Monday, March 21, 2011

Song List for Tillit S. Teddlie

Tillit S. Teddlie (1885-1987), for those who did not grow up in the musical traditions of the Churches of Christ in the United States, was one of our most prolific and influential songwriters ever. Though Albert E. Brumley (1905-1977) was far better known to the world at large, I propose that Teddlie had at least an equal if not greater impact on the week-to-week worship of the churches.

Part of this was probably due to his more conservative interpretation of the Southern gospel style. Though Brumley did the "foot-stompers" exceptionally well (better than anyone, in my opinion), they can fall outside the comfort zone some congregations, at least in the Sunday worship service. Another reason might have been that Teddlie was a preacher for most of his career, and both published his own hymnals for worship and associated with others who did so, particularly the Firm Foundation publishing house in Austin, Texas. Brumley, on the other hand, also a fine Christian gentleman, was more firmly planted in the music business. Scott Harp has provided excellent biographical pages on these two great songwriters on (WARNING: If you click on that link, you are likely to spend the next few hours there!)

One interpretation of Southern gospel is that it is the brighter side of the blues. If the blues is about drowning your misery in drink before your inevitable lonely death, gospel is about endurance through the Spirit and a future happiness where we will be reunited with loved ones. Considering that the commercial genre of Southern gospel took off during an era marked by an economic depression and two world wars, it is no surprise that a huge proportion of the repertoire of this era was about 1) enduring present misery, and 2) a heavenly reward.

But in the process of compiling a detailed list of Teddlie's songs, I noticed something really different. Click here to view this list in a separate window, or to download. I did a quick, first-impression classification by topic, and found that I could easily tag the topic of about 100 out of the 116 songs I have identified. Naturally there were a number of songs about heaven--his best-known song is "Heaven holds all for me"--but surprisingly there were only 25, a quarter of the total. The next largest category was invitation songs (19), then songs about evangelism (12), songs that were direct appeals to God for spiritual growth (12), songs of praise (9), songs encouraging others to worship (8), songs of Christian witness (8), and songs of encouragement (6). Taken in broader categories, though songs about heaven were the largest single topic, songs of invitation and evangelism were a slightly larger part, and songs of praise, worship, and prayer were an equally significant portion of his work.

The body of Christ needs a healthy diet in every respect, and our singing is no different! The Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 passages tell us to sing "to God" and also "to each other," "giving thanks" while also "teaching and admonishing one another." I have always had a high opinion of Brother Teddlie's work, and even more so now that I see the degree of care that he took to write songs for many different aspects of the church's worship life.

Heaven Songs

Teddlie's most famous song about heaven, "Heaven holds all to me," was also one of his earliest; though its copyright date is 1932, I have found it published as early as 1915. It is also his most widely published hymn. It is a remarkable work for such a young man, because in addition to anticipating the joys of heaven, if you read between the lines it carries a strong message for the present: don't be too attached to this earthly life. The music is a perfect match for this contemplative mood.

He continued to write a large number of "heaven" songs through the 1920s, many of which have fallen by the wayside. One contains the line, "O the happy, sunny, verdant dales," proof that Teddlie was not immune to the lyric stylings of Tin Pan Alley. But there was at least one more gem among these early works, "We shall meet some day," written around 1929. As referenced in an earlier post, this was recorded by no less than Maybelle Carter and Ralph Stanley, proof that Teddlie's singable melodies and close harmonies could have made him a commercial success.

By the late 1930s he was writing fewer songs on this theme, but produced some fine examples, notably the sweetly quiet "In heaven they're singing," the exuberant "Write my name on the roll," and the quartet favorite "Waiting for the boatman's call."

Invitation Songs

The use of a song for inviting people to come forward in response to the sermon is an old tradition, and there is a whole category of songs dedicated to this purpose--many of them less than stellar. Teddlie really seems to have exerted himself in this area; perhaps as a preacher he felt especially keenly the desire to find just the right words and tone to move a person's heart. One of his earliest invitation songs (ca. 1914) was a peculiar example of "reverse psychology," the quartet favorite "Time Enough Yet." Also from this early period came the haunting "Don't wait too long" (1918). Teddlie continued writing invitation songs throughout his career; probably his most popular for congregational use was "What will your answer be?" of 1935.

Songs of Evangelism

Along with his emphasis on invitation songs, Teddlie spent a good deal of effort on songs encouraging Christians to do more to spread the gospel. An early example is the catchy "To the harvest fields" from 1919; but his best is probably the more serious-minded "Into our hands the gospel is given," written in 1939. It was a recurring theme for the rest of his life, from "You can lead someone to Jesus" (1943) and "Our Lord commands move forward" (1959) to "Does your light shine for Him?" and "Will you seek for the sheep" of 1969. One of his last songs, from 1972, was the poignantly titled "There's an urgent call for servants of the Lord." The old soldier, forced by age to retire from the field, was still very mindful of the fight.

Songs of Worship and Praise

Teddlie's philosophy of the worshipful life was summed up in the title of his 1943 song, "Sing and Pray." He wrote a number of songs admonishing the Christian to worship, going well beyond the "sing a happy song" theme of many gospel songwriters. One of his earliest works, from 1922, was "When we meet in sweet communion," probably his most widely known hymn after "Heaven holds all to me." This thoughtful meditation on the fellowship of the Lord's table is all too rare in the gospel style; and though its sheer tunefulness has led to it being commercially recorded over the years, it was obviously written with congregational singing and the average worshiper in mind.

Also from these early years came another widely popular congregational song, "Angels are singing redemption's sweet song" (1923), with its cheerful admonition to sing praises. Fittingly, one of the last songs Brother Teddlie wrote was a setting of W. D. Jeffcoat's lyric, "A joyful song we gladly raise."

Songs of praise addressed directly to God were less a part of the typical gospel songwriter's output than one might think, usually coming in at least third behind songs of heaven and songs of personal witness. Teddlie entered this arena somewhat later, but arguably contributed some of his best work in this subject area. In 1930 he wrote one of the best praise songs in the gospel style by any writer, "Worthy art Thou," based closely on Revelation 5:9-14. Then in 1938 he wrote the equally successful "O the depth and the riches," taking as its signature line Paul's doxology of Romans 11:33.

Songs of Prayer and Supplication

Here we see some of Teddlie's most interesting and personal works. It is true in any era of hymn writing that the author must strive to create a text that speaks to a broad range of people, and thus it would seem that a highly individual statement of supplication to God would be the most difficult to carry off. But on the other hand, it is the deeply personal psalms of David that are the perennial favorites in the Psalter; a godly, spiritually mature person who can put his or her inner spiritual life into verse can be a great blessing to many others.

It seems to be no coincidence that Teddlie's work in this area only began in his mature years. Only in middle age did he turn his hand to probing, confessional texts such as "Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief" (1943). Another gem from his middle years was "O God of infinite mercy" (1948), which deserves to be much better known. But the standout among these prayer songs was only written as he reached old age. "Hear me when I call," written in 1962 when he was 77 years old, is a masterful reworking of David's 4th Psalm. In it we hear the genuine voice of a man facing the trials of old age, not without fears, but with an unshakable certainty that his only hope is in God. It is a blessing to Christians of any age, and of any era.


  1. Tillet is a brother of my Great Grandmother, Panola Lee Teddlie-Shelton. Panola's husband, A.M. Shelton baptized Tillit. Of course, A.M. Shelton is my Great Grandfather.

  2. Did he also write the song Talk it Over with Jesus? I have been trying to find it for a while.

  3. Donnis, sorry for the long delay in answering. No, not as far as I know. I found a couple of songs with that title, one by Johnson Oatman & Charles Gabriel: and another by Thomas Ramsey & Virgil Stamps:

    Hope one of these is the one you were looking for. Teddlie was published a lot in the Stamps-Baxter books, so that might be what made the association in your mind.