The History Of A Famous Church Hymn

  • Thursday, March 17, 2011
  • John Shearer

“True Grit,” the remade movie that has played recently in theaters and was in the running for Best Picture at last month’s Oscars, appears to have little to do with Chattanooga with its Old West scenes.

The sound of the movie, however, has a distinctly more local flavor. Played several times throughout the movie is a haunting instrumental rendition of a popular old church hymn that is likely to sound familiar to many people.

Movie viewers who cannot remember exactly which song it is know at the end, when a nasally vocal version of the song - “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” – is sung by Iris Dement as the credits roll.

The late 19th century tune is still familiar and regularly sung in churches and by gospel groups today, but its history is not as familiar. As a result, many might be surprised to learn that the catchy melody was written by Professor Anthony Johnson Showalter, who had music and business interests in both Dalton and Chattanooga.

In fact, he was living at the still-standing Park Hotel in downtown Chattanooga when he was found dead of natural causes in 1924.

Mr. Showalter was born in 1858 in Virginia. Some references on the Internet say he was born in the town of Cherry Grove -- of which there are two in Virginia and one in West Virginia (which in 1858 was part of Virginia).

However, a story in the Chattanooga Times at the time of his death said he was born in another area, Buckingham County in Central Virginia.

Regardless of the “where,” the “what” regarding his early years is very clear – he was destined for a future in music. At a young age, he became involved with the shape-note singing that had its beginning at that time in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

The style received its name because the musical notes in certain songbooks that came out were shaped in triangles and squares as well as the normal circles to help the singers in groups learn the desired sound more easily.

Mr. Showalter had been involved with the Ruebush-Kieffer School of Music of the Shenandoah Valley and became a music teacher at the age of 14. He later studied in New York and Europe.

He apparently followed the Ruebush-Kieffer pattern of publishing songbooks and developing a music teaching school, as he started the Southern Normal Music Institute in Dalton in 1880 and a music book publishing company, the A.J. Showalter Co., in 1884, one source said.

He published songbooks and teaching books, as well as a periodical journal. The firm also published other books, including some after his death.

One online search revealed that his company printed a memoir of a former slave in 1929, five years after Mr. Showalter’s death. The firm was evidently later taken over by the Lee printing company.

How Mr. Showalter ended up in Dalton cannot be found in the standard biographical sources on him, but he likely became financially quite successful. Besides Dalton, he also had offices in Chattanooga and Texarkana, Ark.

But he apparently knew how to place notes on a sheet of music as skillfully as he could books into the hands of likely customers.

In 1887, after he learned that two of his friends had lost their wives, he was inspired to write the melody and refrain to a song stating that people can lean on God in troubled times for peace, comfort and even joy.

He asked Elisha Hoffman, a minister and songwriter from Ohio, to write the lyrics to all but the refrain, which Mr. Showalter had already penned, and the song became the classic church and gospel hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Professor Showalter lost his first wife, Callie Waiser of Texas, at some point after their marriage in 1881, so perhaps the song gave him comfort as well, even if it was later.

He remarried in 1912 and his second wife, Mrs. Eleanor Dorsey of Washington, D.C., was in Denver for her health at the time of Mr. Showalter’s death in 1924.

How long Mr. Showalter had been in Chattanooga before his death would likely require more detailed research, but the city directory of 1924 said his publishing company had offices in room 23 of the Chamberlain Building.

The building, which was built in 1902 and torn down in 1954, was located across Chestnut Street from the Read House, and a parking garage is at the site today. The other two officials in the Showalter firm – vice president T.S. Shope and treasurer T.S. McCamey – were residents of Dalton, the city directory said.

Mr. Showalter – who was also a director of the Interstate Life and Accident Insurance Co. – also resided for a period in the Park Hotel. The building, located just down the hill on Seventh Street from the County Courthouse and now featuring a metallic covering, was owned and operated at the time by a group that included building architect R.H. Hunt as president and automobile salesman Emmett Newton as vice president and treasurer.

Mr. Newton would later be known for Chevrolets, but sold Buicks and Cadillacs at the time.

The secretary and manager of the Park Hotel, which also featured the Park Hotel Café, was J. Frank Davis.

On the morning of Sept. 16, 1924, Mr. Showalter, who by then was 66 years old, did not come down to the lobby as was his custom. The hotel staff tried to call him on the phone repeatedly, but after no answer, Mr. Davis went up to his room.

He looked through the transom above the door and saw Mr. Showalter lying face down on his bed in his pajamas. A forced entry was made, and authorities determined that he had died suddenly of either a heart attack or some kind of stomach problem.

His wife was immediately notified, as was his son in Atlanta, and the body was taken to Wann’s funeral home to be prepared for burial.

One online source said the elder at First Presbyterian Church in Dalton was buried in the North Georgia city’s West Hill Cemetery.

As the years passed, Mr. Showalter’s name became less familiar, other than to those involved in gospel or shape-note singing.

The song, on the other hand, has continued to stay current to a larger audience, from churches to Hollywood.

The Chattanooga Times story on his death hinted of the song’s likely lasting appeal in the last paragraph, when it said that the song had been “published in more than 1,000 music books and translated into practically every language of the world where the Christian religion is known.”

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