With a Voice of Singing, Bells, and Other Instruments

By Rev. Dr. Newell Williams

I was born on the morning of the first Sunday that my father directed the Sanctuary Choir of the First Christian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma. My mother, who met my father while both were students at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, arrived in Tulsa the
day before, having traveled from Richmond, Indiana, where my parents had served their first Ministry of Music at the Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church. Thus, I have been blessed by church music since the very beginning of my life.

Upon arriving at First Christian Church of Tulsa, my parents developed choirs for pre-school, elementary and high school students, as well as adults. Early in their ministry, my father introduced Whitechapel Handbells to the congregation. Two handbell choirs were developed, one for high school girls and another for boys whose voices were changing. Thus, as my voice began to change, I joined twelve other boys as a member of the boys’ handbell choir.

Along with the choral and handbell choirs, this congregation was blessed by a pipe organ and gifted organist who accompanied the choirs and had a special gift for leading congregational singing. In addition, from time to time, our choirs offered cantatas accompanied by additional musical instruments.

In my college and graduate school years, I served as a student minister in various congregations in Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Music varied from one church to another, but in every one of those congregations, music made a positive difference in the worship that I experienced. Among those congregations was the Christian Church in the rural village of Fall River, Kansas, where the congregational singing was accompanied by a piano and violin. In the early years of my student ministry at Vine Street Christian Church of Nashville, Tennessee, the minister of music was none other than the prolific church musician Hal Hopson.

Since completing a Ph.D. in Church History at Vanderbilt University forty some years ago, I have served on the faculty and administration of two theological schools: Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. In these two communities, church music has been important to my life. I have known excellent church music programs in both Indianapolis and Fort Worth. However, it is in the past twenty years that I have been a member of University Christian Church in Fort Worth (UCC) that I have experienced a church music program that reminds me of the church music program that my parents developed some seventy years ago.

I suppose this has something to do with the fact that twenty years ago the director of the choir at UCC had been a member of my father’s High School Choir. I learned from him that when he accepted this call, he had called on my father to help him learn how to do the job. In particular, he was interested in developing a Church Music Library. Moreover, twenty years ago, several members of the UCC choir, including the director’s spouse, had also been members of my father’s High School Choir. In addition, UCC had, and continues to have, outstanding Handbell Choirs. This congregation has also been blessed by outstanding organists and the occasional use of additional instruments.

My father, who had many interests, completed his Ministry of Music at First Christian Church of Tulsa to accept an appointment in the School of Education at Tulsa University. He chose the High School Choir, of which I was a member, to sing the anthem on that last Sunday. Having memorized that anthem as a member of the High School Choir, I can remember parts of it to this day, “With a voice of singing, declare ye this and let it be heard, hallelujah!”

Rev. Dr. Newell Williams is President Emeritus, Brite Divinity School
and CMI Board Member