The Chattahoochee Convention, August 1, 1880: Memorial for Benjamin Franklin White

Tintype of Benjamin Franklin White and Thurza Melvina Golightly White, 1870s. Photograph courtesy of the grandchildren of George Pullen Jackson.

Tintype of Benjamin Franklin White and Thurza Melvina Golightly White, 1870s. Photograph courtesy of the grandchildren of George Pullen Jackson.

Benjamin Franklin White, co-compiler of The Sacred Harp, prolific composer, and the person largely responsible for building the traditions that continue to define Sacred Harp singing, died on December 5, 1879. The following year, the Chattahoochee Musical Convention, at that time a leading Sacred Harp singing institution, held a special memorial session in his honor. Cornelius W. Parker, John Palmer Reese (president of the Chattahoochee Convention), and James Martin Hamrick (the convention secretary), delivered an address remarkable for its florid language and depth of feeling.1

Hamrick transcribed the committee’s “report on memoirs” in the Chattahoochee Convention’s record book, a copy of which is available at the Sacred Harp Museum. The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852–2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook, published by the museum, includes this and many other excerpts from the convention’s record book.2 The report appears below unmodified, but with annotations providing additional context.

—Jesse P. Karlsberg

Report on Memoirs.

Your committee on deceased members, after some effort to obtain information in reference to the departed, most respectfully submit the following report:

Maj. B. F. White, although not strictly a member of this convention,3 was virtually connected with all societies adopting the Sacred Harp as a text book—a book of which he was the honored and worthy author. We, therefore, deem it fitting that this body hold a memorial session in honor of this veteran singer, poet, and author, whose memory we fondly cherish and who is so eminently entitled to our highest respect and esteem, and for whose labors for the cause of music we desire to express our heart-felt appreciation. The work needs no encomium. Time will not allow an extended panegyric discourse, but we feel that a short eulogium should be encouched in this report. We can not furnish as extensive biography as we wish, neither is it necessary, as all are more or less familiar with his history.

He was born in South Carolina about 1793 and died in Atlanta in December 1879, being about 86 years old at his demise.4 Maj. White being naturally genial and companionable, as well as emotional, it is not marvelous that he should in early life become enamored with social music. After over twenty years deep interest in the science of music, he entered the field as a teacher and for twenty years, in the prime of his life, went about doing good,5 teaching not only the harmony of music but the harmony of peace and good will among men; and although many still live to call him blessed, and in whose memories are still the enchanting strains of vocal music discoursed in his schools and social gatherings, as well as in assembly of worshipers, perhaps a large number have long since passed away, and many of whom we verily believe are today sounding aloud enrapturing anthems in company with angel choirs and singing the songs of Moses and the Lamb. After teaching twenty years, his soul became so bounding with music that he could not rest till he had the satisfaction of seeing his own productions and the many rich collections from his co-laborers in one grand compilation—the Sacred Harp, 1844. He was highly delighted with the circulation of the work.—He was charmed with each revision and edition, with their appendices, millions of copies of which have been sold throughout the land. He informed the writer of this eulogy that there had been more of his books sold than any other music extant.6 Thousands and tens of thousands7 have enjoyed the music found alone in the Sacred Harp—the fruits of his pen and his musical and practical talent. Maj. White was never more at home than when surrounded with a band of sweet singers, especially when they seemed to have melody in their hearts as well as hosannas on their tongues. He was spirited and never failed to animate all whom he led, whether in church, social, school, or conventional gatherings. All were naturally drawn toward him as he discoursed upon music and its charms, and often he took advantage of these seasons of emotional enjoyment to impress the audience with the sacredness of solemn words falling from the lips of each songster, and not infrequently shouts of praises have been heard to fill the air as swelling songs of Zion made the welkin ring. The tuning fork and pen were his implements. The tuning fork has long since passed from his hand. His pen no longer plies over lines and spaces. His voice, enfeebled and shattered by use and age, is hushed—ah yes, hushed. His tongue no longer rolls out sweet chords of soul-stirring music, so harmonious to the ear, but is still in death. No more do we see the pleasant face of the venerable old man as when he stood in our centers at conventions. No longer do we hear his words of counsel. But his works follow him; his memory will still be perpetuated, and whether or not the shaped notes continue or give place to the seven syllables or any other form, Maj. White will never be forgotten for ages to come. His admonitions found on the introductory note in the Sacred Harp will be read and the sentiment imbibed by many yet unborn.

Brethren, let us endeavor to imitate every good example exemplified in this dignified and venerable character and carefully shun whatever may have sullied in the least his enviable name. Let the mantle of charity cover his faults, if any he had, and let us hope that his end was peace and that he is to-day sweetly singing in the house of God—“The house not made with hands, eternally in the heavens.”8

RESOLVED 1, That we, as a convention, adopt the above report and give hearty expression of our condolence with the family and friends of our beloved brother White and will ever cherish his memory.

RESOLVED 2, Furthermore, that as many visitors and admirers and friends of the departed are present, all be invited to take part in expressing our sympathy and commemoration, and that the whole audience give expression by a rising vote.

RESOLVED 3, That a copy of this paper and resolutions be furnished the family of the deceased and also to the CARROLL COUNTY TIMES and the Newnan Herald and that these papers be requested to publish the same.

All of which is most respectfully submitted.

C. W. Parker,
J. P. Reese,
J. M. Hamrick, Com.

  1.  Rev. Dr. Cornelius W. Parker (1829–1909) graduated from Emory College and—after a brief stint in the daguerreotype business—received his license to preach in 1849. He married Tabitha Terry that year. Parker attended medical college shortly after marrying and began practicing medicine in 1851. He remained active in medicine and ministry for decades. John Palmer Reese (1828–1900) was a mason, a tax collector, and a farmer. Active as a singing school teacher for three decades, Reese was also a prolific composer, contributing songs to the third and fourth editions of The Sacred Harp as well as to The Vocal Triad and The New Sacred Harp. Reese Married Elizabeth Mosely. Under the pen names “Rubin” and “Ripples” he was a regular contributor to the Newnan Herald and Advertiser and the Barnesville Gazette. James Martin Hamrick (1838–1907) was a farmer and tax collector. He was married four times and thrice widowed. During the Civil War his hand was shot and he nearly died of gangrene. In a 1902 autobiography, Hamrick wrote

    For the past 40 years I have been a lover of sacred music and have traveled hundreds of miles to attend our conventions, and at my present age, it fills my soul with love to sing God’s praises; and if a man were to pass my house with a sacred harp under his arm, he can return, eat my ham and sweetened coffee, and slumber on my best bed. Last year I attended 20 conventions and annual singings, … [a]nd after my time, I hope my musical friends will hold a memorial singing in memory of me.

    On these singers’ biographies, see “Will Celebrate Golden Wedding,” Atlanta Constitution, July 9, 1899; David Warren Steel, The Makers of the Sacred Harp (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 151; James Martin Hamrick, A Sketch of the Life of James Martin Hamrick (Carrollton, GA: Times Job Department, 1902), Thanks to Robert L. Vaughn, David Warren Steel, and Bentley Fallis for their help identifying Parker and Hamrick. []

  2.  Kiri Miller, ed., The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852–2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook (Carrollton, GA: Sacred Harp Museum, 2002), 163–165. []
  3.  White was most closely associated with a sister organization, the Southern Musical Convention, which he founded in 1845. []
  4.  White was born near Cross Keys, South Carolina, on September 20, 1800 and died in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 5, 1879. See Steel, The Makers of the Sacred Harp, 164. []
  5.  This language recalls Acts 10:38, which describes Jesus, “who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed with the devil for God was with Him.” White paraphrased this verse in his 1850 “Anthem on the Savior,” noting of Jesus that “He was going about doing good; And teaching people righteousness” (p. 355 in The Sacred Harp). []
  6.  Though signed by three committee members, David Warren Steel believes Reese is likely the “writer” mentioned here. See Steel, Makers, 165. Though The Sacred Harp was widely popular across a large swath of the South in the second half of the nineteenth century “millions of copies” may be something of an exaggeration. []
  7.  This language recalls another line from anthem in The Sacred Harp, the “Thousands and thousands, and ten times thousands” who “Stood before the Lamb” in Jacob French’s “Heavenly Vision” (p. 250), paraphrasing Revelation 5:11. []
  8.  The memorial here quotes form 2 Corinthians 5:1, which reads “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” []

About Jesse P. Karlsberg

Jesse P. Karlsberg is the vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. He edits the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Born in Boston, he lives in Atlanta and is senior digital scholarship strategist at Emory University.
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