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McKinney: The music minister

Editor’s Note: Today’s Echoes of Our Past will be continued in tomorrow’s edition of the Minden Press-Herald

On Sunday, March 24, a distinguished son of Webster Parish will be honored. His name may not be familiar at first blush to many of you, but if you were reared as a Southern Baptist, his words and music have touched your heart for years. Wherever He Leads I’ll Go, The Nail Scarred Hand, Satisfied With Jesus, Blessed Be the Name, and God Give Us Christian Homes, are just a few of the nearly 150 hymns this man wrote over his career. That is the total suggested by most sources; however, in 1959 when the First Baptist Church in Pineville (of which McKinney was a charter member) dedicated a new building, an article in the Alexandria Daily Town Talk credited McKinney with 700 compositions. Whichever is true, he was a prolific writer. If you go through the old Broadman Hymnal that he edited, you might think he wrote most of the book. Nevertheless, Baylus Benjamin McKinney made a tremendous impact on Christian music and his ministry is still touching lives today. Through the efforts of the Heflin Baptist Church and Stewart Beatty, a historical marker is being dedicated to honor McKinney a ceremony will be held at the church and then the marker, to be located at the old McKinney family home place south of Heflin, will be dedicated. 

B. B. McKinney was born on July 22, 1886 in Heflin, the son of James Calvin McKinney and Martha Annis Heflin McKinney. The community of Heflin is named after his great uncle, Charles Buckner Heflin, Civil War veteran and long-time Webster Parish Police Jury member. Ben, as he was known as a child was the fourth son, the fifth child of eleven in the McKinney family. James McKinney was a farmer and later became a timber estimator to supplement the family income. The farm raised vegetables for home consumption and also cotton, corn, sugar cane and peanuts for sale. James McKinney, although not yet a Christian, had a great interest in music and in his free time attended “normal schools” that taught music, particularly shaped note hymns. Because of his abilities, James led the music at his church, until members objected that their song leader was not a Christian. Later in life, James would become a convert to Christianity. His interest in music led him to purchase a reed pump organ for the family in 1900, even though no one in the family could play the instrument. Ben’s sister, Carrie, was appointed to learn to play and soon the family was gathering around the organ to sing together. At this point, Ben became the leader of the singing, a role he would fill for the rest of his life. Taught to read notes by his father, Ben, too began to play the organ. He also played the harmonica and had written poems to sing with tunes since he was eight years old. He loved to sing while working in the fields on the farm.

The McKinney children attended school at Fryeburg, but James McKinney recognized that only the very basics of education could be learned there, and he also wanted the children schooled in music. In 1907, he sent Ben, his brother Tom and his sister Alitha to study at Winnfield High School where Charles J. Gilbert was the music teacher. Ben and Tom played football for Winnfield. In 1907, Gilbert left Winnfield to work at the newly opened Mount Lebanon Academy in Bienville Parish, that school had opened in the old buildings of the Mount Lebanon College after the college merged with the Keatchi Female College and moved to Pineville and became Louisiana College. The McKinney’s followed Gilbert to Mt. Lebanon. Although Ben had been reared in the Bistineau Baptist Church near Heflin, he struggled with his spirituality. That came to an end at Mt. Lebanon where he accepted Christ and joined and was baptized at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in 1909. During this time, he also began teaching “singing schools,” again these schools taught shaped-note music.

In 1910, Ben moved on to Louisiana College, again following Gilbert, where he attended for two years, leaving in 1912 without completing his degree because of financial problems. The entire McKinney family had relocated to Pineville, so after leaving school, B. B. or Mac as he was now usually known worked as a clerk in Barnett’s Store in Pineville and led the music at area revivals. Most of those revivals he worked in conjunction with well-known evangelist the Rev. A. P. “Pink” Durham.  It was Durham who persuaded McKinney to relocate to Fort Worth, Texas in 1915 and enroll at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. B. B. studied at the seminary from 1915 until 1918 but did not earn a degree. His academic transcript included courses in voice, piano, ensembles, harmony, notation, sight-reading, history of music, history of hymns and tunes, evangelism and practical church work. During this time he also continued to lead the music at revival meetings and in 1916 became the director of music at the College Avenue Baptist Church. Later, in 1917, he became the choir director at the new Ross Avenue Baptist Church. He also continued writing hymns, having his first six published in 1916. At the Texas Baptist Convention in 1916, he met Lelia Routh, a student at Baylor University. The two would marry in June 1918. Shortly after his marriage, in July 1918, McKinney enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia but the war ended before he was sent to Europe.

After being discharged from the military, B.B. and Lelia returned to Texas where he had been asked to join the faculty at Southwestern as a teacher of voice. For the next twelve years he would remain on the faculty at the school, teaching theory, composition and voice. During this time, he also earned a Bachelor’s degree in Music from the Siegel-Myers School of Music. While McKinney was teaching, Lelia had completed her degree in music from TCU and taught piano from their home while rearing the couple’s two sons: B. B., Jr., born in 1920 and Eugene Calvin born in 1922. His work at the seminary lead to B. B. being employed as an editor for the Robert H. Coleman publishing company where he edited over twenty hymnals. The McKinneys became members of the Seminary Hill Baptist Church where he served as a deacon prior to his taking on the job of part-time music director at the Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth. That time of service is reflected in the name of the tune for one of McKinney’s better-known hymns Send a Great Revival which is Travis Avenue. By 1931, the effects of the Great Depression had hit the seminary and when the financial problems were discussed, all four members of the music department of the school offered their resignations to cut expenses. McKinney’s offer was accepted as it was felt he had a viable income stream from his writing and editing work. However, there is another suggestion that part of the reason for McKinney’s leaving was a difference in philosophy with the head of the music department. McKinney was a strong advocate of simple church music that encouraged worshippers to “sing from the heart” while the dean preferred a more sophisticated and formal style. Upon leaving the seminary, B. B. was hired as Associate Pastor and Director of Music at Travis Avenue.

During the years in Fort Worth, McKinney began a more than twenty-year association with the Falls Creek Assembly in Oklahoma. This was a summer camp and meeting for Oklahoma Baptists. B. B. led the congregational singing, directed the choirs, wrote hymns and choruses, taught classes in music fundamentals, conducting and composition. At its peak in 1947, more than 11,000 attended the three-week session at the camp. The hymn tune to perhaps McKinney’s best-known work, Wherever He Leads I’ll Go is titled Falls Creek in honor of the campground.

In 1935, he became the first music editor of the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville. Selecting and on occasion writing hymns to go along with the Uniform Sunday School Lesson. Working for the board he produced several smaller hymn books but in 1940 he published the Broadman Hymnal, the first “official” hymnbook for the Southern Baptist Convention. Eventually, that volume sold nine million copies and became the standard in Baptist churches for more than a decade. B. B. also traveled around the convention teaching training schools and leading music at events. In 1941, when it was created, McKinney became the first secretary of the Department of Church of Music of the Southern Baptist Convention. He would hold this position to his death. His work in this task was to direct and implement the church music program throughout the convention.

To Be Continued…

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.