Prince of Black Preachers

by Bernard R. DeRemer

Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) was indeed an imposing figure: "6'2", 230 lbs., rugged, honest, humble, compassionate."* A contemporary testified that his towering physique, commanding voice, matchless eloquence, cogent reasoning, inimitable style, and unbounded faith all combined to render him "the most popular preacher of his time."

It was all a far cry from the early days, when he was born in slavery at Berlin, Md., and grew up in illiterate poverty. His mother died when he was about 5 and he was separated from his father, to face a new and strange world.

His poignant, pathetic efforts for an education are almost unbelievable. Walking along the road, the ragged, barefoot boy would find bits of newspapers which he put into his bosom—slaves had no pockets or possessions. Then at night, before the fireplace, he would struggle to learn what each character meant. At that rate, he was 17 before he could spell "cat."

In his earliest years he never had a Bible and church was generally closed to him. But a white boy about his age became friendly and helped in his efforts to learn. Charles had early come to know the Lord.

After Emancipation he was able to reach Philadelphia and obtain work as a hod carrier. He continued to study at night and he became sexton of the Bainbridge M.E. Mission.

In 1880 he married Anna Daisy Henry. Eventually they would have 12 children. With every dollar he could spare he bought a book to help prepare for the ministry, to which he had long felt called.

In 1885 he was admitted on probationary ministerial status to the Delaware Conference, M.E. Church. By correspondence he studied diligently, even learning Greek and Hebrew. His first appointment was at Cape May, N.J. There the new pastor, living in a humble cottage, was to experience a fiery trial.

One snowy morning, parents and two small children found themselves with "no food except a stale piece of bread," which they were going to soak in water and give to the youngsters. Even worse, their daughter Elanora had died the night before; there was NO money for a funeral!

At just the right moment a team of horses pulled up outside and a benefactor came to the door bearing a large sack of provisions. He also had a load of wood for them and when he found out about the dead girl, he promised that she would have a decent burial. The Tindleys rejoiced greatly and tearfully at this providential care.

The incident inspired him to write one of his many hymns:

"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."

Other pastorates followed in various East Coast locations.

Another song—inspired by a plea for help from an overburdened caller, to whom the preacher suggested he deposit all his troubles in a paper sack and leave it at the feet of Jesus—was:

"Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There"

"If the world from you withhold of its silver and its gold,

And you have to get along with meager fare;

Just remember in His Word how He feeds the little bird,

Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there"

It has comforted a multitude of burdened believers over the years, including this writer. Perhaps his most widely known spiritual song is "Nothing Between My Soul and the Saviour."

A major milestone happened in 1900, when he became pastor of the Bainbridge Street M.E. Church, which he served for 33 years. By 1906 it was the premiere black congregation in Philadelphia. Tuesday night prayer meetings drew from 800 to 1600, in an atmosphere of warm fellowship.

Simple tithing  paid for a new building, costing $350,000. But its dedication in 1924 was saddened by the sudden death of his wife, Anna. The new church seated 3200; membership numbered some 10,000. Often two services were held Sunday morning and the congregation would be asked not to return at night, so others could attend.

During cold winter months Tindley's heart was touched by the plight of many who lacked food and clothing, so he provided major relief efforts from his own personal funds.

He married Jennie Cotton, a widow, in 1927 and continued his active ministry. But in 1933 he suffered failing health and on July 26, at 82, went to be with the Lord. His body lay in state at the church for 18 hours while thousands paid their final respects to an outstanding servant of the Lord.

Representatives of all denominations attended the funeral. Many telegrams, cables, and letters of sympathy were read. All of his approximately 50 hymns were sung by three great choirs alternately. Two radio stations broadcast the 5-hour service in relays. Dr. D. W. Henry, district superintendent, presided. At the end he gave an invitation, to which many responded. Thus Tindley still spoke powerfully even after his home-going (Heb. 11:4).

It was a fitting tribute to the prince of black preachers.

His "I'll Overcome Some Day" became the basis for the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," popularized in the 1960s.

Today Tindley Temple United Methodist Church carries on an extensive ministry. Its soup kitchen won Philadelphia's "Best Practices Award" several times. The church is "a place where everybody is somebody because Jesus is Lord."

*The Prince of Colored Preachers, by Prof. E. T. Tindley, Philadelphia, 1942.

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