“If you take Jesus for your guide,
You’ll find Him more than all beside,
Just do the things He bids you do,
He’ll take you through, He’ll take you through.”
Charles Tindley is one of the great African American heroes of the faith.
He is known as “The Prince of Preachers.” A father of Gospel music who published 46 hymns, Tindley liked to say, “My life is a sermon inside a song.”
Drawn to the Church
Tindley lost his mother at age five and his father sold him into slavery. He was abused and wasn’t allowed to look at books. Undeterred, at night he secretly taught himself to read by gathering newspaper clippings from the garbage.
One day, he washed his shirt in the lake and snuck into an all-white church service. He tiptoed up the stairs to the back of the gallery and hid behind some boxes.
The preacher called for all the children who could read to come to the front to read a Bible verse. Little Charles thought, “That includes me! I can read.”
So, even though he was the only black person in the church and was barefoot, he walked past the hisses and grunts of the people in the pews. The pastor welcomed him to the altar and let him read from the Bible to the whole church.
I often think about little Charles, hiding behind the boxes and daring to come out to walk to the altar of the church. It seemed the whole congregation of white people was racist and rejecting him, but the pastor welcomed him. Charles heard the Lord calling his name so he kept walking all the way through the crowd to the front of the church.
He kept his eyes on Jesus, not the hissing crowd.
It reminds of how Jesus always stood up for children (and all people who were being mistreated): “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16).
Call to Ministry
After this, Tindley decided to become a pastor. Tindley believed that “All things were possible with God” (Matt. 17:20). Through self-study and private tutoring, he got free of slavery and became an ordained Methodist-Episcopal Pastor.
The church he took over in Philadelphia had just 35 people in it. But soon people were filling the services and spilling outside to listen to the tall and humble man of God.
To accommodate all the people, they built a bigger church, which grew from 35 to 12,500 people of multiple races! It became known as “Tindley Temple.” Furthermore, he was appreciated throughout Philadelphia for how provided food, clothing, and business training for the poor.
One day at his church, a young white man responded to his sermon and Tindley learned he was from his hometown and was the grandson of the man who had owned him as a slave! Charles forgave his grandfather and helped the young man accept Christ.
What an inspiration Charles is to us! To break out of slavery, teach himself to read, devote his life to Jesus, care for the poor, and pastor many thousands of people, including people from different races, which was especially rare in his day.
Charles was like Jesus. Perhaps, especially in how he forgave the slave master who had oppressed and abused him.
His story reminds me that our best ministry is how we respond to our trials. That preaches better than a thousand sermons!
“He’ll Take You Through”
One of Charles Tindley’s most beloved hymns invites us to trust Jesus to take us through our trials by learning to live each day in his caring presence:
Lifetime is like a single day,
Through which we mortals make our way.
We move from morning’s youth to noon,
And then to ev’ning all so soon.
Before your life is well begun,
The earthly task is almost done;
Your space below—so short, so brief,
Leaves not much time for joy or grief.
On swiftly speeds this nature train,
Through tunnels dark, o’er desert plain,
Where trestles span the deep ravine;
Where tow’ring mountain peaks are seen.
When light’nings flash across your track,
And nature tried to keep you back,
Within His care you are secure,
Your guide has been this way before.
No accident has been His fate,
His train has never come in late,
All signals show the track is clear,
The passengers have naught to fear.
A few more stations, and we’ll be,
From toil and care and danger free,
O could we render praises due,
To Christ, the one who takes us through.
If you take Jesus for your guide,
You’ll find HIM more than all beside,
Just do the things HE bids you do,
He’ll take you through, He’ll take you through.
The Sustaining Power of a Life Hidden with Christ
How did Charles Tindley rise above racism and abuse to love his enemies? How did he go from being illiterate to amassing a library of 4,000 books? What made him such an influential pastor?
Two of his personal disciplines stand out to me. Before his sermons, he spent time in solitude and silence to meditate on Scripture and pray. And each day, he trusted God to help him learn one new thing.
When you are faithful to keep learning from Jesus and sowing good seed, God will bring the increase of fruit from your life (1 Cor 3:6).
The Prince of Colored Preachers: The Remarkable Story of Charles Albert Tindley (1942/2016)
Erisa Mutabazi’s Reflections
My friend Erisa Mutabazi serves as Senior Pastor at St. Etienne Cathedral in Kigali, Rwanda (Anglican Church of Rwanda). He is completing our Soul Shepherding Institute training and is helping us to bring the Institute to Africa. We are training African pastors to serve as Spiritual Directors for their local pastors and leaders.
I (Erisa) find significant common ground and shared experience with the story and experience of Charles Tindley.
Growing up as a young refugee in Uganda, I could not afford a high school education. As a youth, I worked harvesting tea to make an income so that I could go to school. I was largely self-educated, but I did approach people to teach me on particular subjects of importance.
I served in my church as a voluntary youth leader, as a choir member and choir leader, as a deacon, and now as a senior pastor. I have served the Anglican church both in Uganda and Rwanda.
Growing up as a poor refugee with all the social economic challenges involved, God gave me a clear mission that was similar to Tindley’s—to serve the poor and marginalized.
Charles Tindley’s story highlights three important principles that I have held very crucial in my personal calling and ministry over the years:
1. Willingness to Serve Wherever Called
Charles Tindley’s calling took him through different levels of roles and responsibilities. He ministered as a volunteer sexton, janitor, deacon, itinerant pastor, presiding elder, and then lead pastor. He was focused and committed no matter what means of serving Jesus came his way.
2. Breaking Through Obstacles
Tindley’s lack of formal education did not stop him from pursuing his calling and his passion to serve Jesus. Instead, he continuously gained new knowledge and skills to sharpen and grow his talents. These personal efforts, which I am sure were guided by Jesus, took his calling and ministry to even higher levels.
3. Humility to Learn from Others
I am particularly inspired by Tindley’s hunger for learning, coupled with a deep sense of humility when “he asked people to tutor him.” This wisdom is found in many places in my Rwandan culture, as well as in many other African cultures, through traditional cultural practices and African proverbs.
Our Lord is the Master teacher, and we all can continue to learn from him as Psalm 25:12 says: “Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose.” Tindley manifested the humility and eagerness to learn from other servants of God around him.
Charles Tindley understood his calling, consistently pursued his calling, sharpened his talents to serve his calling, and remained focused on the calling—knowing that Jesus was on his side to the end.
Senior Pastor, St. Etienne Cathedral
Soul Talk Questions
What are your thoughts and feelings about Charles Tindley’s life and faith? You can use these questions to prompt your personal reflection, prayer, and/or sharing with a friend:
1.) Charles Tindley faced obstacles that seemed insurmountable. What challenge do you need God’s help with?
2.) Jesus’s redemption is beautifully evident in the story of the young man coming to salvation paired with Tindley’s forgiveness of the man’s grandfather who had enslaved him. Invite Jesus to bring to mind anyone you need to forgive or to offer a blessing to.
3.) What is one take away from Charles Tindley that you especially want to apply to your life? Mining the Scripture? Learning one new thing each day? Forgiving those who mistreat you? Caring for the poor in your neighborhood?