The First Protestant Woman Hymnist

I have written about the earliest known Catholic women hymnists, such as Hildegard; and I’ve written about the earliest known Eastern women hymnists, such as Khosroviduht, but what about the earliest Protestant hymnists?  Luther wrote his 95 theses at Wittenberg in October 1517.  He was excommunicated in 1520.  He was a big believer in congregational singing in the vernacular and indeed wrote hymns of his own.  In 1524 Luther published Elisabeth von Meseritz’s  hymn, “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” which she wrote about 1520.  You can’t get much earlier than that for a Protestant hymn.

Elisabeth was born about 1500.  The “von” in her name was a mark the family was of nobility.  As with Hildegard and other higher born Catholic women, she was sent away to a convent in Treptow in Pomerania along the southern part of the Baltic Sea.    In some manner, she was so influenced by the new Gospel preached by a Luther follower, John Bugenhagen, that she fled from the nunnery to Wittenberg to Bugenhagen’s household.  Some time after that, she met and fell in love with Caspar Cruciger, who later would became one of Luther’s closest colleagues.  Luther officiated at their marriage in 1524.  Her new friends arranged a large wedding and feast because her own family disowned her due to her conversion to Luther’s teachings.  Their daughter, also named Elisabeth, eventually married Luther’s son, John.   Elisabeth the elder unfortunately died at a fairly early age, around 35.

Elisabeth was the first female Lutheran hymn writer.  “Herr Christ der einig Gotts Sohn” has been in Lutheran hymnals ever since.  It appeared in the Erfurt Enchiridion hymnal in 1524 entitled “A Song of Praise Concerning Christ” and was approved by Luther.  It was translated into English and published in 1535 and included in Coverdale’s Spiritual Psalms.  Since then, it is usually associated with Epiphany  An unverified legend from the late 1600s said that she once dreamed she was standing in the pulpit of the Wittenberg church preaching.  When she told Caspar this, he replied that when the church sang her hymn, she was in fact, preaching.  Later, her hymn was attributed to a man, Andreas Knoepken, probably in part because she was a woman.  Before this issue was important, she was given full credit because the early Lutherans saw her authorship as a fulfillment the claim of Joel 2:28 “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . .” I possess hymnals from assorted Christian faiths, but only the Lutheran hymnal contains this hymn.  This follows a pattern I see wherein each faith tradition emphasizes its own.  How impoverished we are!   How enriched we would be if we could learn from each other!

Emma Hale Smith, hymnal creator

Sometimes popular media depicts catfighting women as funny or exciting.  It’s not funny, but it happens.  I featured Eliza Roscy Snow earlier, and now I come to a rival, Emma Hale, who may or may not have shoved Eliza down some stairs during a fight.  Unlike Eliza, Emma didn’t write hymns, but she compiled hymnals.

Emma Hale was born in Harmony Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania to the first permanent white settlers in the valley.  She met Joseph Smith when he worked in the valley for an acquaintance.  Without her parents’ permission, she eloped with him and moved to Manchester, New York to live with his family.  Late in 1827 he obtained metal plates, which he said were gold and contained what are now known as the Book of Mormon.  She never saw the plates, but sewed a cloth cover for them and handled them from outside the cloth, hid them from attacks by townspeople who sought the gold, and transcribed Smith’s translation.  In 1830, Joseph Smith officially organized the “Church of Christ” as he first named it.

Shortly after Emma’s baptism into the church in 1830, Smith received the revelation calling Emma to compile the new church’s first hymnal.  “And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church.”  She had to decide which hymns were worthy of their worship.  By 1832, and after many challenges to their church and their lives, Emma completed the hymnal.   A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of the Latter Day Saints was finally published in 1835.  The lapse of time can be mainly attributed to the movement’s difficulties with local mobs, the burning of their first publishing house and printing press, and Emma’s problems with her sick children.  As I have found of the oldest hymnals in use by laity, they rarely had musical notation.  Hers followed this suit.  Of the 90 hymns, 39 are by LDS authors.  Many hymns came from the Baptist or the Campbellite tradition.  Some were adapted to reflect the doctrines of the Latter-day Saints.  The texts emphasized such tenets as the building of a literal Zion in Missouri and preparing for an imminent second coming. Of note is the fact that “Great Is the Lord”, written by Eliza Snow, was in Emma’s hymnal and is even in the current LDS hymnal.  Emma’s hymnal helped to create a distinct identity for the church and laid a foundation for music in worship.   She later compiled a second LDS hymnal in 1841.

Rumors about polygamy came into the open by 1842.  Emma publicly condemned it.  She signed a petition in 1842 with a thousand other women denying Smith was polygamous.  Joseph indeed had many wives, but misled Emma.  She no doubt suspected it and there was a much debated stair pushing catfight with Eliza Snow, who married Smith in 1842.  Ironically, Snow had also signed the petition denouncing polygamy. Upon the murder of Joseph in 1844, Emma and their five surviving children remained behind in Nauvoo, Illinois while the majority of the church went west to the Great Salt Lake Valley led by Brigham Young.  Two years later, she married a non-Mormon, Lewis Bidamon.  In 1860, she, her son, Joseph Smith III, and others formed the Reorganized LDS Church today known as the Community of Christ with Joseph III as president.  This church specifically rejected polygamy.  Joseph asked his mother to prepare a hymnal for this reorganization and this was published in 1861.   Her actions in condemning LDS polygamy, in staying in Nauvoo rather than going west, in her animosity to Brigham Young (he called her mormona non grata), and in helping found a rival church made her invisible for many years in the LDS church.  She didn’t appear in any official church publication for 113 years.   Today, she is acknowledged as a saint and ironically, her stance on marriage is now that of the LDS church.

 

Queen Lili’uokalani and her prayer

It isn’t easy being queen.  At least that’s what Lydia Lili’u Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka’eha would tell you.  Born in Honolulu to a high ranking Hawaiian family, Lydia was educated by missionaries and then at the Chiefs’ Children’s School where she became fluent in English. Lydia spent time in the court of Kamahameha IV.  With her musical talent she learned to play various instruments, including the guitar, piano, organ, ukulele and zither. As a skilled sight reader, she was the first person of Hawiian descent to become proficient in Western musical notation.  She often passed time writing music, both sacred and secular.   She married American John Dominis in 1862. As is apparent, the U.S. presence in Hawaii was far reaching.   Lydia’s brother David Kalakaua was chosen king in 1874.  When her youngest brother and heir apparent died, she was named heir to the throne.  Thereafter, she was known by her royal name, Liliuokalani.  While traveling to represent Hawaii at Queen Victoria’s crown jubilee in London in 1887, an elite class of mostly white American businessmen (haole) forced Kalakaua to sign the “Bayonet Constitution” which limited his power and forced him to sign a reciprocity treaty giving commercial privileges and control of Pearl Harbor to the United States.  Her opposition to this meant that when she succeeded her brother in 1891 as the first woman to rule Hawaii, that she faced tremendous difficulties.  She proposed a new constitution, thus leading a group of American and European businessmen, with the support of a contingent of U.S. Marines, to depose the queen in a coup in January 1893.   The provisional government formed was led by Sanford Dole and proclaimed they were the Republic of Hawaii, with Dole as president.  The U.S. ambassador, to Hawaii proclaimed Hawaii a protectorate of the United States.  President Grover Cleveland commissioned a report that found the overthrow of Lili’uokalani was illegal and that American military troops acted inappropriately in the overthrow, yet the provisional government would not reinstate her as queen. No doubt Katherine Lee Bates was well aware of the overthrow of the Hawaiian government.  This may have been on Bates’ mind when she wrote “God mend thine every flaw” within the lyrics of her own “America the Beautiful” in the summer of 1893.  Liliuokalani was placed under house arrest in 1895 and charged with treason for a failed 1895 counter-revolution for which she may or may not have been a participant.

 

So what’s a woman to do when confined to a few guarded rooms at ‘Iolani Palace?  She had private daily devotions, arranged flowers, read the few newspapers used to wrap the flowers she received (she was forbidden to receive newspapers), and wrote music.  The most famous song was “Aloha Oe”, or “Farewell to Thee” was transcribed while so confined.  Though written as a lovers’ goodbye, it later became known as a symbol of the loss of country.  Several hymn writers took the tune to this secular song to write Christian hymns, such as “Go and Tell” by Austin Miles, “He Lives on High” by Baylus McKenney, and “He’s Coming Soon” by Thoro Harris.  However, the hymn of which she wrote both music and lyrics and became the best known was “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku” or “The Lord’s Mercy”, and often known as “The Queen’s Prayer”.  She wrote at the bottom of the manuscript “composed during my imprisonment at ‘Iolani Palace by the Missionary party who overthrew my government”.  The song is about forgiveness, love, faith and hope, values she adopted first as a Presbyterian and then as an Anglican. She converted to the Anglican Church after receiving visits and letters from the Anglican Bishop in her imprisonment.  The Presbyterians of her youth, she noted, ignored her.    She was released and in 1896, she received a full pardon.  In 1898, Hawaii became an incorporated territory of the United States.

 

Though she was a devoted Christian, she is remembered for her support of Buddhist and Shinto priests in Hawaii.  She became one of the first native Hawaiians to attend a birthday celebration of Buddha.  This helped Buddhism and Shintoism gain acceptance, prevented the potential banning of these religions by the territorial government and earned her the respect of the Japanese people in Hawaii.  She died in 1917 from a stroke.  Her will directed all her property be sold and used to help orphaned children.  The Queen Lili’uokalani Trust Fund still exists.

The Productive Collaboration of Fanny Crosby and William Howard Doane

I wrote about Fanny Crosby, the queen of Gospel hymn writers in my book, Sisters in Song, but the structure of the book limited my exposition of her and her many hymns.  The medium of the blog allows me to go further with her.    After one of her main collaborators, William Bradbury, died in 1868, she met William Howard Doane, a rich business tycoon, inventor, and Christian worker.  Doane knew of her prolific hymn production and specifically went from his home in Cincinnati to meet her at her home in New York City.  They struck up a long and productive friendship, working together, she as lyricist and he as music composer.  Yet, as closely as they worked, they always referred to each other as “Mrs. Crosby” and “Mr. Doane”.

Shortly after they met, he asked her to write the words to a hymn containing the words “Pass me not, O gentle savior”.  Shortly after that, she heard an inmate cry out during one of her prison ministries, “Good Lord, do not pass me by!”  This spurred her inspiration and she wrote the lyrics to Doane’s requested hymn.  Doane then wrote the tune and the hymn was sung later at the prison where she received her inspiration.  It impressed some prisoners so much at the time that some turned to Christ immediately.  She was so moved by this, that she swooned or fainted and was carried out.  This hymn is still sung and in hymnbooks today.

“Pass Me Not” was written with the words first and the melody following.  It didn’t always work this way.  “Safe In the Arms of Jesus” is a case in point.  That same year, Doane once again came to Fanny’s home with a tune he wrote and wanted a poem to go with it.  He hummed the melody.  Once she heard it, the clapped her hands and said “Safe in the arms of Jesus!”  She left him in the parlor, went to another room, prayed for inspiration, and came out a half hour later with the complete poem.  This appears to be similar to the way she wrote “Blessed Assurance” some years later with Phoebe Knapp, as recounted in my book. “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” was an instant hit.  After including it in a hymnal by Biglow and Main, the nation’s pre-eminent hymnal publisher, it was sung all over the country.  Fanny especially liked it as it reminded her of her own relatives who had passed on, perhaps including her own baby who had died years earlier.

A year later, Fanny was visiting Doane at his home to speak to working men in Cincinnati.  During her talk, she felt someone in the audience had to be rescued that night, and so pleaded if there was a boy there who wandered away from his mother’s teaching, to come to her afterward.  As she expected, a boy of about 18 came and asked her if she referred to him.  He had promised his mother to meet her in heaven, but didn’t think he could based on how he was living.  Fanny prayed over him and she said “He finally arose with anew light in his eyes and exclaimed in triumph, ‘Now I can meet my mother in heaven, for now I have found her God!’”   Doane had earlier asked her to write a hymn on “Rescue the Perishing” to be used at home missions.  That night, she composed the hymn with that name and with that young man in mind.  Once published, it became the theme for home mission workers around the country.

She and Doane went on to collaborate on over 1000 hymns.  Of course she worked with other composers before and after Doane, and she provided Biglow and Main with 5959 hymns in her 47 years with them.  Just the thought of all she did exhausts me.

Maybelle Carter, In the Highways Workin’ for her Lord

Last time, I wrote about the Carter family and promised I would write more specifically about Maybelle this time.  Here goes:  The Carters became famous because they brought traditional music of the backroads of Appalachia to the rest of America.  Though her brother in law A.P. Carter gets most of the publicity and credit, Maybelle was the rock that kept their group and their music going for so long.   Maybelle Addington was born in 1909 in the mountain town of Midway, Virginia, a mile away from cousin Sara. She couldn’t read music, but she learned to play old songs on the guitar and autoharp by ear.   She took songs of her childhood and made her own tunes.  This was a boon to the family as generally, most singing had been unaccompanied.  Maybelle’s technique was fluid and rhythmic and went well with the country singing.  Uninhibited by any formal lessons, she developed a distinctive style known as the “Carter scratch” where she used her thumb to play melody on the bass strings and her index finger to fill out the rhythm.  For entertainment, she often attended the Holiness revivals in the area.  She would walk miles just to hear the hymns.  Cousin Sara was several years older and married A.P. Carter when Maybelle was six.  But when Maybelle matured, the two women were like sisters, and it could be heard in their music.  At age 17, Maybelle married A.P.’s younger brother, Ezra “Eck”, who had a high school education, thus qualifying him for a better job with the U.S. Postal Service.  So Maybelle didn’t have to scrape for money to live, unlike so many in the area. Eck had no problem supporting his wife’s musical career and in fact, worked for her and took care of daughters Helen, Anita and June (later to become Mrs. Johnny Cash) when she was away, sometimes for long stretches of time.  Maybelle and Eck were a devoted and apparently a happy couple.

In A.P.’s quest for music fame, he came across Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company who paid $50 plus royalties for every song he liked well enough to record.  Victor wanted to get into the growing hillbilly music field.  The collaboration worked well and brought fame to the Carter family.  Sara sang the lead vocals.  This was unusual at the time as all other groups had men sing lead.  Meanwhile, A.P. combed the countryside for more songs they could copyright and earn royalties on.   When he brought home lyrics with no tune, Sara and Maybelle would work out the melody by ear.   Their recording session in May, 1928 brought out many gems that have been covered by famous performers even to this day.  Though A.P. got them into the recording studio and onto the stage, Maybelle was the most musically creative and curious.  If she heard a tune, she’d play it, but in her own fashion.  She then sought new tunes and techniques and worked up variations of old hymns from her youthful Holiness revival years.  And of the three, she understood the needs of the audience.  When the group got an offer in 1938 to play a regular show on XERA across the Rio Grande from Del Rio Texas, Eck worked out the family arrangements.   They continued to perform there and then at other stations until 1943 when Sara left the group.  Thereafter, Maybelle and the three daughters performed as “The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle” where Maybelle was most comfortable as guitar backup for the girls. Their act always included a hymn for the day.  And for the next 30 years, Maybelle Carter made her life on the road, even to the Grand Old Opry.  Her perseverance and talents sustained the Carter Family music.  Her death in her sleep in 1978 was noted by all the major news outlets.

“In the Highways” was performed in the movie “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” by the three Peasall sisters.  I can imagine Maybelle may have been thinking of her own three daughters as performers when she composed  it.  However, she also had to have been thinking of Luke 14:23, the parable of the man sending his servant to find guests to fill his home for a fine dinner: “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”  And perhaps Maybelle personified the song, saying “In the highways, in the hedges I’ll be somewhere workin’ for my Lord.”

Who Wrote the Songs? The Carter Dilemma

One of the frustrations I have in dealing with hymns and songs is the problem of authorship.  And a significant part of this relates to the Carter family, particularly Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter (1891 – 1960).  The original Carter Family formed in 1927 with A.P., his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle.  The two women played the musical instruments and sang.  A.P. occasionally sang bass when so inspired.  But he got the group together and combed the countryside around their Virginia home looking for little known country songs they could rework into their own style.    About 300 songs are attributed to him, but it appears a good many were actually written by others.  In fact, only a few of the songs with his name were actually written by him.    Instead, he collected old songs in the public domain and claimed composer credit so they could get the royalty payments.  Thus, both music publishers and artists got the extra money.  This was common in the early days of recording since there was little money from purely public domain songs.  Once the traditional songs were used up, publishers clamored for more original works.

A prime example of this is Ada Blenkhorn’s “Keep On the Sunny Side”.  More than once I have come across an attribution of this classic to A.P.  In fact, Blenkhorn, whom I featured in my book, Sisters in Song, wrote the lyrics in 1899 and J. Howard Entwisle wrote the music. It was copyrighted at that time.  It takes little effort to get this public domain sheet music on the internet and from the 1903 songbook, Devotional Songs.  Copyrights lasted 28 years then and could be renewed.  I assume it wasn’t renewed, because by the time the Carter Family recorded it in 1928, the 28 years had lapsed.  A.P.’s uncle, Laish Carter, who was a music teacher, taught it to them. I have to credit the family, however, with popularizing it.  And their performance was classic.  It became their theme song and introduced their act when they performed.  Both A.P.’s and Sara’s tombstones have a gold record of this song emblazoned on them.  The Carter Family was a very influential force in country music.  In my next post, I will write about Maybelle, a composer in her own right.

Are These the Earliest Women Hymnists?

I thought I had gone to the earliest of women hymn writers with Kassia (d. 890).  I was mistaken.   Sure, Sappho wrote pagan hymns as far back as 600 BC, but I am concerned with hymnists in the Judeo/Christian tradition.  Armenia apparently was a hotbed of Christian hymnography even before Kassia.  Khosrovidukht Goghtnatsi (the first name meaning “daughter of Khosrov”), also known as Xosroviduxt, lived during the early 8th century.  Her brother Vahan Goghtnatsi (700-737) was abducted and murdered by Arab Muslims for converting to Christianity.  Meanwhile, she was taken to the fortress now known as Kemah, where she lived in isolation for 20 years.  She wrote a sarakan, or canonical hymn, “Zaramanali e Ints” meaning “astonishing to me” wherein she mourned her brother’s death and celebrated her brother as a servant of God.  The sarakan went on to celebrate Mary, mother of Jesus.

No sooner had I learned of Khosrovidukht, than I learned of a slightly earlier woman, Sahakdukht (daughter of Sahak) Suinetsi of Armenia, also of the early 8th century and with a similar story of grief and seclusion.  She wrote ecclesiastical poems and liturgical chants and was known as a healer and a music therapist.  Of all her compositions, the only one extant is Srbuhi Mariam (“St. Mary”), a nine stanza verse dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  It is an acrostic with the initial letters of each quatrain spelling her name.  She was the sister of a highly reputed 8th century sarakan writer, and music theorist, Stepanos Suinetsi.  They were educated at the cathedral school in Dvin.  After being educated, she fell into grief from the assassination of her brother and retreated to the Garni valley to live in a cave.  While there, she wrote several ktsurds (anthems), sarakans and melodies. She played her lyre to heal people suffering from depression.  Though she may have been an ascetic living in a cave, she nevertheless taught lay music lovers and clerical students her sacred melodies while hidden behind a curtain, as required by the conventions of the time.  She became so famous, that after her death, people visited her grave for a pilgrimage.

So there it is, the earliest known female Christian hymn writers, or at least so I think.  How can I go much further back?

Just a Hint of Hymnody

Just as we only see the kingdom of God’s heaven through a glass darkly, so we only see a small portion of the vast creativity in hymn writing, both of women and men.  If you attend a particular denomination regularly, and if you go to the trouble of looking through the authors of hymns in the hymnal index (if you do the latter, you are quite unusual, maybe certifiably odd), you will find writers not found anywhere else.  This was brought into bright focus to me when a friend gave me an old Mennonite hymnbook.  Yes, people have occasionally given me their old hymnbooks, I pick them up at garage sales, and pore through them in libraries.  Anyway, this hymnbook, Church Hymnal published in 1953 by the Mennonite Publishing House, had the unique quality of giving information about the various lyricists’ and composers’ nationalities and denominational affiliations.  What a boon!  There I found several Mennonite hymnists whom I never encountered before.  One hymn in particular, “God Is Good”, lyrics by Elsie Byler and tune by Sylvia Bontrager of Goshen Indiana, was written in 1911.  It is a lovely hymn published in shape notes, a common occurrence for that era.  Both hymnists have good Mennonite names, and there are several people in that tradition with those names.  Precious little can be found about them, though.  I found nothing on Bontrager, but for Byler, I learned she wrote other hymns, including “Children’s Prayer” published in Life Songs in 1916 by the Mennonite Publishing House. The tune was by Walter Yoder, her cousin.    She married Samuel Burkhard in 1913 and in 1920, they were living in Putnam County Ohio.  She taught school for an unknown length of time.  Apparently she died in 1958 in Tempe Arizona.  That’s about it.  They pass into obscurity except perhaps, in the memory of family members.

I found the same pattern with other denominational hymnals.  I first became most familiar with the hymnals currently used by the Disciples of Christ, simply because that’s where I attend church and have easy access to their hymnals.  Sure enough, there are wonderful hymns contained therein that are not found elsewhere.  The same thing was true when I perused the indices of the Presbyterian, the Baptist and Methodist hymnals.  What other gems are out there that we don’t know?  And I was only looking for the women.  If the men were added to the mix, the trove becomes even greater.  Several women featured in my blog have been among those found only in one place.  I will no doubt feature more in the future.  Maybe someday one or more of these women-written hymns will become a favorite of many others.

Eliza Snow, Zion’s Poetess

Perhaps the image most people have when they think of Mormon music is that of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and its towering, soaring rendition of hymns.   In my book, I feature no Mormon women.  That oversight is now corrected.

The most remarkable Eliza Roxcy Snow was born in Massachusetts to Baptist parents, but the Snows welcomed many different religious believers into their home. The family moved to Ohio when Roxcy was two.  Her father held several public offices and she often helped him with clerical duties which helped her develop organizational skill useful to her in later life.  In 1828, they joined Alexander Campbell’s movement, the Disciples of Christ.  When Joseph Smith moved into Hiram, Ohio in 1831 four miles from the Snow family farm, Snow’s mother and sister joined Smith’s Church of Christ.  In 1835, Roxcy was baptized into the Mormon Church and moved to Kirtland, Ohio, the church headquarters.  She donated her fairly large inheritance to the building of the Kirtland Temple.  Roxcy taught school for Smith’s extended family and influenced her younger brother, Lorenzo to become a Mormon.  Lorenzo later became the church’s fifth president.    As the church moved west, she also moved.  After Smith was killed in June of 1844, she claimed to have secretly wed him in June of 1842 as a plural wife.  This, however contrasted with a thousand signature petition she organized in June, 1842 denying Smith was connected with polygamy.  As secretary of the Ladies’ Relief Society, she published a certificate in October 1842 denouncing polygamy.  It appears she must have been conflicted on this subject, at least in this time frame.  Meanwhile, she became the first secretary of the Nauvoo Ladies’ Relief Society under the presidency of Emma, Smith’s first wife.  After Smith’s death, she married Brigham Young as a plural wife and traveled west to the Salt Lake Valley in October 1847.  She always sat to the right of Brigham Young at dinner and family prayer and was his right hand man, for he consulted with her over most things.   When Young appointed her president of a reorganized Relief Society in 1866, she traveled throughout the Utah territory to encourage women to attend meetings, sustain the male leaders and support Young’s programs.  As president of the society until her death in 1887, she emphasized spirituality and self-sufficiency.  The Society sent women to medical school, opened a hospital, operated cooperative stores, and built granaries.  At her death, the relief society had over 22,000 members.  In addition, she traveled all over Utah to promote women’s suffrage, became the editor of the first woman’s newspaper in the world, Women’s Exponent, edited a women’s magazine, helped found Utah’s first hospitals, oversaw a women’s cooperative store, created a silk industry run by LDS women, and published Sunday School hymnals, all to further build the Kingdom of God on earth.  I imagine she could find the time to do all this because, unlike most women of that era, she had no children of her own.  Though she was buried next to Brigham Young, she took the name of Smith in her later years.

Even before her acquaintance with the Mormon Church, she wrote poetry, even writing school lessons in rhyme.  From 1826 to 1832, she published over 20 poems under several pen names.  Some of her poems were later set to music and became important Mormon hymns.  She continued to write religious poetry that was set to music throughout her life. Roxcy wrote as she went to Salt Lake Valley documenting the trail and Utah life.  Joseph Smith called her “Zion’s Poetess”.   Today, the Mormon hymnal includes ten of her works.   One hymn, “Great is the Lord” was published in the Latter Day Saints hymnal in 1835.  Though it has been attached to different tunes, a current LDS composer, Joan Lisonbee Sowards, has put the poem to music.

Susan Adams, Indiana Music Through and Through

Since writing my book and my blog, I have had the opportunity to give presentations to various groups and meet many wonderful new people.  Such happened recently.   At the annual meeting of the Association of Disciple Musicians (ADM), I met Susan Adams.  She nonchalantly mentioned after I gave my first presentation that she had written a hymn published in the Chalice Hymnal of the Disciples of Christ.  I immediately and joyfully interviewed her.   Susan was born in New Albany, Indiana in 1946, a sixth generation Disciple of Christ.  She had the musical talent to study music at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, the largest of the Seven Sisters colleges.  Thereafter, she taught middle school music for 43 years, and was music director and Central Christian Church in New Albany.   She had been a member of ADM for 35 years, and was president of that organization when the idea of the Chalice Hymnal arose.  In 1987, she went to the General Assembly of the Disciples of Christ and they gave the go ahead to work on the new hymnal, even though they had no funds for it.  Thus, the reason it wasn’t published until 1995.   Susan served on the editorial board for the hymnal. Though she is retired from both these endeavors, she is still active, both at the United Church of Christ where she rings bells, sings, and plays the piano and at Corydon Christian Church in Corydon, Indiana where she plays chimes and is choir director.

“I Come to Be Baptized Today” was written during the 1989-1990 school year, later revised in 1993.  She was taking a class in hymnody at Indiana University while working on a doctorate degree.  Her professor, the noted organist Marilyn Keiser, assigned the students to write a hymn.  Not that many hymns relate directly to baptism, and particularly to baptism by immersion, but certainly Susan Adams’ does.  “The waters clear shall soon enfold my body and my old life, too.”  The hymn also refers to standing before the open door.  She said that was inspired by a stained glass window at her New Albany church depicting Christ knocking at the door, a depiction I assume to be based on Revelation 3:20.

I thank you, Susan, for sharing your hymn with us.  And I thank all the other people who have given me new insights on women and hymnody over the past three years.