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ABILENE, Texas — Each summer, Levi Sisemore enjoys a spiritual mountaintop experience in flat, dry West Texas.
For Sisemore, the annual Texas Normal Singing School in Abilene brings a reunion with fellow believers who love singing praises to God as much as he does.
“I started off making friends at the singing school, and over the years, friends have become family,” said Sisemore, worship and involvement minister for the Fredericksburg Church of Christ in the Texas Hill Country.
He met his future wife, Sara, at the 2001 event.
The singing school’s 75th anniversary coincides with the 100th anniversary of the “Great Songs of the Church” hymnal. Both milestones were celebrated as more than 100 students and staff from 18 states and Mexico gathered.
Songleading students ranged from Levi and Sara Sisemore’s 7-year-old son, Benjamin, to Curt Harris, a 74-year-old member of the South Anchorage Church of Christ in Alaska.
“I have seen the awesome power of God’s unity in our practice of congregational, a cappella singing.”
“I have seen the awesome power of God’s unity in our practice of congregational, a cappella singing,” Levi Sisemore said in an email.
“I teach my students that congregational singing is only half about the words we sing or the tune we’re sounding; the other half is about listening to our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts and voices.”
Some of those words and tunes were written by composers and lyricists whose names are familiar to many who grew up singing in Churches of Christ: Fanny J. Crosby, Tillit S. Teddlie, Albert E. Brumley and Alton H. Howard.
Elmer Leon Jorgenson’s name is less familiar, but Jorgenson changed American church hymnody forever on May 16, 1921. That’s when he introduced 350 songs over five nights to the Highland Church of Christ in Louisville, Ky., as part of the first volume of “Great Songs of the Church.”
A century later, churches still benefit from his work.
“E.L. Jorgenson started compiling songs for his hymnal in the spring of 1910,” said hymnologist D.J. Bulls, who serves as the worship minister for the Glenwood Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas. “We owe a lot of debt to him because for him, it was about getting the best songs compiled into the same hymnal.”
Bulls spoke about Jorgenson’s influence at the singing school’s worship leader conference, where participants sang from the 100-year-old hymnal.
Bulls spent years researching the hymnody of Churches of Christ and noted that in the 1800s and early 1900s, Edwin Othello Excell and Charles McCallon Alexander owned a lot of the copyrights to songs that were popular in gospel meetings.
Both men, along with Homer Rodeheaver, were well-known song leaders at the time and traveled to lead singing at the meetings. But, Bulls said, getting them to work together was a tall order, and seeing their songs in the same book was unheard of.
“Hymnology can be both unifying and divisive,” Bulls said. “Many of the people who owned the copyrights of the songs at the time didn’t want their songs mixed with those of other hymnals. Excell and Alexander owned a lot of the copyrights to thousands of songs, and Jorgenson worked to get the permissions he needed to put all the songs in the same book.”
Jorgenson was only 24 when he began what would become an 11-year project to gain copyrights to the 350 songs released in the first edition of “Great Songs of the Church.”
His goal, to compile the best songs of all the hymnals in one book, was thought impossible by some, but he persevered.
“What Jorgenson did affected every American hymnal thereafter,” Bulls said. “Every hymnal that has followed since owes a great debt of gratitude to E.L. Jorgenson.”
Multiple editions have been published over the years and old hymnals sent overseas with missionaries.
Bulls described the hymnal’s influence on hymnody, singing and worship practices in Churches of Christ as monumental.
“Most people have no idea just how different 20th Century American church music would be without Jorgenson’s work,” Bulls said.
The idea for the Texas Normal Singing School was born in 1944 when Edgar Furr and Austin Taylor met and began to share insights into the need for song leadership training.
Two years later, they formed a partnership to establish a summer singing school.
The school was established in Sabinal, Texas, and met for two weeks each June. The idea was to teach teenage boys, but over time, the school also attracted adult students.
The term “normal,” now an archaic term, at the time described schools that did not offer scholastic credit.
The two-week school continued through 1979 with the help of Holland Boring Jr., Don Boring, Joe Ed Furr, John Furr, James Tackett, Richard McPherson and others. In 1980, the one-week format was adopted.
In 1985, the school moved to the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio for three years. From 1988 until 2019, it was conducted on the ACU campus. In 2020 and 2021, because of COVID-19 protocols, the school moved to the Oldham Lane Church of Christ in Abilene.
The school now meets for one week in July, and it offers training in three major areas of church music: song leading, songwriting and singing with excellence. The school’s goal is to train both men and women to excel in the public worship and assemblies of the church. However, while women provide instruction to men and women on reading music and singing well, they only lead groups of other women, according to Levi Sisemore, the school’s treasurer.
“The singing school seems to attract my favorite kind of people: spiritually invested Christians who want to serve their congregations.”
“The singing school seems to attract my favorite kind of people: spiritually invested Christians who want to serve their congregations,” Sisemore said. “There are so many of our song/worship leading students who have taken their first steps in public service at the singing school.
“We’ve encouraged dozens to go on to ministry training programs,” he added, “and many are serving in full-time ministry because of it.”
JOEY ROBERTS serves as vice president/director of communications and administration for the Herald of Truth, based in Abilene, Texas. He previously served as the communications minister for the University Church of Christ in Abilene.
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