Lifelong church musician Benjamin Harlan has lived a dynamic musical score for more than 40 years, but as the writer, composer and professor reaches his career’s coda, he has decided to instead write in one last crescendo. An event he's calling The Big Sing will be the fulfillment of a dream and the culmination of a career dedicated to “the joyful noise” of worship.
Harlan serves as the minister of music at University Baptist Church, in Baton Rouge, and he is inviting a few hundred singers to join him Sunday for a hymn festival that will be patterned after a British tradition held at Royal Albert Hall called The Big Sing. It features a choir of a few thousands singers.
The St. Francisville resident has always placed a high priority on congregational signing and the hymnody that is traced from the fourth century to the present era. “I feel that singing these songs that have been done throughout the centuries kind of let’s us hold hands with other pilgrims throughout the centuries of Father Time,” Harlan said.
Harlan is a graduate of Baylor University and has served on the faculty of two Baptist seminaries — New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Theological Seminary. His credits include writer, composer and arranger of sacred and church music. His passion for congregational song can be traced to his first full-time job at First Baptist Church of St. Francisville where he had the opportunity to attend the music weeks at two national assembly centers in Ridgecrest, near Asheville, North Carolina and Glorieta near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
His first time experiencing the power of a massive hymn gathering was about 35 years ago in North Carolina and his first contact with legendary hymnologist William J. Reynolds. “We would fill that auditorium up with 2,000 people who were either playing for a choir or directing a choir and start the first Music Week by singing 'All Hail the Power of Jesus Name,'” Harlan said. “It was such a profound moment; I had to stop and listen; it was so rich.”
Harlan said his next era of influence came when he was the dean of the School of Music at Southwestern Seminary and had Reynolds on his faculty. Surrounded by such great church musicians, they put on several hymn festivals. “It’s hard to describe what it’s like when the church is just wall-to-wall people and everyone in the congregation is singing along with the choir in the loft,” he said.
Those early engagements inspired Harlan to find ways to bring back those experiences to the churches in St. Francisville and Shreveport where he worked. He decided that since he was a pianist and a composer that he would play some things, and he could write things for other people to play. “I can work with my choirs so they know they need to give strong leadership to congregational singing,” he explained.
Harlan’s final “oh, wow moment” came while he was in England. He was on a school-funded study break in London near the famous Royal Albert Hall that seats thousands of people. Churches around Royal Albert Hall hold large singing events throughout the year and then once a year, they gather at the hall for The Big Sing on steroids, Harlan said.
The Royal Albert Hall is on the northern edge of South Kensington, London, and is one of the United Kingdom's most treasured and distinctive buildings. The Hall is a registered charity held in trust for the nation, and is similar to a U.S. nonprofit organization.
The hall was opened by Queen Victoria in 1871 and named in memory of her husband, Prince Albert, who had died six years earlier. It was originally designed to seat 8,000 and has accommodated as many as 12,000. Modern safety restrictions limit the maximum capacity to 5,544 and results in Big Sing events with more than 5,000 participants and audience members.
Harlan has participated in similar hymn festivals in preparation for his own Big Sing. Ten years ago, his hometown of Winnfield had a 50th anniversary for the organist who had also been his piano and organ teacher through junior high and high school. Harlan was given a year to plan something big and he ventured to do version of The Big Sing in Winnfield.
The event required no preparation on the part of the participating churches. He called everyone he knew and asked them to send a few carloads of people for a 3 p.m. Sunday rehearsal. He got a several dozen singers who filled the choir stand and a third of the church. The audience filled the rest of the church.
Harlan has come full circle after 41 years. He is once again living in St. Francisville and The Big Sing will be his last service at University Baptist. “My wife and I are kind of retiring, and we want to chase the grandkids who all live between Texas and North Carolina,” he said. “I asked the pastor if I could do a Big Sing and he said ‘absolutely.’”
Harlan has about 30 churches who have committed to sending a few to a bunch of singers from cities that include Baton Rouge; St. Francisville; Gonzales; Alexandria; and Picayune and Natchez, Mississippi.
“We are hoping to get at least 200 in the choir, and it’s going to be thrilling,” he said. “If you are someone who just loves to be a part of the choir, and you love great hymnody, this is for you.” Hymnody is the act of singing psalms or hymns.
“We going to start off with 'Come, Christians Join to Sing' and, in the mix, we will have songs like 'Shall We Gather at the River' and a children’s song 'I Am So Glad Jesus Loves Me,'” Harlan said. “We are going to finish with a big arrangement of 'A Mighty Fortress is Our God' that was done for a royal event by British composer John Hotchkis.”
Harlan has written a note for each hymn that explains why he chose to include it. “This hymn ("Mighty Fortress") has been sung by pilgrims on their way to exile, by martyrs on their way to death and, in the Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 14, 2001 — three days after 9/11 — you could hear it being sung,” he said.
Harlan is in awe of dynamic hymn arrangements and likens them to the works of one of the greatest movie score composer of all time. “You have to imagine that it’s John Williams meeting the hymnal; they are some of the most stirring things you will ever hear,” he said.
“I want them to know how strong and powerful this event is going to be,” he said. “In a lot of churches, congregational song has been pushed aside and they see congregational singing as something ‘weakly done’ and not with a lot of conviction. This will be an event, for people there, they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Harlan said all are welcome to join the choir and audience of the Big Sing on Sunday. Singers should arrive at University Baptist Church, 5775 Highland Road, Baton Rouge, at 3:30 p.m. for a two-hour rehearsal followed by a provided dinner. The event starts at 6 p.m. Harlan can be reached for information at Harlan5113@att.net.
Harlan has worked with the University Baptist choir that will form the base of the Big Sing chorus. “We are going to do it on a Baton Rouge scale and not a London, England, scale,” he said.
Harlan explained that he feels that singing is one of the hallmarks of Christian worship. “At the end of the day, what’s important more than preaching the word, praying to the Lord, and the congregation singing hymns to the Lord as well,” he said. “We get a lot of clutter in our worship, but when it comes down to the basis, the Word, prayer, and singing together are the most important components of Christian worship.”