Faith and song have played crucial roles in movements where people have struggled for human and civil rights. The seeds of faith and freedom were sown in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and in pre-Civil War slave songs and spirituals such as “Go Down Moses.”
Exodus themes were exploited by abolitionists and civil rights leaders alike. Clergy would inspire people with a proclamation that the time had come to escape the bondage of “Egypt” and to press on toward the freedom of “Canaan’s land.”
One such clergyman, Rev. W. Herbert Brewster, planted the seeds of faith, hope, love and change through gospel pageants that he authored and gospel songs that he composed.
William Herbert Brewster was born on July 2, 1897 in Somerville, Tenn. He graduated from Nashville’s Roger Williams College in 1922. Shortly thereafter he moved to Memphis. Brewster served as pastor of East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church from 1930 until his death on Oct. 14, 1987.
A man of many talents, Brewster is best known for writing more than 200 gospel songs. His most famous song emerged from Brewster’s 1941 gospel pageant, “From Auction Block to Glory.” The song would be recorded first by Brother John Sellers in 1946. A year later, the same song would be covered by Mahalia Jackson for Apollo records. Recorded Sept. 12, 1947, “Move On Up a Little Higher” would become gospel music’s first million seller, selling more than 8 million copies.
Brewster also wrote gospel music’s second million seller, “Surely God Is Able” as recorded by the Ward Singers in 1950.
In Memphis, Brewster’s influence was substantial, reaching thousands of Memphians through radio stations WHBQ and WDIA. Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips of WHBQ would often interview Rev. Brewster. Brewster’s sermons were broadcast on air and both radio stations played his songs.
Regular listeners to these radio programs were Sam Phillips and a young and impressionable Elvis Presley. Elvis heard Rev. Brewster invite “black and white” to church services at East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church. In an era of segregation, Elvis and other whites would attend at the bidding of Rev. Brewster. The walls of segregation began to crumble a bit.
“Move On Up a Little Higher” became an anthem of sorts for the civil rights movement and inspired many to keep on pushing.
Rev. William Herbert Brewster said, “I wrote these songs for the common people who could not understand political language, common people who didn’t know anything about economics ... I was trying to inspire black people to move up higher, don’t be satisfied with the mediocre. That was 1946, before the freedom fights started, before Martin Luther King days. I had to lead a lot of protest meetings. In order to get my message over, there were things that were almost dangerous to say, but you could sing it.”
And sing it they did! Brewster inspired millions with his songs of faith, hope and love. His was a message of good news — like the gospel he preached the story of redemption, freedom and the promised land! This, too, is the story of Jesus.
In the tradition of Rev. Brewster, let’s sing the Lord’s praises!
Ken Haskins is pastor of First Christian Church in Carson City.