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Longtime music prof Hugh McElrath dies

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Hugh T. McElrath, longtime music professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, died May 8 at his winter home in Penney Farms, Fla.

McElrath, 86, retired from Southern in 1992 as the V.V. Cooke Professor of Church Music, having served at the seminary since 1948 when he began as a voice instructor. After retiring, McElrath continued teaching hymnology classes through 1998.

A funeral service for McElrath was held in Southern’s Alumni Memorial Chapel in Louisville, Ky., on May 14. Various family members, friends and former colleagues spoke warmly of McElrath, celebrating his ministry as a gift to the church and his life as one well-lived.

SBTS President R. Albert Mohler Jr. recalled McElrath’s crucial and enduring contribution to the seminary: its music school.

“Dr. McElrath was in the choir that dedicated this chapel in the very year he was elected to the faculty,” Mohler said. “There is no school of church music at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary without the history of Hugh Thomas McElrath. He and his dear wife Ruth were among the first students enrolled in this school.

“He was on its very first faculty, elected in 1949 before the trustees ever even knew what to call a professor of church music. The title would have to wait, but he did not wait to teach and from 1949 through many successive decades he invested in countless lives on this campus.”

Wayne Ward, who served alongside McElrath on Southern’s faculty for many years, pointed out that McElrath was as renowned for his speaking and preaching as for his music during his early years on the faculty. One of McElrath’s greatest gifts was the uncommon strength and unforgettable tone of his voice, Ward said.

“We had no electronic amplification when we met in the old chapel,” Ward recounted. “Without amplification he would stand up and speak or lead and his voice would bounce off the walls and rattle the windows. He had a magnificent voice and he used it to carry this Gospel all around the planet. That voice is still going and ringing.”

In 1992, McElrath became the first music professor to receive Southern’s Findley B. and Louvenia Edge Award for Teaching Excellence, the seminary’s highest teaching honor.

From 1987-1989, McElrath served as president of the Southern Baptist Church Music Conference. He was a member of the theology/doctrine committee for the 1991 Baptist Hymnal and also served as editor of the handbook accompanying the hymnal.

McElrath served as minister of music at three Louisville churches, including 22 years at Beechwood Baptist Church and also at Victory Memorial Baptist Church and Hazelwood Baptist Church.

McElrath co-authored the music textbook “Singing With Understanding” with Harry Eskew, longtime music professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. McElrath also wrote several hymns, including “We Praise You With Our Minds, O Lord.”

McElrath earned bachelor of sacred music and master of sacred music degrees from Southern in 1947 and 1948, respectively. In 1967, he completed a Ph.D. in musicology from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.

Born in Murray, Ky., McElrath was the eldest of four children. In 1943, he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Murray State University with an English major and minors in history, French, education and music.

A work celebrating McElrath’s life and contributions to church music, “Minds and Hearts in Praise of God: Hymns and Essays in Church Music in Honor of Hugh T. McElrath,” was published in December 2006.

He is survived by his wife and three children, Hugh Donald McElrath, Douglas McElrath and Margaret Partridge.
Garrett E. Wishall is a writer for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Garrett E. Wishall