Donald Hustad called his life “the pilgrimage of a schizophrenic musician,” his way of describing the tension between the worlds of art music and evangelical church music. He made notable accomplishments as a performer, teacher, recording artist, composer, conductor, and hymnal editor. He would use these roles to reconcile the gulf between his two worlds, leading to his most notable contribution, his cohesive writing about evangelical church music.
Donald Hustad died on June 22 at the age of 94, his death marked by dozens of tributes and articles that called him one of the most influential church musicians of the 20th century.
Hustad was born to Peter and Clara Hustad near Echo, Minn., on Oct. 2, 1918. Tragically, his father was killed in a hunting accident a year later. When Clara’s second son, Wesley, was born seven months after the accident, she was faced with difficult options. Clara decided to move the family back to the Bible institute in Boone, Iowa, where she and Peter had first met.
Founded by Rev. J. C. Crawford, Boone Biblical College and its associated institutions began as a Christian service training school but developed into a diverse complex of ministries: elementary school, high school, orphanage, old folks’ home, and radio station. These were supported by a cafeteria, grocery, laundry, print shop, and 160-acre farm. The Hustads joined 300 other residents on what could be called a Christian commune, or (during its period of decline) a Christian poor farm.
Raised in an era before child labor laws, Hustad’s life at the Boone institution included milking cows, brick laying, and typesetting for the Times of Refreshing newsletter. He would later question the institution’s authoritarian leadership style, but came to appreciate the value of his difficult childhood during the Great Depression.
“She did the only thing she could do in pre–Social Security days,” Hustad said of his mother. “She had a good life, as good as she could have, though she was haunted by my father’s death. I had a wonderful time as a child. I enjoyed the hard work. I enjoyed growing up too fast.”
The greatest benefit of his Boone years was his musical education. Hustad quickly took to the piano, absorbing the classical tradition while playing in church services and on radio broadcasts. These experiences were supplanted with weekly lessons in sight singing, music theory, and music history.
After graduating from John Fletcher College in 1940, he moved to Chicago and a succession of organ positions at local churches. Later he would confess to being somewhat adrift and perhaps somewhat rebellious.
“There was a lot of music in my fingers, but for some years there wasn’t much music in my heart,” Hustad said many years later, when he returned to the Boone campus to speak at a children’s chapel.
“I discovered many years ago that you could have a lot of songs in your mouth (and a lot of songs in your fingers if you happen to play instruments), but still have no song in your heart. But there came a day when I had to have the real thing.”
- Listen to Donald Hustad speaking at Boone Biblical Ministries chapel (1976).
He met his wife, Ruth McKeag, at Lorimer Memorial Baptist Church on the southwest side of Chicago; they married in 1942. Ruth would assume a significant role as secretary, typist, and research assistant. The couple moved into a LaGrange, Ill., home and had three children.
Various organ jobs led to Hustad being hired as staff musician for Chicago’s WMBI in 1942. After meeting soloist George Beverly Shea, Hustad became organist for the weekly broadcast of ABC’s Club Time (1945–53). He also played for the Songs in the Night broadcast originating from Western Springs Baptist Church, Western Springs, Ill., where the Hustads held their membership (1950–66).
- Listen to an excerpt of “Jesus Is All the World to Me,” the theme song performed by Hustad in concerts and on his Moody Radio broadcasts.
He was chair of Moody Bible Institute’s music department (1950–1961) and director of the Moody Chorale, transforming the group into a superior ensemble that reflected the a capella choral tradition of St. Olaf and Westminster Choir College. He also began composing many works for choir.
- Listen to an excerpt of “A Prayer Before Singing,” composed and conducted by Don Hustad with the Moody Chorale (1957).
Hope Publishing Company hired him as music editor in 1950. During his 50-year association with the company he would edit 14 hymnals and songbooks, numerous choral arrangements, and collections of service music for piano and organ.
Hustad left Moody to become organist for the Billy Graham crusades (1961–66), and directed the Crusader Men on the Hour of Decision broadcast. His tension between church music and art music continued; he used the time between crusades to complete a doctorate at Northwestern University (1963), where he researched the organ music of Paul Hindemith and the sacred choral music of Ralph Vaughn Williams.
“I was troubled about a gulf that seemed to exist between the music which I heard regularly at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and Opera house, and the ordinary, even commercial expressions which dominated the gospel music programs of WMBI and the platform of a Billy Graham crusade,” he wrote later.
In 1967 he moved to Louisville to serve as professor of church music at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Hustads joined St. Matthews Baptist Church, where Don was ordained in 1976. While in Louisville, Hustad codified his classroom lectures into a book that became a seminal text for evangelical church musicians, Jubilate! Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition (1981). He released a revised edition as Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal (1996), followed by True Worship: Reclaiming the Wonder and Majesty (2000).
The Hustads returned to the Chicago area in 2008. The move was marked by Don’s increasing struggles with arthritis. “I woke up and my hands wouldn’t move,” he said, noting how the ailment curtailed his public performances. He continued to play in private, reading through collections such as Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words.”
“I was frustrated with my hands for quite a while,” he said, complaining about the arthritis that could be expected at age 94. “I eventually had to adjust my expectations—I wouldn’t be able to play like I had before, but I could still play for the joy of making music,” he said. And on good days, when his hands felt loose enough, he would surprise Ruth by playing “I Love You Truly.”
The Hustads were married for 70 years.
He started a hymnology class at the retirement center, where he would play through hymns and explain their background to the other residents (a generation that still understands their importance). He wasn’t quite ready to retire, wasn’t quite ready to stop playing. “Those classes are what’s keeping me alive right now,” he said a few months before death.
Influence on Baptists in the North
In addition to his 40-year association with Southern Baptists, Hustad’s influence was also seen among the looser affiliations of Baptist churches in the north, starting with the personal ties Hustad had developed in Chicago. In the mid-1940s a group of local Baptist pastors had purchased vacation cottages at Lake Nebagamon, Wis., calling the development Maranatha Bay. The Hustads joined George Carlson, Henry Lovig, Mitchell Seidler, Alden Turner, Owen Miller, and others who would become noted for their leadership in independent Baptist churches.
On Sundays, the families would gather at Lake Nebagamon Baptist Church, where summer services might feature preaching from Myron Cedarhom, Herbert Lockyer Jr., or Chester Tulga. The children’s Sunday School class was taught by Aunt Teresa Worman and other Moody professors. Thelma Cedarholm would play piano for congregational singing, Hustad the organ.
Hustad found himself making a distinct shift from the Holiness traditions of his childhood and college years. “At Moody I began using theology in my work in the choir. I was set and bound to be doing theology constantly,” he said recently. “My students were singing words—they weren’t just singing poetry, they were singing theology. I kept preaching it to them all the time. So I started to think for myself and got straightened out.”
Part of this process helped him reconcile his interests in art music and evangelical church music (a tension he also recognized in the Baptist churches he was visiting). Some had described this as a controversy between hymns and gospel songs, or described it as a question of objective vs. subjective service elements. Hustad began to trace this history, showing how “formal evangelical churches” and “revivalist free churches” were both represented within the Baptist tradition by the mid-1800s. Southern Baptists would describe this distinction as the “Charleston” tradition (formal evangelical) and the “Sandy Creek” tradition (revivalism). Such labels were not used in the north, but the categories were accurate.
Baptists in the north would never have the unified organizational structure that Hustad would later see in the Southern Baptist Convention. And the northern churches shared a common distrust of American Baptist denominational hymnals. Hustad worked with George Shorney at Hope Publishing to introduce the Worship and Service Hymnal (1957), which the company planned and marketed as a logical alternative for Baptist churches who were withdrawing from their former denominational ties. It remains in print today, having sold more than two million copies.
The book illustrates Hustad’s developing ideas about evangelical church music. He included familiar hymns but also stretched congregations to consider several forgotten gems of church history. More controversially, he attempted to choose from the best of the gospel song tradition. His idea—that a service should reflect the activities of the early church as taught in the New Testament—resulted in a balance of subjective and objective elements. His later hymnals reflected the same ideals, with Hymns for the Living Church (1974) and The Worshiping Church (1990) enjoying continued use. His hymnals continued to model the balance approach he advocated, including songs from John W. Peterson, Bill and Gloria Gaither, Ralph Carmicheal, Michael W. Smith, and even “praise and worship” songs from the Maranatha catalog.
Influence on Evangelical Church Music
While he was shaping the congregational music of evangelical churches, he also influenced its service music. His series of Hymn Arrangements for choir was published in nine volumes (1954–70). His piano and organ books seemed to appear in every church. And his friends cheerfully noted the apparent incongruities: Hustad pursued a diploma from the American Guild of Organists and was named a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in London . . . at the same time he was releasing organ arrangements based on the music of John W. Peterson, Bill Gaither, and Ralph Carmichael.
When the 1970s “praise and worship” movement spawned countless short choruses, Hustad suggested that some of them were useful. In his mind they were certainly better than the 1950s Youth for Christ choruses (“ditties,” Hustad had called them). But his embrace of new music included cautionary notes, such as a famous Christianity Today article in 1979.
“Let’s Not Just Praise the Lord,” he said. His critique of “praise choruses” related to his fully orbed ideas about a New Testament church service. If churches sang an exclusive diet of such choruses, they likely had truncated ideas about worship. The new music could be used well, he thought, but only in the context of a service based on traditional hymnody showing the breadth of humanity’s response to God. His idea would soon be given a trendy name, blended worship, but the ideas had been coalescing in Hustad’s own life for some time.
During the Chicago years he became active in the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, a group that included liturgical and free church musicians. Hustad also helped organize the National Church Music Fellowship. Both groups sharpened his thinking about the role of worship. These personal relationships helped him address the limitations of his own roots in the revivalist tradition. The salvation of sinners was an important priority, but the New Testament pattern included more than sin, grace, and initial salvation.
In an era when the meaning of art was widely discussed, Hustad departed somewhat from the teachings of Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer, who emphasized the larger aesthetic and contemplative value of beautiful things. Rather than following the currently popular “art needs no justification” mantra, Hustad insisted that church music was a functional art that must also be judged by how well it fulfilled its intended function. He encouraged churches to rigorously study the New Testament pattern for church activities. When a congregation had rightly incorporated all of these activities into current church life, they could properly select music that sustained these Biblical activities.
At the passing of John W. Peterson in 2006, he commented that the gospel song era had ended; evangelical churches had moved on to more contemporary idioms. But again Hustad sounded a cautionary note. There was value in some of the contemporary songs, the substantive ones that contributed to a fuller church life. But they should not be adopted thoughtlessly. Lacking the anchor provided by a formal service, contemporary church services had become entertainment rather than worship.
Hustad spoke at a series of events marking the end of his ministry careers (“swan songs,” he said). He used these opportunities to review his own life and critique current trends. “Evangelicals throughout my lifetime and long before have demonstrated their disregard of the New Testament rubrics which call for full Lord’s Day worship, both in reading and preaching the Word and in celebration of the Lord’s Supper according to our Lord’s own example and ordinance,” he said to a group of Southern Baptist church musicians.
He continued to talk of the tension between art music and evangelical church music, but he offered the hope that comes from a lifetime of experience. He advocated a formal evangelical service as a way to integrate New Testament teachings on worship and testimony. For Hustad, expressions of worship could never be offered without a personal spiritual transformation.
“God doesn’t hear what we sing with our mouths or with what I play at the organ. God is not impressed,” he had explained to the children gathered for a Boone, Iowa, chapel service.
“He’s listening to see if there’s a song in my heart.”
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. In addition to published sources, this tribute includes material from the author’s interviews in 2006, 2010, and 2013.
Postscript: Ruth Hustad passed away on July 18, just a few weeks after her husband. She was 92. The family is planning a memorial service to celebrate both of their lives on July 27 at Western Springs Baptist Church, Western Springs, Ill.