Charles Albert Tindley

image of Charles Albert TindleyBorn, July 7, 1851, Berlin, Maryland

The Town of Berlin is proud to be the birthplace of Charles Albert Tindley. The Museum has information suggesting that Calvin B. Taylor taught Charles Tindley how to read and write.

Descendants of Rev. Tindley still live in the Berlin area in a part of town called Tindleytown.

“Stand by Me,” written by Charles Albert Tindley; United Methodist Hymnal, No. 512

When the storms of life are raging, stand by me; When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, Thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.

By C. Michael Hawn

Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) was one of the most famous African American Methodist ministers of his era and has been called “one of the founding fathers of African American gospel music.”

Tindley overcame many personal obstacles to be the pastor of one of the largest congregations on the East Coast…. Tindley’s mother died when he was four, and at five he was separated from his father. He taught himself to read and write by age 17 and moved to Philadelphia where he labored as a janitor at Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church. While working at the church he attended night school and took correspondence courses at Boston University School of Theology.

Following ordination, Tindley served several congregations before returning to Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in 1902, not as a janitor but as its pastor. Serving the congregation for over 30 years, the church was renamed Tindley Temple Methodist Church in 1924 over his objections. The congregation included African Americans, Europeans, Jews and Hispanics. Some estimate that the congregation had as many as 12,500 members at the time of Tindley’s death.

“Stand by Me” is one of the most famous of Tindley’s many gospel songs. Composing both the words and the music, the pastor included it in New Songs of Paradise, No. 6, a collection he published in 1905.

Life was not easy for many members of Tindley’s congregation during the industrial revolution of the northeastern United States at the turn of the 20th century. The opening stanza of this comforting hymn draws upon images from a narrative found in three of the Gospels in which Christ rebukes the winds and stills the raging waters.

Later stanzas painted a realistic picture of life’s struggles through apocalyptic references such as “in the midst of tribulation,” the “host of hell assail,” and “in the midst of persecution.”

In the final stanza, “Stand by Me” ultimately provides the assurance that Christ has the power to overcome all suffering on earth. Comfort will finally come as we approach “chilly Jordan” though Christ, the “Lily of the Valley.”

Echoes from another of Tindley’s gospel songs helped to galvanize Americans in their struggle for justice. “I’ll Overcome Some Day” inspired the most famous song of the civil-rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.


“WE SHALL OVERCOME,” Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger–1960

“We Shall Overcome” began as a gospel hymn and union song, but it was transformed by its four authors into the rallying cry of the black Freedom Movement for civil rights.

The music may derive from a 1794 hymn called “O Sanctissima” or “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners,” though some parts of the song are more recent. The words “I’ll overcome some day” first appeared in a hymn by C. Albert Tindley and Rev. A. R. Shockly in New Songs of the Gospel (1900); however, the tune was not the one we associate with the present-day song.

In 1945, the words and tune came together in a song called “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” with additional words by Atron Twigg and a revised musical arrangement by Kenneth Morris, a Chicago gospel singer. Roberta Martin wrote another version, the last 12 bars of which are part of the current version of “We Shall Overcome.”

Zilphia Horton, wife of the founder of Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., first heard the song in October, 1945. One story says she joined a picket line of the CIO Food and Tobacco Workers’ strike in Charleston, S.C., on a cold winter’s day and heard it then. Another story says that two of the picketers came to a labor workshop at the school and sang it for her. Whichever story is true, we do know that she did hear the song and turned it into a union song. Later she taught it to Pete Seeger, the folksinger. She also sang it up north and added more verses (“We’ll walk hand in hand” is one of these). Folksinger Frank Hamilton popularized the song, as did Guy Carawan, another white folksinger, who sang it to the black students who protested “white only” restaurants with sit-ins.

image of "I'll overcome some day" sheet musicThe song was recorded in 1950 by Joe Glazer and the Elm City Four and released by the CIO Dept. of Education and Research. When the song was published in 1960, the four authors dedicated it to the Freedom Movement and designated that all royalties resulting from its sale were to go to the movement. The popular version of the song is copyrighted under the names of Horton, Hamilton, Carawan, and Seeger.

“We Shall Overcome” was the song of the Freedom Movement. People sang its powerful, almost hypnotic lyrics–often repeating verses after a song leader–with their arms linked, as they swayed back and forth.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the song lent unity to the Freedom Movement. Mrs. Viola Luizzo, a white civil rights worker murdered in Alabama in 1965, sang “We Shall Overcome” as she lay dying. So did John Harris as he stood on the gallows of the prison in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Apr. 1, 1965, waiting to be hanged. It has been suppressed in South Africa ever since.

“We Shall Overcome” is no longer considered the anthem of the black movement. New, more militant groups are not willing to wait until “someday” for things to happen.

© 1975 – 1981 by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace
Reproduced with permission from “The People’s Almanac” series of books.
All rights reserved.