Born July 2, 1897, on a farm near Somerville, William H. Brewster was the oldest of sharecroppers William and Callie Polk Brewster’s eight children. In 1915 Brewster entered Memphis’s Howe Collegiate Institute and studied under the Reverends T. O. Fuller and Sutton Griggs. He married the former Julianna Nelson in November 1918, and they became the parents of Juanita and William Herbert T. Brewster. Later, Brewster graduated from Roger Williams University (1922) in Nashville.
The Reverend Brewster moved to Memphis to become dean of a proposed African American seminary. However, due to antiblack protestations and white fear that the school would attract northern blacks, Memphis Mayor Edward Hull “Boss” Crump crushed the school’s establishment. Refusing to give in to the racially motivated whims of the segregationists, though, Brewster founded and directed the Brewster Theological Clinic. Ultimately, he established branches in twenty-five cities throughout the United States. The Reverend Brewster served as pastor at several churches in Tennessee and Arkansas, including East Trigg Baptist Church in Memphis, where he pastored for more than fifty years. He was a member of the Education Board of the National Baptist Convention and dean of the Shelby County General Baptist Association. Brewster also edited the Beacon of Light in Forest City, the only newspaper between Memphis and Little Rock, Arkansas, specifically aimed at an African American readership. He extended the reach of his spiritual leadership by broadcasting on WDIA, the nation’s first radio station with an all-black format. Notwithstanding his accomplishments as a minister, educator, and editor, he is best known as a gospel music composer. Through his creative renaissance spirit, Brewster weaved biblical stories into poetic verse that transformed the gospel song repertoire. Today, many of the Brewster compositions are gospel standards.
Brewster was a prolific composer during gospel music’s golden era (1945-60), publishing over two hundred songs. Influenced by William Christopher Handy and in proximity to the Church of God In Christ, which was a storehouse of gospel rhythms, Brewster composed his first gospel song, “I’m Leaning and Depending on the Lord,” in 1939. Two of his compositions, “Move On Up A Little Higher” (1941) and “Surely, God Is Able” (1947), were the first black gospel recordings to sell over a million copies. “Peace Be Still” and “Let Us Go Back to the Old Landmark” (1949) are also among his popular compositions. Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Queen C. Anderson, and his group, the Brewster Ensemble, popularized many of his gospel compositions. Additionally, he wrote songs for white artists including the Statesmen Brothers Quartet (“I’m Climbing Higher and Higher”) and the Happy Goodman Brothers.
Even though trailblazing gospel composers the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, Lucie E. Campbell, and Thomas A. Dorsey promoted the language of the common people in their compositions, Brewster endeavored to elevate the ordinary language of African American Christians and to instruct them in biblical teachings. Brewster wrote compositions for his church services, his gospel-drama pageants, his radio ministry, his performing groups, and the period’s top names in gospel music. Long before the concept of African American pride was nationally recognized, Brewster’s gospel compositions and ecclesiastical discourses epitomized racial self-respect. He incorporated leitmotifs of ethnic advancement and civil strife into his compositions without inculcating them with indoctrination or social gospel proselytization.
A leader in the Memphis Civil Rights movement, the Reverend Brewster wrote pamphlets and books urging “a greater freedom” for African Americans. He penned pageant plays in tribute to the black freedom struggle. Exasperated by the “Uncle Tom” gestures of his fellow laborers, his motto became “Out of the Amen Corner onto the Street Corner.” Brewster acknowledged that the metaphors of progress involved moving up higher in this life as well as the next.
Brewster also composed more than fifteen gospel music dramas. According to William H. Wiggins Jr., Brewster more than any other gospel composer-playwright used the individually written gospel song instead of the group-composed spiritual for the plot, symbols, and action of a church drama. His From Auction Block to Glory (1941) was the first nationally staged African American religious drama that featured gospel songs such as “Move On Up A Little Higher,” specifically written to be vocalized musically during that production. Performed before the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention, From Auction Block to Glory marked a significant change in the religious culture of African Americans. Because of its success and at the behest of the convention’s officers, the Reverend Brewster became head of its drama department. In December 1982 the Smithsonian Institute honored Brewster for his music when it presented his musical drama Sowing in Tears, Reaping In Joy during a seminar devoted to his hymnology. A year later French television produced a program about his work.
William H. Brewster, noted gospel composer, educator, editor, minister, and civil rights activist, died in Memphis on October 15, 1987. His remains were later interred in New Park Cemetery.
Horace C. Boyer, How Sweet The Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (1995); Bernice J. Reagon, ed., We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (1992)