Historic rafters ring loud at Hymnfest

Published 11:55 am Sunday, October 1, 2023

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By  Christine Weerts

Special to The Selma Times-Journal

A standing-room-only crowd filled the historic St. Luke’s Church at Old Cahawba Archaeological Park Sunday afternoon, ringing the rafters with the hymns of the ages during the first-ever HymnFest 23.

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Almost 200 people from across Dallas County and other nearby communities joined together to share the sacred hymns of the church from several faith traditions.
The Hymnfest opened with the familiar and beloved “Amazing Grace,” written 250 years ago. It was played on a turn-of-the-century harmonium, a small pump organ often found in rural churches like St. Luke’s in the mid-1800s. Pastor Jerry Light from Selma Community Church gave the opening prayer.

Singers from Selma led the hymn sing-along, beginning with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church singers, who brought the regal “Holy Holy Holy” to the historic church, a hymn appearing in 1,600 hymnals of all denominations and written by an Anglican priest in 1826 while serving as the Bishop of Calcutta, India.

A favorite early Gospel song written in 1937 by Black Baptist preacher Cleavant Derricks, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” got a rousing response as it was led by singers from First Baptist – MLK in Selma. Hymnfest ended with another “crowd” favorite, “I’ll Fly Away,” written by a sharecropper’s son in 1932 while he was picking cotton in Spiro, Oklahoma.

“It was amazing to see – and hear – so many people singing the old hymns within the walls of Cahawba’s historic St. Luke’s Episcopal/Azion Baptist church,” said Linda Derry, park director. “I was overjoyed to be part of a diverse crowd gathered together to sing, celebrate, and heal…it was very satisfying to see so many people finding meaning and relevance in the stories associated with both the historic church and the hymns.”

One of the stories was about a Union soldier imprisoned at the Civil War prison at Old Cahawba who found spiritual strength in the hymn, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” written by a blind English preacher in 1840. The church rang out with the sounds of the faithful, singing “How Great Thou Great Art,” remembering the “Blessed Assurance” of faith, the strength of the “Eternal Father Strong to Save” and the importance of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Seven-year-old Alice Young Lowe from First Baptist inspired the crowd by leading the 1927 Spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

“The Hymnfest was an unforgettable experience,” said Stephen Posey of St. Paul’s. “I thought seeing so many people united in worship together, filling the rafters of that beautiful old church was special enough, but when I went outside and listened from the woods, it was absolutely magical.” 

“Sharing the old hymns of the church was a wonderful diverse demonstration of humanity and spirituality,” First Baptist Deacon and Selma City Council President Warren William “Billy” Young said. “Many of us have grown up on hymns in our various churches and I am so grateful that the program organizers recognize the importance of these sacred songs to our faith and to our culture. I hope we continue to tell the story in these beautiful old hymns.”

Millie Ledford of Tuscaloosa thanked the singers and musicians who made this Hymnfest a blessing. Monica Rice of Miller’s Ferry said, “It was fabulous. The hymns and spirituals all touched my spirit. We were definitely moved! It was well planned. Looking forward to next time!”

TR Henderson of St. Clair County praised the program, the response from the community, and its participation in this first-time event.

“The historic St. Luke’s Church was once again full with an enthusiastic congregation on a Sunday, as it would have been 150 years ago,” Henderson said. “Black and white, young and old…..and very old – there were at least a couple of folks approaching 100 years of age — with everyone singing each song. It reminded me of those church days of my youth – before country buildings were air-conditioned – as we sang in the sweat.  In the end, it seemed each person left with a smile on his or her face. I heard several say on their way out that the community needed this.”

The free event was sponsored by the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center in Camden, the Daniel Foundation of Birmingham, Thrivent Financial, Old Cahawba, and the Alabama Historical Commission.  

Old Cahawba Archaeological Park lies at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers. From 1819 to 1826, it served as Alabama’s first capital. Old Cahawba is a historic property of the Alabama Historical Commission. To learn more, call 334-872-8058 or visit Old Cahawba on Facebook.