How Electricity Pumped Up Worship Music
In the realm of music, electrified instruments sparked the rise in new music styles.
Almost 100 years old, the St John’s Lutheran Church organ is listed on the historic organ registry. Photo courtesy of St John’s Lutheran Church
Cued by the rich notes of a pipe organ, the members of St John’s Lutheran Church near Blackwell, Oklahoma, mosey into the sanctuary for the beginning of worship. With its clapboard exterior, years ago wrapped in white vinyl siding, and a steeple with two ringing bells, the rural church rises from the wheat fields like a proverbial rock of ages. Cleft by time, weather, demographic and economic shifts, the history of the place reverberates in the complex notes wrung from an equally complex instrument.
Oh, the stories that organ could tell. Built by the Hinner’s Organ Company, which specialized in making an affordable, durable line of pipe organs for small churches in the Midwest, St John’s instrument is listed on the historic organ registry. Purchased in 1922 for $980 and delivered by train to Kildare, Oklahoma, the organ made the last leg of its journey by horse and wagon. It was assembled piece-by-piece at the church. Today, it continues to ring out many of the same Lutheran hymns it played years ago with one exception: The air drawn into the organ’s 186 pipes and exhaled as music is now powered by electricity.
The almighty current arrived at St John’s in 1939, made possible by the rural electrification program and the organization of Kay Electric Cooperative. Often touted as the saving grace for farm families, electricity changed virtually every facet of rural life—cooking, cleaning, education, farm work, and entertainment. Electricity altered the daily routine of Oklahoma farm families forever and country churches, the heart of rural life, felt the drum of change.
Lights, heat and air conditioning made worship at country churches more comfortable, making possible evening worship and other programs. Electricity led to other innovations—microphones and sound systems allowed members to hear their pastor more clearly and for some congregations, vastly elevated the theatrics. Videos, podcasts, Facebook, even the live streaming that permits small congregations to enjoy worship without a minister physically present—such advancements make it possible for rural churches to share their message across a broader audience, all brought to you, thanks to electricity.
In the realm of music, electrified instruments sparked the rise in new music styles. The electric guitar is largely credited for gifting the world with the devilish hip gyrations of rock-n-roll. Eventually this spilled over into sanctuaries across the country, glorifying God through the synthesized sounds of the rocking praise band.
While you aren’t likely to hear a ripping guitar riff at St John’s, electricity played a significant role in its weekly worship music by eliminating the tiresome task of pumping air into the pipe organ by hand. Cheryl Klein, church organist and lifelong member of St John’s, says her father was one of several young men who served time pumping the infamous organ hand bellows.
“Young boys, when they’d completed their confirmation, were required to serve as pumpers for the organ,” Klein recalls.
When asked if the hand bellows required extra physical dexterity or strength, church member Charles Boesch simply chuckled.
“Well, I’d imagine you had to be pretty active to do it,” he says.
Boesch, whose grandfather founded St John’s in 1901, recalls that after electricity arrived, church members placed a motorized fan inside a squirrel cage and located it in the basement, directly below the organ.
“That fan blew air into the organ pipes and made the music,” he explains.
A testament to its early years, the organ still has the hand pump. St John’s Pastor Mark Mozeik likes to remind his parishioners they won’t be without music in a power outage.
“I tell them as long as we can pump, we’ll have music—and I always threaten to select long hymns on those days,” he adds, laughing.
Nearly five hundred years ago, Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran faith and widely recognized as the father of Protestantism, translated the Bible into German, making it readable by the common man. At the same time he brought congregational singing to the common people and made music a mainstay of the Lutheran faith. Today, Lutherans are known as “the singing church,” Mozeik points out.
With Luther’s populist leanings, it makes sense he might approve of a movement that brought rural living up to par with that of urban dwellers. Rural electricity, made possible by member-owned electric cooperatives, made it easier for rural people to work, learn, and worship. That’s a story worth singing about.