For three decades, Allen R. Brown led the music ministry of Virginia Baptists. He easily was the most recognized voice and face at a Virginia Baptist state meeting and clearly among the most respected and beloved members of the Mission Board staff. For Virgnia Baptists, he was “the music man.”
At the tender age of 9, he discovered that a church was a place for offering musical gifts. His parents insisted that he sing a solo at Valley Hill Baptist Church, their country church outside Hendersonville, N.C. Unwittingly, the boy had discovered his life's destiny.
It was at the country church that he was baptized outdoors. When he was in the seventh grade, he began to join his friends at the First Baptist Church in the town; but he never forgot the people and the place in the countryside.
It was at Valley Hill that his father, a grocer by trade, liked to “lead the singing.” He was familiar with the old shape-note singing; and when the family began attending the town church, the father no longer was in the choir. Allen, now a college student, realized that his father could not read music. The son went to the choir director and asked for copies of the anthems. The son took them back to the campus and “worked them out” as shaped notes. Now the father could enjoy singing in a choir; and in time, the father figured out the regular notes. “The last time I saw him singing in the church,” remembers the son, “he was singing in a presentation of The Messiah.”
The father was the first of the son's thousands of music students. In a sense, Allen Brown had one of the largest “singing schools” in the nation as he led music conferences, directed choral groups, and assisted the some half-million Virginia Baptists to lift their voices and sing.
Allen Brown began his formal studies at Mars Hill College and transferred to “the old” Wake Forest where he became student director of the college choir and sang in the college quartet. He began his college career by majoring in engineering and soon switched to religious education with a minor in music. At the time, full-time minister of music positions were few and far between.
He was working in a local restaurant in the college town when a friend came into the restaurant with two young ladies. The friend introduced one of them as his sister, Charlotte. Although the years have accumulated, Brown confesses: “I still remember that moment and how pretty she was with a lot of life about her.” They discovered things in common. She was from Chimney Rock and liked to square dance. She sang in the college choir. Like everything else to come in his life, music was the muse which fetched him a bride.
After graduation, Brown went to a church in Asheville; and Charlotte and Allen were married. Soon, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. It was while in the Army that a son, Allen Jr., was born. When he was released from the service, he entered Southern Seminary, graduating in 1957. He and another graduate, Bob Smiddy, joined the staff at Trinity Baptist Church in Norfolk where they worked with the pastor, Walker Stockburger, whom Brown calls “the greatest man in the world.” Brown joined the thin ranks of the professional church musicians, a career area which was just beginning to grow.
In 1955, Virginia Baptists had employed their first full-time music director, Kathryn Bailey, who coordinated the music program from the offices of the Training Union. She planned and conducted music conferences. She continued until she married a Baptist minister, Walter Bradley, in 1961. “Katherine laid a wonderful foundation,” says Brown, “and we developed upon it and expanded the program.”
Lucius Polhill and Walton Connelly, the Virginia Baptist Board leaders, encouraged Brown to leave Trinity and join the staff. They also suggested that he should expect to remain at least five years in order to make a significant contribution. Brown was energized by all the creative programming which was expected.
Handbell choirs were just entering Virginia Baptist life. Brown believes that in the beginning there were only three Baptist handbell choirs in the state. He began offering clinics and staging festivals; and by the close of his tenure, there were 262 handbell choirs.
Brown also founded the Virginia Baptist Male Chorale, one of the first such groups in the Southern Baptist Convention. Their first performance was at the Baptist General Association of Virginia meeting held in November 1963 at Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, with about 20 men in the group. In time, the Chorale performed in different states, in many churches, at the SBC annual meeting held in Norfolk and in three concerts at Ridgecrest. “The Chorale gave the men a good chance for interaction with their peers as well as an opportunity just to come and sing,” reflects Brown.
The summer music weeks at Eagle Eyrie Baptist Conference Center were planned by Allen Brown; and at least for a few days each summer, “the hills were alive with the sound of music.” It was a training ground which encouraged numerous local church musicians.
Since his retirement in 1993, “the music man” has had more time to participate in the choir at his own church, First Baptist of Richmond. At times, he has served as the interim director of the church's choir. He also has had more time to enjoy his family. The Browns are a musical family. Charlotte also sings in the church choir. Their grown sons, Allen Jr. and Kent, participate in the musical life of their churches and the third generation of Browns also are music lovers.
Allen R. Brown, “the music man” for Virginia Baptists for 31 years, will be among those recognized at the annual meeting of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. The program will salute the some 50 years of organized music ministry for Virginia Baptists and will feature a Hymn Festival. The event is set for 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 22, at Second Baptist Church, Richmond. It is free and open to the public.