Hymns and Easter Songs: Music of a Movement Resurrected

 In All Church of God, CHOG

By Carl Stagner

In December 2010, five Christmas carols penned by pioneers of the Church of God movement were procured from several archived songbooks and reintroduced to readers in a CHOGnews article titled “Carols of a Reformation.” Generations removed from the first, and in some cases one-time, publication of these Church of God heritage Christmas songs, many were unfamiliar with D. Otis Teasley’s “Star of Bethlehem” and J. C. Fisher’s “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” for instance—especially those who’d grown up with “newer” hymnals in backs of their church pews. Interest in the story (and attached copies of the sheet music) led to the re-release of the story on a couple occasions since. Though perhaps to a lesser extent than Christmas, Easter is, of course, also associated with a sacred musical repertoire. Like Christmas, however, a cursory glance at the pages of Easter-specific titles in the more recent hymnals of the Church of God reveals little, if any, contribution from the early poets and musicians of the Movement. A journey back to 1930 takes us to the iconic Hymns and Spiritual Songs and, with that, a resurrection of several Easter heritage songs of the Church of God.

Written by Clara M. Brooks and set to music by prolific composer Barney E. Warren, “Thy Will Be Done” (1907) welcomed those who wielded the “green hymnal” to the themed section classified as “Suffering and Atonement.” A beautiful lyric of vivid descriptions, the poem depicts the personal experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. Not uncommon among gospel songs of the era, the final verse places the modern-day singer squarely in the Garden with Jesus, inspiring the worshiper to remember and reflect upon the moving and meaningful plot: “Once more I see my Savior’s face…Of him who there the vict’ry won, who said in prayer, ‘Thy will be done!’”

Words depict Jesus’ death on the cross in D. S. Warner’s “The Crucifixion Scene” (1900), also set to music by Warren. To set the mood, instructions to play slowly catch the eyes of the song leader or accompanist—appropriately so, given the somber prose: “O my Lord, what dreadful darkness spreading sable gloom around! Lo, thy death the rocks are rending, shaking deep the solid ground….” Before the unique inclusion of a coda (among heritage songs, to be sure)—one which bluntly states, “He dies” three times—the optional fourth verse offers partakers of Communion a practical prelude to the beloved ordinance (a resource also provided by Ernest “Ernie” H. Gross Jr. via “Do This, and Remember Me,” written in 1966, and still widely accessible in the 1989 hymnal, Worship The Lord, No. 372).

The waltz-feel of “He Paid the Debt I Owed” (1926), written individually by Barney Warren, only includes three verses in Hymns and Spiritual Songs, yet manages to pack a solidly doctrinal punch in short-form. A deeply personalized view of Good Friday events leads to a final verse overtly proclaiming justification, yet hinting subtly at sanctification: “Now since the debt is paid for me, I walk in heaven’s liberty: thro’ grace my soul from sin is free—he paid the debt I owed.”

Heard annually at churches around the world on Easter Sunday morning is the classic Robert Lowry hymn, “Christ Arose.” Bearing a nearly identical title, Barney Warren’s “He Arose” (1897) also contains moving, echoing four-part harmony, and a personified reference to death and the removal of figurative bars in exchange for spiritual freedom. Unlike the Robert Lowry counterpart, Warren’s words not only communicate Christ’s victory over death and darkness, but also specifically over the scourge of sin.

Rounding out the explicitly Eastertide tunes contained within the binding of Hymns and Spiritual Songs is “Our Risen Lord” (1926), also brought to you by B. E. Warren. Probably the most musically and lyrically dramatic of the heritage hymns of Easter, “Our Risen Lord” is structured as an anthem of congregational, if not choral, caliber. With the feel of a march and melodic harmonies that run counterpoint to the tune, the grand musical work takes singers along a vivid route from the cross to the empty tomb, while stating glorious theology in practical and explicit terms. The third verse, leading into the chorus, is especially testimonial, with the writer’s enthusiasm on full display in a question offered, and answered, with a repeat for dramatic emphasis: “But is he dead? No, no; he lives; His all to us he freely gives; The Father for his sake forgives, if in him we confide…. He lives to set the captives free, He lives to pardon you and me: our risen Lord!”

The variety of hymnody produced by early Church of God writers continues to astound. Following the subject and season of Easter, titles like “Worthy is the Lamb” (Charles W. Naylor, Andrew L. Byers; 1923) and “The Lord is King” (Naylor, Warren; 1904, 1907) proclaim the truth of our living Lord who still reigns as King. In similar fashion, songs like “We’ll Crown Him Lord of All” (D. Otis Teasley; 1902) resonate with such post-Resurrection zeal—and are still being sung today with the latest hymnal of the Church of God. Similarly, the 1989 Worship the Lord hymnal also contains heritage songs that make notable reference to the work of Christ at the cross, such as one of the oldest works of the Movement, “I Ought to Love My Savior” (Daniel S. Warner, Joseph C. Fisher; 1883).

The “Flying Messengers” (Barney Warren, Nanny Kigar, Frances Miller; seated are Daniel Warner and “Mother” Sarah Smith) ready to sing the message of the Church of God.

Since the early days of the Church of God, Bill and Gloria Gaither, as well as several others, have also added to the Church of God repertoire of Easter music. In the words of the late heritage-song-champion (among other titles), Robert Reardon, “Keep singing, [Church of God],…keep singing.” Keep writing, too!

Editorial postscript, April 3, 2024—Responses to the original article above were not only numerous and encouraging, but were also enlightening. Tips from two CHOGnews readers, respectively, identified at least two other Easter-specific heritage songs of the Movement: Barney E. Warren’s “Crucified for Me” (1900) and D. Otis Teasley’s “This is Easter Morn” (1918). Note the themes of healing, justification, and sanctification.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.

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