In 1842, Felix Mendelssohn wrote his wedding march. It’s the one many people use as the recessional at weddings. Felix died in 1847.
Della Ruth Johnson has been playing the organ at First Baptist Church for 35 years. In addition to two church services every Sunday, she has played at countless weddings and funerals over the years. She probably has played Mendelssohn’s march more than he did.
Think of it this way: That amounts to 1,820 Sundays minus about 70 for taking off a couple of Sundays each year. So 1,750 Sundays with at least two services means she has played a lot of hymns and other church music.
I have heard it said the pipe organ is like the breath of God. I like that analogy.
I know a lot of churches have ditched the organ music and that’s fine. But there is something majestic and worshipful about well-played organ music that I absolutely love.
About 14 years ago, the Moller organ at First Baptist had seen better days. During a major renovation of the sanctuary, the organ was rebuilt and, quite frankly, Della Ruth has never sounded better.
When we are singing strongly about a risen Savior on Easter, the organ is strong and mighty. On Christmas Eve, when we are singing about a baby in a manger, it is soft and reflective.
I have heard Della Ruth play the great old hymns and gospel songs while waiting for a funeral to begin. It gives one a meaningful background for reflecting on the life of the departed.
I would shudder to think how many times she has played “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art” or something more funereal, such as “Nearer My God to Thee.” I love that word funereal and like to dust it off and use it every now and then.
Della Ruth also knows her way around a piano and has played for Sunday school classes and church socials for years. She was the official accompanist of the Berean Sunday school class, until its members graduated to eternity.
Songs that tell of our faith are special. Many people can remember the song being played when they felt that gentle tug at their heart and decided to become a follower of the Lord. Della Ruth Johnson has provided that soundtrack for multiple generations of First Baptist members. It’s a sound they might never forget.
In 35 years, Della Ruth has outlasted several preachers and ministers of music. That’s a long time at any job.
First Baptist Church has a history of long-serving organists. Mary Logan Brown was the organist from 1927 to 1971. That’s a pretty good record.
Some of you probably picture a church organist as someone very formal and stuffy. That’s not Della Ruth. On her own time, she might be listening to The Beatles. She’s a big Paul McCartney fan and was right there when Paul had his last concert in Atlanta. I’ve never seen her dance, but she might have well been grooving to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or swaying to “Hey, Jude.”
Paul is coming back to Atlanta in a couple of weeks. If he wants to sit in with Della Ruth, I can make that happen.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.