Hymn Story: We’ll Understand It Better By and By

I recently had a friend utter the phrase, “we’ll understand it better by and by” and it reminded me of this hymn.

Charles Albert Tindley

Charles Albert Tindley

The song was written by Charles Albert Tindley, who was born on July 7, 1851 in Berlin, Maryland.  His mother, Hester Tindley, was a free woman.  However, she died when he was still very young.  His father, Charles Tindley, was a slave.

In order to remain free, Charles went to live with his maternal aunt, Caroline Miller Robbins.  In his 1932 Book of Sermons, Tindley mentions “wherever father could place me” and being “hired out” as a boy.  He seems to have worked right along the slaves and free people of the area to help support the family. Although, by being free he did have the opportunity to go home.

When he was only seventeen years old, he married Daisy Henry.  The couple would go on to have eight children together.

Tindley learned to read on his own and was primarily self-taught.   He said, “I made a rule to learn at least one new thing — a thing I did not know the day before — each day.” After moving to Philadelphia with his family in 1875, he began taking correspondence courses to become a Methodist Minister.  He served as caretaker or sexton of East Bainbridge Street Church for years.

Tindley_Temple-then-300x208

Tindley Temple

In 1885, he was appointed local bishop to several churches in the area.  He came full circle in 1902, when he became pastor of the East Bainbridge Street Church.  Apparently the congregation was not receptive to him at first, but that quickly changed.  The 150th Anniversary Journal of the congregation notes that “All were pleasantly surprised, for as Tindley mounted the rostrum, wearing a Prince Albert Coat — then the garb of many African American Protestant preachers — he had the dignified bearing acquired during his previous appointments. They were further surprised when Tindley delivered a masterful, soul gripping sermon that brought loud amens and praise God exclamations from his listeners.”

The church grew rapidly, moving several times.  In 1924, membership exploded to ten thousand and they moved into the new Tindley Temple.  His wife, Daisy, died the same year.  Some reports state that she died the morning the congregation moved into their new location, now known as Tindley Temple.  Having struggled with her death, he is reported to have said, “one day I will understand it better by and by.” Tindley Temple

Another version of the song comes from Rev. Carlton Young who notes “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” was “one of eight hymns . . . written during a difficult period in Tindley’s life when negotiations were underway for the purchase of Westminster Presbyterian Church on Broad Street. It reflects aspects of Tindley’s ministry through preaching aimed to lift the spirits of turn-of-the-century urban African Americans.”

Psalm 30:5 is echoed in the beginning of the refrain, “by and by, when the morning comes.”  However, the heart and theology of the song is found in 1 Corinthians 13:12  “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known ” (KJV).

Tindley’s songs were a natural growth of his ministry and were often introduced during his sermons.  He was considered a captivating preacher and he is known to have taken an active role in the people of his community.  People of all races embraced his ministry and style.

His songs were published in two song books, Soul Echoes {1905} and six editions of New Songs of Paradise {first edition in 1916}.

Tindley is said to have amassed a personal library of over 8,000 books.  He was awarded two honorary doctorates by colleges in North Carolina and Maryland.

After the death of his wife, he married Jenny Cotton in 1927.  Charles A. Tindley died on July 26, 1933.

After his death, the church he’d served so faithfully renamed itself Tindley Temple.  In 2011, Tindley Temple United Methodist Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Tindley is considered one of two founding fathers of American Gospel Music, alongside Thomas Andrew Dorsey, author of Precious Lord Take My Hand.