Which would you say is better: Adventist music in 1969, or Adventist music in 2019? Following is a reminder of what and how things used to be, and have been more recently.

Remembering Church Music

I remember music that I appreciated as a graduate student in a Seventh-day Adventist university. It was the classical European masters—Handel, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Gounod, Brahms, Faure,Mendelssohn, and Samuel Barber. It was choral anthems and oratorios sung at church. It was the King’s Heralds quartet and great organ and piano works. Congregational singing was from the 1941 Church Hymnal. Special music featured various instruments. And songs like “It Only Takes a Spark” became popular.

Some Adventists also liked the country singing of Jim Reeves and Roy Drusky, an Adventist who performed regularly in the Grand Ole Opry.

As time progressed Adventist music production changed and expanded beyond Voice of Prophecy’s King’s Heralds male quartet and Del Delker to soloist Sunny Liu, the Wedgwood Trio with guitars, and Black gospel music from such as the Blendwright sisters and the Soul Seekers.

Beyond Adventist walls Sandi Patty and Larnelle Harris thrilled with grand orchestral accompaniment. In Black churches Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” was accepted in 1969, and Andrae Crouch was already there with his group The Disciples, augmenting the Black gospel traditions in our churches. In 1970 Adventist bass/baritone Wintley Phipps, Trinidad-born, stepped onto a world stage that he still commands in 2019.

Remembering Seventies music Outside and In

The 1970s had their wealth of popular music: one-man shows such as James Brown and Marvin Gaye; one-woman celebrities such as Aretha Franklin and Nancy Wilson; and groups—the Ohio Players, the Jackson 5.

Heaven’s angels are thrilled about worship.

Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse organized the New England Youth Ensemble in 1973, a youth orchestra that has come to be celebrated for its class all over the world. Rittenhouse later moved the organization from Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts to the then Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University. The group has traveled widely. So has the Metropolitan Symphony Steel Orchestra of Metro Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, one of Adventism’s more daring musical innovations from that period: an orchestra composed of steel drums. Metro church was also the base for Myron S. Ottley’s MetroSingers through the dozen years of their existence (1999-2011).

Other favorites in Adventist music include the Breath of Life Quartet, which lasted for more than 30 years in service to the telecast of the same name.

Among the most celebrated Adventist choral groups today is the Aeolians of Oakwood University, organized in 1946 by the late Eva B. Dykes. Its remembered conductors include John Dennison and Alma Blackmon. Today, under current director Jason Ferdinand, the Aeolians enjoy unparalleled international prominence, respect, and admiration. In 2017 they won the World Choir championship in Wales, and in 2018 the championship of the 2018 World Choir Games in South Africa. Their repertoire embraces genres from the baroque era to the twenty-first century, and the choir is considered an authoritative exponent of Negro spirituals and work songs.

Remembering Meaning

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, one of America’s best-known church choirs today, was born in the 1970s and turned out their first recording in the 1980s. This was also the decade in which an Adventist Church committee chaired by baritone Charles L. Brooks, with Wayne Hooper of the King’s Heralds as executive secretary, updated the Church Hymnal.

Hooper’s awareness of the vocal range demanded in the older hymnal is remembered through his remark about the hymn “Let Him In,” which begins, “There’s a Stranger at the door.” Hooper said, “When most of us attempt to screech out the three high F’s in this hymn, I’m sure the ‘Stranger’ would be frightened away!” Apart from high F’s, Hooper was aware that the 1941 hymnal was behind the times, did not reflect current musical culture, and lacked music of African Americans. Interestingly, some say that the 1985 update he helped to guide is no longer relevant to today.

His quip demonstrates that much more than genre and theology are involved in determining what is appropriate. The claim by some that the 1985 update may now be out of date shows that even the most enlightened improvements can have limited application.

On the other hand, it took courage, even daring, to organize a steel drum orchestra in an Adventist church when the phenomenon’s clearest identification is with extravagant and earthy carnival celebrations, first in Trinidad and Tobago, and by now all over the world.

During the past two decades there has been much ado in churches worldwide about praise teams and church bands that feature electronic keyboards, Hammond organs, guitars, and drum sets. These worship accoutrements are present worldwide. I remember when that music first began in the church I attend: I entered church one Sabbath morning and mistook the song for a secular pop song performed on the rhythm and blues radio program Quiet Storm. Controversy over church music is not new. And the lessons available for learning can be stunning to those willing to learn.

Rittenhouse described on WGTS-FM radio, and later in conversations with me, her experience as a child in the 1930s when she was part of a small group visiting a remote village in central Africa. She recalls how taking out her violin seemed to bring the village alive and facilitate communication with her visiting group. When the villagers sang for the visitors, she said, “Their music was not unlike that of the great European cathedrals of the Renaissance.”

We may also be affected in other ways. Ellen White describes one: the pain of untrained shrieking voices. She writes, “I long to stop my ears, or flee from the place, and I rejoice when the painful exercise is ended.”*

Concluding—for Now

This review has not answered all the questions on similarity and difference, appropriateness or otherwise, of music in Adventism through the past 50 years. Nor was it intended to.

If I had room I’d tell of Adrian T. Westney, Jr., Take 6, Herbert Blomstedt, Shirley Verrett, Thomas Hampson, and more; or even the Ottley Music School founded in Maryland in 1973 and still going strong. Mostly I have written what I’ve seen and recall, without exhaustion of names or much elaboration of principles.

I know, though, that today with television, YouTube, FaceBook, iTunes, and all the various media, the enemy of meaning and durable values is as ready as ever to distract us from the true meaning of worship, and deprive us of a vital aspect of the experience of salvation from self and communion with God. Mindfulness is what we must not lose, mindfulness of what and how we best worship God with our music. Heaven’s angels are thrilled about worship. They would love to be part of ours and have us part of theirs.

Are we up to it?

* Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 508.

Nevilla E. Ottley directs the Ottley Music School she founded in 1973 in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Who are the best-known African American voices in Adventist church music?

Some may answer with selections from among today’s well-known songsters: Wintley Phipps, Charles Haugabrooks, the Aeolians. But there is also a good case to be made for names not so well known, their music sung by saints from week to week and year to year in a thousand congregations across the breadth of our world church: “This Little Light of Mine,” “Nothing Between My Soul and the Savior,” “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” “Give Me Jesus.” Isn’t it worth our while to remember who these individuals are? Their contributions to the spiritual growth and grounding of generations of Adventists and other Christians deserve more than the casual rendition of their songs. These composers and arrangers deserve our intelligent appreciation.

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Charles Lee Brooks (1923-1989), born in Wilson, North Carolina, and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, began singing at age 4. Though keenly interested in classical music, Brooks is best remembered by Adventists as a singer in evangelistic meetings. As a personal memory, I was fortunate to serve as his teenaged accompanist during a memorable evangelistic series by E. E. Cleveland labeled the “Trinidad Triumph.” Later, as an associate in the General Conference Secretariat, Brooks established the Office of Church Music and became its chair. He served as chair of the Church Hymnal Committee.

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Alma Montgomery Blackmon (1921-2009), born in Washington, D.C., was the choral director who first took Oakwood University’s Aeolians to international fame. Blackmon’s first piano recital in New York at age 10 gave early indication of the professional road she would follow. Hymns 69, 138, 305, and 580 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal preserve her arrangements. Blackmon received Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the United Christian Artists Association and the Adventist Church Musicians Guild.

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To Allen William Foster, pianist, organist, composer, teacher, and church musician, we owe three of The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal’s songs—203, 298, and 417—as well as the arrangement of 151. A native of New Jersey, Foster studied piano at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music with Jon Carlin, and organ with W. Franklin Hoxter. He and Gwendolyn, his wife, led the Pine Forge Academy Choir as the official choir for the Pan-American Youth Congress in 1984. Like Charles L. Brooks, Foster was the evangelist’s songster, working alongside such readily recognizable names as E. E. Cleveland, Charles D. Brooks, and Neal C. Wilson.

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Harry (Henry) Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) was a professional baritone, composer, and arranger. He was the first Black composer to develop characteristically Black American music, and helped make it available to classically trained artists. Burleigh was known worldwide for his singing and influenced the Czech composer Dvorak. In the late 1890s Burleigh began to publish his own arrangements of spirituals and songs, eventually composing more than 300 pieces. One of his arrangements is the hymn tune McKee, used with John Oxenham’s hymn “In Christ There Is No East nor West,” and in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal with the hymn “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place” (62).

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John Wesley Work, Jr. (1871-1925), and his son John Wesley Work III (1901-1967) both made major contributions to various African American genres of religious music. The elder Work spearheaded the movement to preserve, study, and perform Negro spirituals. With the help of his brother, Frederick Jerome Work, he collected, harmonized, and published a number of collections of slave songs and spirituals. In 1915 Work published Folk Song of the American Negro. As composer, historian, and educator, his son was a highly respected authority on Black American music, whose more famous contributions include the composition “My Lord, What a Morning,” and an arrangement of “Go, Tell It on The Mountain” (121 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal).

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Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) has been called the “Father of Gospel Music.”

This Marylander, son of a slave father and free mother, was known for his booming voice and talent for songs. Tindley pastored the Bainbridge church, a mixed race congregation that grew to about 10,000 members under his leadership, swelling to 12,500 at the time of his death. His “I’ll Overcome Someday,” one of his 47 songs currently included in Christian hymnbooks, is the basis for the American civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” “Nothing Between My Soul and the Savior” (322 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal) is also a product of his hand.

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Born to a Jewish father and Creole mother in New Orleans, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) early absorbed the influence of Creole music. A child prodigy on the piano, he studied at the Paris Conservatory. The hymn “Holy Spirit, Light Divine,” 268 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, comes from a large piano work called “The Last Hope,” written for an elderly woman he felt impressed to visit, only to see the hearse moving away from her house as he approached.

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Eleanor Crews Wright (1926-1992) was a prolific gospel music writer, singer, pianist, and arranger, and one of the trailblazers in making gospel music of the Black experience a part of Seventh-day Adventist worship. She composed more than 400 pieces: hymns (including “Surely, Surely,” 688 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal), anthems, children’s and wedding songs. She also wrote and illustrated the Keyboard Cousins Method for teaching piano to kids.

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Eurydice Valenis Osterman is professor of music and a former chair of the Department of Music at Oakwood University. She has penned numerous articles for Adventist magazines and is author of two books, What God Says About Music and Worship: From Praise Him to Praise Hymn. She has served on General Conference music committees, and worked on the youth hymnal. Osterman is responsible for arranging the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me” (624 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal).

Coda: This list of names is significantly more than a few grace notes to the melody of Christian church music, Adventist or otherwise. Hearing the voices here identified has made the melody of our worship the more compelling and its harmonies all the richer, helping us to approach more nearly to heaven’s intricately integrated harmonies, and preparing us for the “loftier worship” of the church above.*

* Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 491.

Nevilla E. Ottley-Adjahoe produced the radio program Classics of Ebony on 91.9 WGTS-FM, based on the campus of Washington Adventist University, from 1976 to 1997.