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Remembering United Methodism’s maestro (UM News)

May 26, 2023

If all the Rev. Carlton R. “Sam” Young had ever done was edit The United Methodist Hymnal, he’d have a secure place in United Methodist history.

But he did so much more.

“Young was the undisputed dean of Protestant mainline church music at the end of the 20th century as a church musician, composer, educator, hymnal editor, choral conductor and mentor,” said C. Michael Hawn, professor emeritus of church music at Perkins School of Theology.

Young died May 21 at the VA Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 97. 

Survivors include his wife of 76 years, Marjorie Lindner Young; their children Robert Young, James Young, Carol Young Wilson and Richard Young, and grandchildren Brook Young, Rebecca Sword, Dyami Wilson, Lena Wilson, Kirby Wilson and Raymond Young.

Though more prominent in the 20th century, Sam Young remained productive until near the very end, and in 2022, published a memoir that attested to his sharpness and wit.

He titled the book “I’ll Sing On: My First 96 years.”

All this week, Hawn has collected tributes to Young from members of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

“His contributions to hymnody and church are unparalleled,” wrote Richard Shadinger, an emeritus music professor at Belmont University in Nashville. “We will miss this great scholar and human being.”

Born on April 25, 1926, in Hamilton, Ohio, Young was such a large baby that his family nicknamed him “Samson,” which turned into “Sammy” and finally “Sam.”

His mother died when he was just 1, and his father, a Methodist pastor, entrusted his upbringing largely to grandparents. 

Young started piano lessons at age 6 and went on to learn brass instruments and string bass. He became a jazz lover under the influence of an uncle who played with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke. Young played in jazz combos himself, and some of his church music would include jazz touches. 

When World War II ended, Young was in the Air Force, training as a gunner. Once discharged, he took advantage of the GI Bill, earning degrees from the Cincinnati College of Music, the University of Cincinnati and the Boston University School of Theology.

A pastor friend influenced Young’s decision to become an ordained Methodist elder, but with a focus on church music. Young shared with UM News, in a 2020 interview, what the pastor told him.

“He said, ‘The music of the church is not theologically informed. It’s performance. It makes sounds, but it doesn’t relate to preaching, and it doesn’t relate to the liturgical year. You can do something about that.’”

Young would serve local churches as music minister early in his career, but soon became a multifaceted contributor to the denomination.

For example, he taught church music at Perkins, the Candler School of Theology and Scarritt College, mentoring a generation of United Methodist music ministers.

Young directed the music for nine General Conferences, including the 1968 Uniting Conference in Dallas that officially formed The United Methodist Church. From 1980 to 1990, he led the United Methodist Youth Chorale in international concert tours. 

Young’s arrangements of others’ music would find their way into many songbooks and hymnals. He composed more than 200 choral and organ compositions for the church and wrote nearly 50 hymn tunes. 

Some, such as “Star-Child,” text by Shirley Erena Murray, and “This Is a Day of New Beginnings,” text by Brian Wren, remain popular choices for church choirs.

Jorge Lockward, minister of worship arts at the Church of the Village in New York City, spoke this week of his admiration for Young’s compositions.

“He was able to write melodies with learned simplicity,” Lockward said.

Milestone accomplishments for Young were editing The Methodist Hymnal of 1966 and The United Methodist Hymnal, which first rolled off the presses in 1989.

With the latter, he and the hymnal revision committee had to balance the demands of various constituencies within the big-tent denomination. Newspapers reported on controversies over inclusive language and whether “Onward Christian Soldiers” should be dropped as militaristic. (It was retained.)

Young wanted to honor tradition, but he insisted on shaking things up, adding gospel music and spirituals. Duke Ellington’s sacred jazz piece “Come Sunday” made the cut, as did Spanish-language hymns. 

“We’ve still got the highbrow stuff, Bach, Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams, everything we had,” Young told The Associated Press in July 1989. “But we’ve expanded it to include that which had not been included.”

Hawn calls The United Methodist Hymnal, which is rich in liturgy as well as music, a benchmark for mainline Protestant hymnals. 

“The meticulous and inclusive process made it the most ecumenically and ethnically inclusive compilation of congregational song produced during this time and arguably one of the most influential shapers of United Methodist worship practice and theology,” Hawn said.

The United Methodist Hymnal of 1989 remains the denomination’s principal songbook, used in thousands of churches across the U.S. and beyond. With cumulative sales of about 4.7 million copies, it may well be the best-selling Methodist volume of all time, said Neil Alexander, former president of the United Methodist Publishing House. 

Alexander was among those reflecting on Young this week.

“Sam was a force of nature in his ability to envision and implement major projects that benefited many, a unique source of insight with his deep knowledge of hymnody, a broadly respected scholar and a stunningly gifted musician,” Alexander said by email.

After his work on The United Methodist Hymnal, Young would write “Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal,” a 940-page volume offering background on the hymns and their composers. He’s the author of several other books and scores of scholarly articles on different aspects of hymnody. 

From 1994 to 2007, Young was a consultant, transcriber and editor for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ Global Praise Project. He had a key role in bringing out such songbooks as “Beams of Heaven: Hymns of Charles Albert Tindley,” “Steal Away to Jesus: A Collection of Spirituals,” “Africa Praise Songbook,” “Caribbean Praise” and “Songs for the Poor: Hymns by Charles Wesley.”

“He was always out front in a prophetic way, regarding congregational song, the sung theology of the church … and so inclusive of all styles of music and the expressions of all people,” said Barbara Day Miller, associate dean emerita of worship and music at Candler.

“He treated me — I was very young and very green — as a colleague from day one,” Lockward said.

Young traveled the world as a visiting professor and lecturer on church music. In his last years, when caregiving for his wife and his own multiple myeloma limited travel, he still made daily trips to the upstairs home office he called The Owl’s Nest and worked on various projects.

At age 94, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he came out with a new songbook titled “Today I Live.” Even after that, he kept writing music, collaborating with Day Miller and with her Candler colleague Don Saliers, who once described Young as the “Mr. Music of United Methodism.” 

Last year saw the publication of Young’s memoir “I’ll Sing On.” Hawn, in a review for UM News, said it “offers an essential perspective on developments in Protestant mainline church music within an ecumenical context.” 

On April 19, a few days before his 97th birthday and a little over a month before his death, Young emailed to Nancy Graham the introduction she had requested for her forthcoming biography of the English church musician and hymnody expert Erik Routley.

“It was in great shape,” Graham said of Young’s submission.

She added that for three years, as she labored on the book, she had frequent calls and email exchanges with Young, who had known Routley well. 

Young corrected her on certain things — and cheered her on. 

“While there are many people I couldn’t have written the book without, Sam was one of the biggest,” Graham said.

The Young family has not settled on plans for a memorial service. But two family members shared memories with UM News.

Joan Stoutenborough, a niece, said Marjorie Lindner Young really made possible Sam Young’s career by taking the lead in raising their children. She also recalled that Sam Young would write music for family occasions, such as weddings and memorial services.

When inspiration hit, he took advantage, she added.

“He’d get up in the middle of the meal and go to the piano and work out something that was running through his head,” Stoutenborough said.

Rayda Young, wife of Sam and Marjorie’s son Richard, hopes people will recognize that the great church musician also was a man of great compassion.

Fighting tears, she said that when her and Richard’s son Raymond was diagnosed with autism at age 2, Sam Young became a champion of all people with developmental disabilities. 

And he showered love on his grandson.

“He said this every time we went to Nashville. It was, ‘Raymond, we’re so glad you’re here.’”