Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

In this issue of “Sightings,” I think it appropriate to pay tribute to the gospel singer, Winifred Larson, who was well-known in many of our churches and whose passing was memorialized at First Evangelical Free Church of Minneapolis on May 16th. The sanctuary was well-filled with a gathering of Free, Covenant, and Salvation Army folk who had come to honor the memory of a woman who sang and spoke in churches across America, Canada, and Sweden during her eighteen trips there. From small congregations in northern Minnesota to Madison Square Garden, she touched the lives of many through song.

Sharing in the Memorial Service were two women who had been her accompanists in the later years of her 65 years of ministry, Frances Blomberg and Evelyn Dennison. They provided a medley of Winifred’s favorite songs on the organ and piano. Most moving to me were the tributes by Kay Olson from the North Park Church (her father Eldredge Larson was Winifred’s brother) and the fine baritone solo by her husband, Don. He sang the song we had often heard her sing “He the Pearly Gates Will Open” in both Swedish and English.

In the 40s, Winifred Larson was often referred to as “the Kate Smith of the Gospel.” On one occasion, however, the Rev. A. J. Thorwall, an unforgettable Free Church evangelist, made the mistake of introducing her in special meetings as “the Mae West of the Gospel.” In the early 40s, when I was about 14-years-old, she came to my home church, First Covenant Church of Kansas City, and was a guest in our home. Winifred was the singer for a two-week series of evangelistic meetings conducted by a Free Church layman, C.B. Hedstrom, who was owner of the Hedstrom Shoe Store on North Clark Street in Andersonville, Chicago. As a successful shoe salesman and lay preacher, he was also author of Pay Day Some Day, which was the story of his life as well as the title of one of his sermons.

At the Memorial Service, the homily was given by an old friend of Winifred’s, Dr Lareau Lindquist, who characterized her not as an entertainer, but a soul-winner. That was her passion. But on at least one occasion, when she sang at Covenant Village, she failed to read her audience. After the concert, my mother invited Winifred, Jane, and me for coffee in her apartment. Reflecting on the evening, Winifred said: “I could see there was one worldly-looking woman under deep conviction as I sang and gave witness tonight.” Interested to know who that might be, mother asked her to describe the woman and where she sat. That would be easy because she stood out in any crowd. “Oh, no,” mother said, “that was the wife of a prominent Baptist minister in Minneapolis.” No doubt, some of us clergy types and spouses may also need some further conversions.

Winifred’s last concert took place at Bethany Home Village a few weeks after she had become a resident. Hearing that she had come from Florida to Bethany, I was eager to visit her. I was saddened to see that a debilitating stroke had made com-munication nearly impossible. Sitting down beside her in the lounge area she showed signs of recognition. I told her stories of meeting her when I was 14, of playing for her one Sunday morning when I was pastor of the North Park Church, and I reminded her of visits with mother in Kansas City and later at Covenant Village. Because Winifred often accompanied herself with an auto harp, I brought mine along. The first song I heard her sing was her early signature song:

I am a stranger here within a foreign land,
My home is far away upon a golden strand.
Ambassador to be in realms beyond the sea,
I’m here on business for my King.

Refrain:

This is the message that I bring,
A message angels feign would sing.
“O be ye reconciled,” thus says my Lord and King.
“O be ye reconciled to me.”

In song, the miracle happened. I sang the melody and to my surprise she joined in with the alto, singing every word. Now people in the lounge began to gather around us asking us to sing more. For her no audience was too small. That was her last concert, one that is a most cherished memory of my friend, Winifred Larson. And now the song goes on.

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg