We'll understand it better by and by
Origins. Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) wrote this hymn while he was pastor of the Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, and published it in the first edition of his collection Soul Echoes (1905 | 2nd ed. is shown in Fig. 1). Tindley was not musically literate, so he relied on colleagues such as Francis A. Clark—known and lauded locally as “Professor F.A. Clark”—to notate the songs. Clark arranged several hymns for Tindley from 1905 to 1913.
Analysis. The first stanza relies on the familiar metaphor of the storms and tempestuous seas of life. This imagery can be found in other hymns of his, including “The storm is passing over,” which appeared in the same collection. The second and fourth stanzas name some of these difficulties more directly, including want of food and shelter, temptations, and harm from careless thoughts and deeds. The third stanza explains that this is part of a greater process of being led to the Promised Land, and it is a statement of commitment. Throughout the hymn is the phrase “by and by,” loosely meaning “in a better time/place,” or referring to heaven in general, a popular phrase that appears in other gospel hymns such as “In the sweet by and by” or “I’ll fly away” (“when I die, hallelujah, by and by”). Relevant Scripture references include 1 Corinthians 13:12 (“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known”) and Revelation 21:4 (“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away,” ESV).
In Tindley’s own life, in addition to the universal struggles faced by African Americans during the age of segregation, he lost his son John W. Tindley to World War I. Echoing the sentiments expressed in his hymn “We’ll understand it better by and by,” he wrote another hymn, “I'll be satisfied,” and dedicated it to John.
The martial rhythms (dotted eighth, sixteenth) of this hymn would not have been shuffled or swung in Tindley’s church, as is common practice today, because this hymn predates the prevalence of swinging jazz and the gospel-blues church music later popularized by Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993). The tune is generally known simply as BY AND BY.
Adaptation. One common variant of this hymn is the version arranged by B.B. McKinney (1886-1952) for Songs of Victory (Southern Baptist Convention, 1937 | Fig. 2). McKinney’s version moved Tindley’s stanzas three and four to new positions at one and three, and it added a new middle stanza. Note also the minor adjustments to the rhythm and melody, and the lack of proper credit to Tindley.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
11 July 2018
Ralph H. Jones, Charles Albert Tindley: Prince of Preachers (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982).
Horace Clarence Boyer, “Charles Albert Tindley, progenitor of African American gospel music,” We'll Understand It Better By and By (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1992), pp. 53-78.
“We’ll understand it better by and by” at Hymnary.org:
“When the morning comes” (B.B. McKinney’s version) at Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson & Carlton Young, “We’ll understand it better by and by,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: