By Steve Beard
Charles Albert Tindley arrived for his first pastoral appointment in Cape May, New Jersey, in the middle of a snow storm. With small children to feed, Charles and his wife had only a stale piece of bread. As parents, they dipped the bread in water to soften it for the kids.
Charles asked his wife to set the table as if there was food for breakfast. Swallowing her reluctance, she agreed to do as he asked. As the story has been relayed by his youngest son, the parents got on their knees to thank God for their lives, their health, for the snow storm, and the rising sun in the morning.
“Not once did he complain about the shortage of provisions, but thanked God for what they had,” E.T. Tindley writes. They got up from their knees and sat at the barren table. When they did, there was a loud commotion outside. They heard a man commanding a team of horses.
“Whoa! Whoa!” They then heard loud stomps on the front porch. “Hey! Is anybody alive here?”
Tindley opened the front door and was face to face with a man with a large sack on his shoulder. Dropping it to the floor with a thud, the stranger said: “Knowing you were the new parson here, and not knowing how you were making out in this storm, my wife and I thought you might need some food. I’ve a cartload of wood out here, too. I’ll dump it and be on my way.”
Tears streamed down Tindley’s face. “You are an answer to prayer, for we didn’t have anything to eat except a stale crust of bread … We are not going to worry though, for we know God will provide a way.”
Later that night, Tindley was seated in a rocker thinking over the blessings of the day. In the afterglow of the miracle, he wrote the song, “God Will Provide For Me.”
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.
Charles Albert Tindley went on to become one of Methodism’s greatest pulpiteers and a pillar of faith. His life was bookended by the Civil War and the Great Depression. Tindley’s father was a slave, but his mother was a free woman of color. Tragically, he lost both his parents at very young age and had to live with strangers who did not permit him to read or go to church.
Seemingly every step of the way, Tindley (1851-1933) faced adversity and challenges. Nevertheless, he showed steadfast determination, ingenuity, and faith. From his Methodist pulpit, he became known as the “Prince of Preachers,” composed dozens of popular gospel songs, launched one of the first soup kitchens in his city, and spurred economic development for African Americans in Philadelphia through a savings and loan that helped secure home ownership. The church he shepherded – now called Tindley Temple – is still a historic and vibrant fixture in its community.
Tindley was filled with intellectual curiosity and passion. As a child he began to learn to read by picking up scraps of newspapers along the roadside. He studied the shape of each letter and attempted to use bits of coal to teach himself to write.
After the Civil War, Tindley and his wife moved to Philadelphia and attended Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church. He eventually became the janitor at the church. Although he had never been to college, he began studying for the Methodist ministry in order to pass the denominational examination with a high enough score. He learned Greek through a correspondence course offered by Boston Theological School and studied Hebrew with a rabbi at a synagogue in Philadelphia.
At the time of the exam, an arrogant college graduate snidely asked Tindley, “How do you expect to pass this examination? I and the other candidates hold diplomas in our hands. What do you hold?”
“Nothing but a broom,” replied Tindley who had just been sweeping around the church. Tindley passed second among a large class of candidates, all of whom had academic degrees.
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me;
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.
After several different pastoral assignments, Tindley was eventually appointed to the very church he had previously swept as a janitor. As a young boy, he once wallowed in shame because he had no shoes to wear to church and had to sneak up into the balcony and hide behind boxes to attend a worship service. Now, because of a lifetime of walking barefooted in faith, he became the pastor of one of the largest congregations in Methodism and was routinely preaching and breaking into song at “standing room only” Sunday services.
Tindley is rightfully considered the “Grandfather of Gospel Music,” serving as an inspiration to Thomas Dorsey, usually indentified as one of the pivotal founding fathers of gospel music. Tindley’s songs are still found in the United Methodist Hymnal, as well as those of other denominations. His songs were recorded by gospel legends such as Mahalia Jackson (“Beams of Heaven”), the Soul Stirrers (“By and By”), the Ward Singers (“Take Your Burden to the Lord”), Blind Joe Taggart (“The Storm is Passing Over”), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“What Are They Doing in Heaven”), and Elvis Presley (“Stand By Me”).
So pervasive was his influence that one of his hymns was the inspiration behind the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
Tindley had witnessed some of the worst chapters of the unfolding American experiment. He preached faith, protested against injustice, provided food and shelter, and sang from his soul. His artistry dealt honestly with suffering and hardships. At the same time, he lived and saw through the eye and heart of faith. He knew that one day – someday – things would be redeemed and transformed. In “Beams of Heaven,” his vision shines through:
I do not know how long ‘twill be,
Nor what the future holds for me.
But this I know; if Jesus leads me,
I shall get home someday.