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Charles Alexander: From Farm to Famous Gospel Singer

by George T. B. Davis

Charlie AlexanderBefore giving a detailed narrative of  the two world tours, let us rapidly survey the life story of this man, who has been raised up to fill a unique place in modern life and to teach myriads to "sing a new song."

His career reads like a chapter from the Acts of the Apostles. It is a romance of Faith in God. It is one of the most striking illustrations of answered prayer in this generation. "Every great event of my life has come to pass in answer to prayer," declares Mr. Alexander, and this is the keynote of his career.

It was in 1867 that Mr. Alexander was born in a log-house among the hills of Tennessee, [United States]. His parents were poor, but God-fearing, with strong musical talents. But little did they dream, as their son Charles drove the cows home in the waning twilight, singing Gospel hymns as he plodded onward, that he would one day become one of the most famous Gospel singers and leaders in the world.

A Religious Home Atmosphere

Though he was born in a humble home, yet it was delightfully situated. Many of his boyhood days were spent in adventurous ramblings through forest and glen, over hill and dale, picking berries, exploring the brooks and streams, and lying upon his back watching the fleecy clouds and dreaming of the future. The singer loves to recall the memories of those early years, and of his dearly beloved and honored parents. Speaking to me of the religious influences with which he was surrounded, he said:

"My father was an elder in the Presbyterian Church, and a leader in good works. My mother was a consecrated woman, full of deep piety, with a strong practical strain. The only papers we took were religious ones; and in the evening we would all gather round the fireside, and mother would read aloud from them. Also, on stormy and rainy days, mother would read aloud to us children. She loved most to read sermons, and Moody's sermons were our favorites. Sometimes when she had read other sermons she would say, 'Well, now, my children, these are very good, but I'll read you some more of Moody's. He goes right to our hearts, and he bases what he says on the Word of God: I remember how we would all break down and cry together over some of his stories.

His Mother's Influence

"Some of the most potent influences in molding my life and sweetening it were the long talks with my mother on rainy days. While the rain was beating upon the roof, and the wind was howling in the trees outside, she would tell me the stories of the chief Bible characters and point out the lessons to be derived from them. She was full of sympathy for the poor, and was easily touched by the misery of others. She was a clear-headed thinker, original and practical. The chief books in our home were religious, for my father had a penchant for purchasing portions of ministers' libraries; and my earliest reading was almost entirely of a religious character.

"My mother sang sweetly, while my father was famous through all the region round about as a musical leader. My father purchased the first book of Modern Gospel songs that came out when Moody and Sankey were doing their great work. Then we kept getting the Gospel hymns as they were published. Almost as soon as I was able to read anything my father taught me to read music. He would take my hand in his, and we never sang a new song together without beating time with the hand. It was thus as a child that I learned to use my hands in leading Gospel singing. I well recall how on Sunday afternoons people would drive from far and near over the hills and gather on our veranda, while my father would lead them for hours in singing sacred hymns. Music thrilled me from earliest childhood."

Charles was the oldest of a family of four children—three sons and a daughter. One of his brothers is in the ministry, and the other in the service of the Government in Tennessee; while his sister is a pastor's assistant in Knoxville.

The earliest book Mr. Alexander read was the New Testament. He joined the church, and read considerable religious literature, and when in his teens was not an out-and-out Christian. Through reading an article about the late Patrick Gilmore he acquired a consuming ambition to organize great choirs of singers, and to become a proficient musical conductor. He thought that his life work would be secular, something like Gilmore's.

Hears Sankey Sing at Knoxville

Young Alexander was sixteen years old when he first saw and heard Moody and Sankey. Long before that he had known them both by reputation, and was very anxious to see and hear them. Now at last the great opportunity had come. The meeting was at Knoxville, in the big opera-house. His heart began to thump as Sankey came on the platform and seated himself at his little organ. Up in his high position, young Alexander, with keen, watchful eyes, followed every movement of the noted singer; and when he heard him sing, "When the Mists Have Rolled Away," he felt as if he were in heaven.

The other hymns which Mr. Sankey sang on this occasion are also remembered by Mr. Alexander. Mr. Moody, that night, preached on Abraham; and as the lad looked down upon the people below him, as the speaker drew towards the close, he thought that never before had he seen so many handkerchiefs in use. The preacher had touched all hearts; and when he invited all who were willing to accept Christ to rise to their feet, there was a general movement throughout the building. It was a new sight for the young lad in the gallery; and as he went home he pondered the things he had seen and heard.

Leaves Home for College

It is a critical period in a young man's life when he leaves home for college. In the good providence of God some words were spoken to young Alexander as he entered this new phase of his life, which were a source of strength to him throughout the coming years. He once told me this incident which I hope will help other young men as they break the ties of home to battle alone with the world:

"I well remember the day when, as a youth, I started out from my country home for the university. Good old Deacon Hudgins came along with his wagon and took me, with my belongings, twelve miles over the hills to the university town. It was a beautiful, balmy day as we drove along, each of us lost in thought. At last Deacon Hudgins gave utterance to the following words of advice: 'My boy, you are going to a place where it will be easy for you to find bad companions. You will not have the influence of your quiet, Christian home and a good mother to keep you straight. Do not disgrace the profession you have made in our country church, but be true to your church membership.' I have never forgotten those words. In my most mischievous hours, when strong temptations came to me to adopt a companion who would lead me in wrong paths, I remembered that the members of the little church would be thinking of the disgrace that I should bring upon them if I went wrong. It was a great factor in keeping me true and pure."

When asked about his first experience as a musical conductor, Mr. Alexander said: "I began my career as a conductor of singing while teaching a country school when about seventeen years of age. I developed in music rapidly, studied at a musical college for a few months, and was then appointed Director of Music in the university which I had formerly attended. It was a remarkable fact that ninety per cent of the students there were Christians, and most of the music used in practicing and in public entertainments was religious.

"I had all grades in my classes in the college—about three hundred in all. I also organized and taught a large brass band, which was most popular among the students. The religious influence in the college was very helpful, but I did not obey the call for full surrender, though there was always a voice in my heart demanding it."

Going through the library at this University one day Mr. Alexander saw the Autobiography of Charles G. Finney. He took it out, read it, and it opened a new world to him. So strongly did it grip him that one reading of it was not sufficient. He read it through a second time, and then a third. Determined to know more of this wonderful man, he bought his other books so far as he could find them, and carefully read and studied them. About the same time he read the life of P. P. Bliss, the great Gospel song writer, and the author of such well known hymns as, "I am so Glad that my Father in Heaven," "Hold the Fort" and "Wonderful Words of Life." This book, written by Major Whittle, also made a lasting impression upon the mind of the young musician.

Resolves to Devote His Life to Sacred Song

It was at this time that an event occurred which changed the entire course of his life, and led him to devote his efforts entirely to sacred song. In tender tones Mr. Alexander told of this crucial experience. "While I was teaching," said he, "I had a telegram from my mother, saying that my father was not expected to live; and I hurried to my home, which was then in Atlanta, Georgia. On my journey I had time to think; and the world changed in a very few hours. Father lived for a week; and during that time my outlook upon the world was changing all the time. I was looking at things in the light of eternity. The night my father died it came to me, as never before, the worth of a human soul. He could not take any of us; he must go alone. And I pondered how essential it was before everything else to see that the soul was safe in God's keeping.

"I don't know definitely whether I was converted before that. When, following his death, I had to go across the city for an undertaker, late at night, it seemed to me as if my heart would break. I wanted to be absolutely certain that my father was in heaven, for I had not studied the Bible closely enough to know how the entrance there was gained. I knew he was an elder in a church, and all that; but as I went along the street I cried to God: 'If there is any way that thou revealest thyself to people, whether by vision, or voice, or impression, give me the certainty that my father is with thee and safe'; and I promised him that I would serve him all my life if he would but give me the assurance. As clearly as anything I ever experienced in my life, the impression came to me, 'Your father is up here with Me.' There and then I promised to serve him all my life, looking naturally up at the stars, and the load lifted from me.

"Filled as I was with thoughts of eternity, the buildings on each side of me looked like mere rubbish, though I remember that before when I went down those streets I used often to say, 'I should like to own one of those splendid blocks.' Every time I saw a man coming out of a saloon I wanted to go up to him and throw my arms about him, and tell him: 'You are going to hell, man. Why don't you accept Jesus Christ?' A great longing to save souls came to me that night, and has been with me—though I have sometimes grown cold—from that day to the present."

Attends Bible Institute

After young Alexander had been summoned home by the death of his father, he did not immediately return to his post at Maryville University [Maryville, Tennessee], but remained for some months upon the family farm, comforting his mother and making plans for the future of his brothers and sister. All thought of a secular career was now abandoned; and he was determined to devote every energy towards winning souls for Christ. He declares that those three weeks upon the farm, following his father's death, were days of heaven on earth, though they were days of loneliness. The beauty of the Scriptures was then revealed to him as never before.

Hearing of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, he soon gained sufficient funds to attend it for a brief period. Before going, however, he talked about the wonderful Christian training school to all his friends; and such was the enthusiasm of the young man that he did not go alone, but took eight friends with him to Chicago to attend the school. Before he left the Institute he had induced thirty-two people from the Southern States to attend it; and he has since been the means of leading scores of others to undertake its course of study.

During his first few months at the Institute it was his privilege to have, as a teacher, the beloved evangelist and Bible student, the late Major Whittle; and he declares that he will never forget the invaluable lessons learned from this prince among men. Through Major Whittle, Mr. Alexander was led to deeper consecration than he had previously known. For years he had harbored a spirit of unforgiveness towards a former friend who was hundreds of miles away; but at last, after a stirring address by Major Whittle, in which the speaker said that if the young men were not getting answers to their prayers it was because they harbored sin in their hearts, Mr. Alexander went to his room, threw himself upon his knees and cried to God for mercy. He cast out every whit of ill-feeling towards his friend, sat down and wrote him a letter, and in a few days they were reconciled.

His First Gospel Tour

After completing the course at the Moody Bible Institute, Mr. Alexander became the singing associate of Rev. Milan B. Williams, a strong evangelist. Before this he had often planned to go with various men in Christian work, and had wanted to have his own way about it. Later events proved each time that it would not have been best for him, had he been successful in his ambition. Finally one day, about the first of September, when he felt that he should be at work for his Master, he got on his knees at his bedside and stayed there until he had completely handed over his will to God. He told him that he had made a failure of securing the proper work; that he would be perfectly willing to go wherever he wanted him to go, and with whomsoever he chose. About six days afterwards, a telegram came to the Institute from Mr. Williams, and Mr. Alexander responded. He went out to be with Mr. Williams for two weeks, but remained with him for more than eight years.

In Iowa, during five years, they conducted missions in thirty-six towns and cities. In a town with a population of 6,000 they had 800 confess Christ in four weeks. In another town a tent was specially erected for their meetings, which seated 9,000 people.

From Twice Around the World with Alexander by George T. B. Davis. New York: The Christian Herald, ©1907.

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