African American Women Hymn Writers
As African Americans moved into the urban centers and established their own churches early in the 20th center, new gospel music developed written by African-Americans. The entire congregation became involved in the singing of this music which was often spontaneous and improvisation was expected, bringing to the hymn the sense of the holy. The major themes of the music were trust, Jesus will save/guide us, do your part, keep right with God, and eternal joy with God.
Lucie E. Campbell (1885-1963) was one of the early writers and composers of black gospel music. For over thirty years she was in charge of the music at the National Baptist Convention and in that capacity introduced a new song each year. One of Ms. Campbell’s hymns “Something Within” published in 1919 was the first gospel hymn composed, published, and widely used by an African-American woman. It was written after hearing a young blind black man resist temptation by saying: “I believe I’ve found the way out of darkness into light, I can’t explain it, but there’s something within me.”
“I met God one morn’, my soul feeling bad,
Heart heavy laden with a bowed down head.
He lifted my burden, made me so glad,
All that I know there is something within.
Something within me, that holdeth the reins;
Something within me, that banishes pain;
Something within me, I cannot explain
All that I know there is something within.”
Doris Akers (1923-1995) wrote the words of “Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain” which expresses the conviction that God does not give one an easy life, but “God does give one the strength to deal with whatever happens. Using the metaphor of a mount, Ms. Akers asks for strength to climb the mountain and to do what she can to help herself. In the second stanza she asks God to lead her foes to give their hearts to God. Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) wrote the music for this hymn. She was a well-known singer of gospel songs, even receiving a Grammy Award. Think about other images that could be used for the mountain as you read/sing this hymn.
“The way may not be easy.
You didn’t say that it would be.
For when my tribulations get too light
I tend to stray from thee.
Lord, don’t move this mountain, but give me strength to climb it.
Please don’t move that stumbling block, but lead me, Lord, around it.”
Margaret P. Douroux (b. 1941) writes of the importance of receiving a clean heart and following Jesus in her hymn “Give Me a Clean Heart”. She says that a “right relationship with God” is more important the riches, mood swings, or prestige. This hymn is really a prayer for a life that is fit to follow and serve Jesus. The hymn is based on Psalm 51:10. Ms. Douroux is a writer, composer, publisher, and the retired minister of music at several Baptist churches in Los Angeles.
Give me a clean heart so I may serve Thee, Lord,
fix my heart so that I may be used by Thee.
For I’m not worthy of all these blessings.
Give me a clean hear and I’ll follow Thee.”
Remember that the African-American experience began in slavery in this country. It was often the music that sustained and nurtured the spirit of the slave. It is still the music of the black church that gives healing, courage and comfort to the believer and to the broader secular audience.
Note: Excerpted from “Sing the Wondrous Love of Jesus” by Joyce D. Sohl, 2006.
Joyce D. Sohl, Laywoman-in-Residence
Joyce D. Sohl has been Laywoman-in-Residence since 2009 as a full-time volunteer. She retired as CEO of United Methodist Women in 2004. She is the author of 4 books, a teacher, retreat leader, writer and non-professional musician. Here at the Center her work is in the area of Spirituality & the Arts with such programs as Tuesdays in the Chapel, Vespers & All That Jazz, Poet’s Corner, quarterly retreats, and art exhibits.