By Mike Steely
What are you doing Easter Morning? Have you ever been to a Sunrise Service?
Bet you don’t know the origin of those events.
As early as 1732 the Moravian Church held Easter Morning Prayer services in Saxony. Following the prayers the young men of the church went to the church cemetery to sing hymns and watch the sun rise, a symbol of Jesus’s resurrection. The service spread throughout the Moravian Church and to many nations.
Modern Sunrise Services in our nation became extremely popular in the early 20th century when an East Tennessean began promoting such events.
Before there was Billy Graham, there was a very popular Evangelist, Billy Sunday. Until his death in 1935 his music director was Homer Rodeheaver. Rodeheaver was as much of a showman as was Rev. Sunday and wrote and performed spirited Gospel songs during Sunday’s many revivals around the nation.
Although Rodeheaver was born in Ohio he was raised in Jellico, Tennessee and worked during his youth with his father at the family lumber mill. He learned Appalachian ballads and Black spirituals and learned to play cornet and then trombone while going to Ohio Wesleyan College.
Rodeheaver joined the Billy Sunday Crusades in 1910 and boosted the preacher’s services with joyful music that endeared him to the various audiences. During the peak of Sunday’s popularity his music director led the nation’s largest choruses which at one time had hundreds of singers.
The church musician signed with Victor Talking Machines and later recorded for eighteen different recording companies that included his renditions of “The Unclouded Day” and “The Great Judgement Morning.”
He got into music publishing and did very well. Many of the songs now in the hymnals of various denominations were written or published by him. His publication “Gospel Songs” became very popular and the book was ordered and used in many churches. Before his death in 1955 Rodeheaver founded the Rainbow Ranch for orphan boys in Florida and the Rodeheaver School of Music. An auditorium at Bob Jones University is named for him. He traveled on mission trips and promoted Sunrise Services around the world, especially in the United States.
This year the nation’s huge Sunrise Service is scheduled for 6:30 a.m. at the Lincoln Memorial on March 27th. The Washington tradition is in its 38th year and will be led by Rev. Amos Dodge. The national event attracts thousands of people and is a tradition in our nation’s seat of government.
Locally many churches and organizations in and around Knox County will hold Sunrise Services and even breakfasts on Easter Sunday, an old tradition popularized by the renowned East Tennessee musician.