people to tutor him on a variety of subjects. He studied Hebrew and Greek through a correspondence course. This all was in preparation to take the test to qualify for ordination as Methodist minister. He was the only one at the exam who did not hold a formal degree, but he got one of the highest scores on the test that day.

His first parish was in Cape May, New Jersey. He and his family arrived there in the middle of blizzard. They moved into their cold little house with only a little bit of bread to share between them. They warmed up some water to soak the bread in for some meager soup to tide them over until the storm could abate. Just as they were giving prayers of thanks for this pitiful meal, a welcoming committee with much needed provisions arrived at their door. From this experience Charles was inspired to write the song "God Will Provide For Me" with these lyrics:

Here I may be weak and poor,
With afflictions to endure;
All about me not a ray of light to see,
Just as He has often done,
For His helpless trusting ones,
God has promised to provide for me...

Methodist ministers, especially the newly ordained, are often moved around every few years. Charles' next post was in Wilmington, and then it was back home to Delmarva. He served congregations in Odessa, Pocomoke, Fairmount, and then back to Wilmington again. Eventually he was made the Presiding Elder of the Wilmington District. Then he became the pastor of the very church in Philadelphia where he had started out as a janitor.

From the pulpit emerged not just a preacher but a community leader. Charles was not afraid to take on the issues of the day. He felt that minstrel shows were degrading to blacks and spoke out against them. He and other clergy led a protest against the silent film "Birth Of A Nation" which had been inciting racial unrest across the county. They marched through the city and were met with an angry white mob that violently attacked them.

But, Charles knew that protest alone would not make life better for his congregation. His ministry led him to foster good relationships with certain influential people among the white political and business hierarchy of Philadelphia. He raised money to help the needy, opening one of the city's first soup kitchens. He and his parishioners created their own savings and loan to help African Americans buy their own homes.

The church continued to grow all this time because of his charismatic leadership and kindness. Soon they had to move a few blocks away to a bigger sanctuary which is now known as the Tindley Temple. The day they moved into the new church Charles' beloved wife Daisy passed away. Throughout these years filled with both challenges and triumphs he never lost faith and always gave credit to his Savior.

Eventually he remarried. He continued to lead his church until he passed way in 1933. He is buried in Philadelphia. A large memorial was erected there engraved with his picture and the music and lyrics of his hymn "Beams of Heaven as I Go." An identical monument can be found here on Delmarva in the town of his birth Berlin, Maryland.

Amazingly during such a rich and active lifetime with so many other accomplishments Charles found time to create what he is probably best known for: several collections of original hymns. Four volumes were published while he was still alive and two posthumously. Several of his songs have become gospel hits crossing over ecumenical lines to be celebrated in Christian churches of many denominations. Songs like "Take Your Burden To The Lord", "Stand By Me", and "What Are They Doing In Heaven" have been recorded by great artists like Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley.

The Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" was inspired by his hymn "I Shall Overcome." A teacher named Zilphia Horton in South Carolina was teaching school children the song when Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan heard her version. They wrote a slower arrangement and changed I to We to use the song in voting rights marches. The song was famously performed by thousands of marchers led by Martin Luther King and singers like Joan Baez during the March On Washington in 1963.

Rev. Charles A. Tindley knew that music has the power to raise the hopes of the downtrodden, to inspire great acts of courage, and to give voice to our sorrows and joys alike. Most of all he knew that songs could help to build a faith community. All this came from a brave young man who dared to take his rightful place at the front of the church during the era of slavery.

Listen to hymns By Charles Albert Tindley:
Click here to listen to this play list or visit the links to hear the individual songs.

We Will Understand It Better Bye And Bye
YouTube Video - Alphabetical Four

We Shall Over Come
YouTube Video - Mahalia Jackson

I'll Overcome Someday
YouTube Video - Mississippi Bracey

Beams Of Heaven
YouTube Video - Aretha Franklin

Take your burden to the Lord
YouTube Video - Washington Phillips

Stand By Me
YouTube Video - Elvis Presley

What Are They Doing In Heaven Today
YouTube Video - Johnny Jones with The Swanee Quintet


Lincoln in Ebony: "We'll Understand It Better By and By"
by Lindsay Terry
Stories Behind 50 Southern Gospel Favorites
Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. 2005

Charles Albert Tindley

Charles Tindley's Faith Set Him Singing
By Dan Graves, MSL

Charles Albert Tindley
1975 – 1981 by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace
Reproduced with permission from “The People’s Almanac” series of books.

Today in 1933 – Charles Tindley Died
July 26, 2010 -

History of Hymns: “Stand By Me”
by C. Michael Hawn

Beams of Heaven Songbook
Hymns of Charles Albert Tindley

Charles Albert Tindley, Faithful Servant of Christ
Amy C. Smith

Charles Albert Tindley

Rev. Dr. Charles A Tindley 2 "Prince of Preachers" "We Shall Overcome"
YouTube Video - Documentary by Jessyca Stansbury- McCargo

Tindley Temple: A Highlight of Methodist History
YouTube Video - United Methodist Videos