Gratefulness for the Ministry of Fred and Ruth Coleman
When Isaac Watts bemoaned the lackluster singing in the church, his non-conformist father challenged his teenage son to write something better. As an older man, Watts critiqued the church’s congregational singing by quipping, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion." In 1719 he wrote, Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Watts was not entirely against the singing of metrical psalms but he regretted the lack of impassioned singing. Of his 1719 work he said “they (Psalms) ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.” Watts wanted the Psalms to be “renovated” with the language of the New Testament. The “Father of English Hymnody” eventually penned over 750 hymns that allowed the people to sing!
Recently, our church had the privilege of hosting Fred and Ruth Coleman to conduct a choir clinic and direct our choir for a Sunday evening worship service. Having never met Fred personally, I was impressed by his passion for invigorated congregational singing rather than pristine-sounding, special musical offerings. We immediately learned that Fred has a burden for God’s people to testify rather than perform. It was a weekend of letting the people sing!
Fred Coleman has served for a few decades as the Department Head of the Department of Church Music, Division of Music, at Bob Jones University. He and his lovely wife, Ruth, also serve at Hampton Park Baptist Church in Greenville, SC, where Fred is the Assistant Pastor of Music and Worship. Under Fred’s leadership at Bob Jones University, the Church Music department has flourished. There are literally hundreds of men and women around the world that Fred has mentored and encouraged to teach God’s people to sing expositorily. Our own, Pastor Kyle Harding, is one of the products of Pastor Coleman’s ministry. The closeness of that relationship became obvious to me when I heard Kyle repeatedly refer to Fred Coleman as “Uncle Fred”!
Fred Coleman was also instrumental in producing an era of SoundForth CD productions from Bob Jones University. These compact discs continue to stand as models of impassioned musical offerings that haven’t been surpassed by any Christian college or university. (As a graduate of BJU, this is my confessedly biased assessment!) The rich textual emphasis, the time (I heard from participants) taken with singers to pray through each text prior to recording, and the wide acceptance of these CD's by lay folks and pastors alike marked a peak in the volume of sales for SoundForth recordings. I believe the primary reason for the popularity of those CD's was because of the "preaching through singing" rather than a performance emphasis. The recordings included Faithful I Will Be, Strong Tower, When Jesus Comes, Quiet Heart, and my all-time favorite, Depths of Mercy. It's disappointing that these Christ-honoring, Gospel-centered productions are no longer being produced.
Most recently, Fred and Ruth (Fred says that Ruth did most of the work!) in conjunction with Heart Publications, produced a new hymnbook, Hymns: Modern and Ancient. The hymnal compiles over 130 hymns from the past and present. And, no surprise here, all the hymns are set in four-part harmony in order to “let the people sing.” This hymnal is a great service to the church, and especially to churches who desire to affirm timeless Truth in a conservative style. It is perhaps surprising that such a hymnal like Hymns: Modern and Ancient hasn’t been welcomed by all of God’s people who love to sing, pray, and proclaim truth! (In fact, Fred’s original intent for the hymnal was that it would be a supplement for devotional reading and prayer.) The association that some of the texts included in the hymnal have with modern hymn writers who employ a contemporary style has been unacceptable to some of our brethren. But to most, this new hymnal has, similarly to Watt’s hymnal, encouraged the people to sing!
I found myself personally revived in my gathered worship as a result of some of Fred’s teaching. On Saturday there was a two-hour open-rehearsal in which anyone from our church family could join the choir to prepare two offerings for the following Sunday. Now, it requires an open-rehearsal for me to be invited to the choir! So I seized the opportunity! (By the way, it was so encouraging to see over thirty other additional participants as well. The choir was nearly a hundred in number!) Truthfully, I was concerned about “singing my note” and was totally surprised by what I experienced for those couple of hours. There was the normal clustering around others who sing parts. But Fred taught us something called “sub-texting.” Initially, I thought we were learning some technical music theory. But, that is not what “sub-texting” is at all. By “sub-texting,” Fred encouraged us to consider how each phrase that we were singing had been personally appropriated. For instance, when we sang the phrase “confessing sin He already knows” from the hymn that Fred authored entitled A Fountain of Grace, we “sub-texted” by reflecting how ludicrous it is for us to hide sin from God and consequently how we are removed from the Fountain of Grace when we do so. I discovered that such personal “sub-texting” radically alters not only the passion of such musical offerings, but more importantly it makes every song a personal testimony!
Watts included in one of his hymns a line that no doubt was intended at those who rejected his hymnody, “Let those refuse to sing, who never knew our God!” Isaac Watts’ labor of love wasn’t always rejected, however. His motives weren’t eternally condemned, thankfully! He is known as “the Father of English Hymnody.” In our lifetime, Fred and Ruth Coleman have contributed immeasurably through teaching, hymn writing, musical productions, choir- and congregational-singing instruction, and now, the compilation of a both current and conservative hymnal for God’s people! Our church was immensely blessed by their ministry. Thanks, Fred and Ruth, for reminding us to “Let the People Sing!”