Singing ChurchWomen celebrate 20 years
Fifty-seven of the original Singing ChurchWomen of Oklahoma joined about 400 others at Oklahoma City, Village’s McMurain Center to celebrate the 20th anniversary of singing group Sept. 18.
With the group’s CDs playing in the background, members and guests were treated to a pictorial history of the 430-member singing women, which was organized in 1989 by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma church music department.
“Through the years, we had discussed starting a ladies’ group,” said Glenn Boyd, church music director from 1980-88.
The Singing Churchmen of Oklahoma was begun nearly 50 years ago, and directed since its beginning by James D. Woodward, who was first minister of music at Tulsa, First, then professor of church music at Oklahoma Baptist University, dean of the school of music and finally artist-in-residence at OBU.
Boyd explained they wanted Woodward to direct the ladies, but he didn’t have time on his schedule for another group until he became artist-in-residence.
Boyd said the forerunner to the Singing ChurchWomen came in 1976, when the Churchmen were asked by composer Ron Huff to record an album.
“But, Huff didn’t want just men; he wanted men and women,” Boyd said. “We asked each member of the Singing Churchmen to bring a soprano and alto from his church, and thus the recording of “Church Triumphant.”
That group later recorded another album titled “Majesty.”
When Woodward freed up some time to direct a women’s group, the same procedure for selecting participants was used. Each Churchman brought two ladies from his church. This limited the number in the new organization, because at the time, only full-time ministers of music were allowed in the Churchmen. Later, when Bill Green came as director of the groups, he opened the Churchmen membership to part-time and bivocational ministers of music. ChurchWomen membership then came with auditions.
Emma Jeanne Bartlett, wife of church music secretary Gene Bartlett, who served from 1954-79, said she knew Gene would have loved to hear the Singing ChurchWomen, but he died about a year before their first concert in the fall of 1989.
“I sometimes ask God to let him know what is going on,” said Bartlett. “I don’t know if He does, but it makes me feel like He does.”
Bartlett said she has fond memories of her and Gene’s time with Oklahoma Baptists.
“I look back and see God’s hand in our lives,” she said. “I cried when we left Muskogee (where Gene was minster of music) and moved to Oklahoma City, Trinity. We had a few problems when we got here, like nine people in the choir, but we stuck it out, and the rest is history.”
Green, who became director of church music after Paul Magar, director from 1988-91, his wife, Judy, Woodward and Mary June Tabor, church music associate, were killed in a plane crash in January, 1991, said he learned about the crash which killed his friends as he drove into Southwestern Seminary to teach an 8 a.m. class.
“As I sat in my office and cried, I began to feel a tug in my heart,” Green related. “Six weeks later, I was contacted and extended a call to come as director of church music. I knew one of my responsibilities would be to direct the Singing Churchmen and ChurchWomen.”
Green pointed out that not only were the Singing Churchmen the first group of singing men organized in the Southern Baptist Convention, but the Singing ChurchWomen also hold the distinction of being the first women’s group of its kind in the SBC.
“The influence and magnitude of your work is astounding,” Green told the women. “This was a plan of God, but it was an honor to follow in the footsteps of men like Gene Bartlett, Glenn Boyd and Paul Magar. The legacy of music in Oklahoma is tremendous. The greatest honor of my life was to be director of the Singing ChurchWomen of Oklahoma.”
Current director Ken Gabrielse said he also was honored and humbled that God would reach down to New Orleans (where he was chairman of the division of church music at New Orleans Seminary) and give us an opportunity to come back to our home state and carry on with this legacy.
“I hope you get my compassion of the legacy we encompass,” he said. “However, the most important thing is that we continue singing. This group has the opportunity for impact across the state by passionate singing and the love you show people who gather for concerts. I know part of the future is the Singing ChurchWomen continuing the legacy of singing and doing it with great passion and fire for the Lord.”
The ChurchWomen have sung in prisons, on college campuses and in churches of all sizes and denominations. They have made mission trips to Brazil, Romania and Hungary, been one of the featured choirs at the Southern Baptist Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, and premiered the new Baptist Hymnal at Glorieta, N.M.