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Column: Della Ruth Johnson's beautiful organ music will be with us forever
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

It was 41 years ago when Della Ruth Johnson became the organist for First Baptist Church of Gainesville. 

At the end of June, she hung up her organ pumps and retired. It was a bittersweet moment in the life of the church.

Della Ruth has played organ or piano for funerals, weddings, birthday parties, Sunday School classes and countless rehearsals for the church choir. She can read music, play by ear and transpose songs into different keys.

She has an assorted repertoire in her vast collection. I’ve heard her play a little bit of everything. For those of you who might think an organist is stuffy, let me inform you that Della Ruth went to see another piano player, Paul McCartney, last time he was on tour. If Sir Paul wanted to do a little duet with Della Ruth, I would offer him $1,000 in cash. Call the church Paul, and they’ll put you in touch with me.

I digress.

About 20 years ago, the church refurbished the Mohler pipe organ and digitized the original console to connect with the many ranks of pipes. Della Ruth has done some of her best playing during that time.

A few years ago, the church built a large banquet hall out back. There was room in the connecting wall for a columbarium with niches for depositing cremated remains. I was an active deacon at the time, and they announced plans for the columbarium. 

I leaned over to the person sitting next to me and asked, “Does Della Ruth even know how to play one?”

I told Della Ruth that story and she has laughed about it many times. Interestingly, she asked about buying a niche for her remains on some distant day in the future. She may not have to play it, but Della Ruth will be with us forever.

A young woman named Hannah Bradley will be taking the helm of the organ console. She was not even born when Della Ruth started playing at First Baptist. She has studied under some of the best and has talent that far exceeds her age.

I like an assortment of Christian music, but believe that beautiful organ music is so very worshipful. When the air blows through the pipes, I feel it is the breath of God.

The classic hymns are the beautiful poetry written in praise of God. Sometimes, I find myself just reading those wonderful words and finding how meaningful they are. Some of them were written well over 100 years ago.

The church of my childhood almost always sang “Just as I Am” as a hymn to invite new members to come and join. We would sometimes sing it through a few times, if the preacher thought someone might be on the verge of coming down. It was also the invitation hymn at every Billy Graham Crusade.

It was many years before I really grew to love those words.

“Just as I am, without one plea

But that thy blood was shed for me

And that thou bidst me, come to thee

Oh, Lamb of God, I come, I come”

These words were written by Charlotte Elliott in 1835.

It just doesn’t get much better than that. Can I get an amen?


Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the weekend Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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