After a long career as a church music director, college professor, and noted author, Osbeck continues to be a strong advocate for retaining a body of traditional hymns and gospel songs in our church services. He and his wife, Betty, are living their retirement years in Rockford, Mich., just a bit north of Grand Rapids, where they spent their ministry careers.
Readers will be most familiar with Ken Osbeck’s 101 Hymn Stories and 101 More Hymn Stories, two of the 15 titles he wrote for Kregel Publications during his career. His books have sold more than a million copies and have been enormously influential in perpetuating our hymn heritage.
“I have long been impressed with the power of the hymnal,” Osbeck wrote in his introduction to 101 Hymn Stories. “When I taught a college class in hymnology, on numerous occasions, a student was sharing a report, other members of the class sat in hushed silence with tears on their cheeks, reliving the experience that prompted the genesis of a particular hymn.”
But for the Osbecks, their efforts to record hymn histories had a personal motivation. What started as an academic exploration of hymnology ended with an emphasis on a hymn’s devotional value, culminating with his last major work for Kregel, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions.
Osbeck’s personal hymn history begins on a ship deck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After graduating from high school he enlisted in the army, serving in World War II.
“I was on my way to Europe and it was a bad storm and a miserable ship,” Osbeck recalls. “I was lonely—a lonely 18-year-old, up there on the deck of the ship. I started singing:
I trust in God, wherever I may be
Upon the land or on the rolling sea.
“I walked and sang for the next three hours. God became very personal and very meaningful to me.”
Telling this story years later, the hymnologist interrupts with an editorial comment. “It’s not a great hymn, but it speaks—it has done something for me.”
Osbeck had grown up at Second Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, one of several churches planted by the famously liberal Fountain Street Church. Ironically, most of its church plants ended up joining the GARBC when the Northern Baptist Convention collapsed in the early 1930s.
“I was always active in church, ever since I started playing piano,” Osbeck says, recalling his childhood friendship with Don DeVos. “We used to go around singing and playing together when we were young.” Eventually the two would win the talent contest at Gull Lake, a popular Bible conference founded by Second Baptist’s pastor, Isaac Van Westenbrugge.
When the 21-year-old Osbeck returned home from the war, he joined Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, a nondenominational church founded by M. R. DeHaan of Radio Bible Class. Osbeck then enrolled in the University of Michigan, but planning an entirely different career path.
“I didn’t really start in music. I started in a business course, a business major in my first year of college. One day an English teacher got a hold of me and said, ‘Kenneth, isn’t there something where you could work with people?’ She made me an appointment with the music director. God used that to change the whole direction of my life.”
He began studying piano and organ, joined the U of M choir, and was mentored by Maynard Klein, noted professor of choral music. After graduation, Osbeck would return to earn an MA in music. In addition to his academic credentials, he continued to develop his church music skills by attending summer music conferences such as the one sponsored by Homer Rodeheaver at Winona Lake, Ind.
Osbeck began his teaching career at Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music in 1950. The Bible institute had been founded three years earlier by Malcolm Cronk, then pastor of Calvary Church; Osbeck’s friend Don DeVos was already on the faculty. The school was noted for producing church music directors and missionaries, many of whom served in GARBC churches. The school would merge with Grand Rapids Baptist College in 1994, renamed as Cornerstone University.
During the early years of his career, Osbeck worked as music director for Children’s Bible Hour, a radio ministry started by David Otis Fuller and others in 1942. Later he produced music for Radio Bible Class, training the quartets that sang on the daily radio broadcast with M. R. DeHaan and his son, Richard DeHaan. He also produced countless vocal sessions for Diadem Records, a Grand Rapids record label.
“So it’s been an interesting life,” Osbeck says, offering a condensed version of the early years: “Out every night.”
His experiences leading Grand Rapids music groups and teaching college hymnology classes naturally led to connections with the staff at Singspiration Music, which had moved to Grand Rapids from Montrose, Pa., in 1963. Three staff members—John W. Peterson, Norman Johnson, and Harold DeCou—had been active in the music ministry at Bridgeport Baptist Church in Montrose. Jointly owned by Peterson, P. J. Zondervan, and Bernie Zondervan, Singspiration became the largest evangelical print music company in the U.S.
“I worked with John Peterson for a couple of summers. I helped him with Great Hymns of the Faith, a hymnal he put out, and one other book he wanted to put out,” Osbeck says of the hymnal that was developed with the input of several musicians with GARBC roots.
“That’s what first got me interested in the background of the hymns. John wanted me to write a book of stories, background stories, but by the time my manuscript was ready, he had left Singspiration. So Kregel picked it up” (a project that became Singing with Understanding).
By this time Ken had joined the Cornerstone faculty, a move that also allowed Betty to begin teaching English and drama at the college. Years ago he had met Betty while leading the special music for meetings at a church in Lansing, Mich. “The last night of the meetings, here comes Betty, on the arm of her boyfriend. And I was with my girlfriend. (That’s quite a predicament!) And a year or so later we were married. We’ve had a great life together.”
“She was always my right hand man,” Osbeck says as he glances over at Betty. “She had an English background. So we’d sit there with two typewriters, typing away, and many a time we’d come across some of these stories—and we’d both sit there with tears in our eyes, really.”
The devotional interruptions provoked long conversations about the hymns. “We’ve had some unusual experiences like that ourselves where it spoke to us before we were able to give it to somebody else,” Ken says.
During his teaching career he also served various times as music director in seven Grand Rapids churches, the last one being Northland Baptist. His longest tenure was the 10 years he spent at Wealthy Street Baptist Church, at the end of David Otis Fuller’s long pastorate.
“He was an unusual man,” Osbeck says of Fuller. “To see him at times you would think of that mean old, finger pointing man. But he was the most gracious, sweetest person you would ever want to know. A very lovely man. . . . He was always very easy to work with.”
Betty agrees that conventional caricatures of Fuller often miss the mark. “You didn’t know him on the pulpit because he was always ‘if you died tonight,’ and people kind of made fun of him because he was so strong when preaching. But when we got him up to the cottage, swimming with the kids, he’d talk about anything. He loved our children. They were like grandchildren to him.”
Betty says that all four of their adult children are still active in their churches, though the family has spread out. Kathy Sindorf is a communications professor at Cornerstone University; Greg Osbeck, a social worker at a Chicago hospital; Mark Osbeck, a law professor at the University of Michigan; and Lisa Osbeck, a psychologist in Georgia.
“They’ll come home and sing every hymn in the book. They’ll say, ‘Sit down and play, Dad,’ and they’ll go on and on, because they learned the hymns when they were young. I think parents should encourage their children to learn hymns,” Betty says.
“One of the problems with being 87 is you forget some of the details of life,” Ken Osbeck says, wrapping up his brief autobiography. Betty says he still remembers what’s important (“He didn’t forget his anniversary!”) and then turns to her husband with another observation: “It amazes me that you go to the hymn sings and you remember every word of every song.”
Readers may be interested in noting that the Osbecks now attend a church that does not use a hymnal regularly, preferring to project song lyrics on a screen. The trend does not particularly bother Dr. Osbeck, who suggests several benefits to the new technology. He’s more interested in the question of what we should sing—and fully understands that this remains a controversial topic.
How would you advise young people who are starting out in church music, I ask, unwittingly provoking a bit of discomfort.
“That’s a good question. I’m not sure I could fit into the picture today,” Osbeck says.
Betty explains by adding some more direct advice: “Change your career! I’ve heard him say, ‘I’m glad I’m not directing. It’s so hard to please people.’”
Today they attend a nondenominational church in Grand Rapids, one that typifies the blessings and challenges of a multigenerational congregation. The senior citizens want more hymns; the younger generations want something more contemporary.
Osbeck views this dilemma the same way he views the hymns vs. gospel songs controversy earlier in his career.
“Sacred music is not automatically good or bad merely because it is traditional or contemporary,” he wrote in 1979. “Furthermore, a historical study of trends and changes teaches us that any new style has always had an initial secular connotation and hence has met with resistance. . . . To many believers, especially those of the older generation, anything new and unfamiliar is unacceptable. The attitude of many younger people, on the other hand, is that anything traditional is valueless and to be rejected. Neither of these extremes is valid.”
The solution, Osbeck tells us, is to develop some sort of balance. “I would hate to see it go all off for the contemporary and then lose all of this heritage that we have from the past. So much of it is so self-centered—‘I’m so happy, I’m all this, I’m that’—but so little focus on Who God is and worship, coming to Him with praise and adoration. I hate to see it go too far that way.
“Now I know hymnology changes all of the time. There are always new things coming. But oh, we have a great tradition, don’t we, a great heritage of the past. To lose all of that? For the modern generation not to realize some of these great writers, it’s a shame, really.
“I still like to see a service start with ‘All Hail the Power’ or something that brings a real worship sense, instead of ‘Isn’t it grand we’re here now.’”
Dr. Osbeck is clapping and waving his hands above his head as he says, “Isn’t it grand” in a singsong voice, a gentle editorial comment from an 87-year-old who has sat through his share of contemporary services.
Dropping his hands back into his lap, he offers an alternative: “Let’s come into the presence of God with real reverence. I still like to see a service begin that way.”
I conclude the interview with a softball question, maybe motivated by curiosity, maybe wishing to record his answer for posterity: Dr. Osbeck, what is your favorite hymn?
He pauses for quite a while, long enough to make his guests a bit nervous. Perhaps I had miscalculated. The man who has published hundreds of Hymn Stories doesn’t have a favorite?
After some consideration, he surprises us by quoting something else.
“One of my favorite Scripture verses has always been ‘I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with understanding.’ Very important.”
And then he gestures again, just as vigorously as when he was waving his “praise hands” a few minutes earlier.
“Sing from here [your heart], and sing from here [your head]. Put the two together.”
As we leave, the two books are still sitting on his desk, one on top of the other.
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.
Books by Ken Osbeck
Available at RBPstore.org
25 Most Treasured Gospel Hymn Stories
52 Bible Characters Dramatized
Himnos Dramatizados (Spanish)
Singing with Understanding
Beyond the Sunset: 25 Hymn Stories Celebrating the Hope of Heaven
Devotional Warm-Ups for the Church Choir
Hallelujah, What a Savior!: 25 Hymn Stories Celebrating Christ Our Redeemer
Joy to the World
A Junior’s Praise
The Ministry of Music
My Music Workbook
Pocket Guide for the Church Choir Member
A Song for All Seasons