When the Roll Is Called up Yonder


(picture of James M. Black)


“For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52)

      INTRO.:  A song which points to the time of the second coming of Christ when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible is “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder” (#522 in Hymns for Worship Revised, #345 in Sacred Selections for the Church).  The text was written and the tune (Roll Call or Trumpet) was composed both by James Milton Black who was born at South Hill in Sullivan County, NY, on Aug. 19, 1856.  After an early music education in voice and organ with John Howard of New York and Daniel Towner of the Moody Bible Institute, he became a singing school teacher and hymn book editor, compiling more than a dozen of his gospel songbooks, beginning with Songs of the Soul in 1894 through Songs of Help in 1917, many of which were published by The Methodist Book Concern of New York City, NY, McCabe Publishing Company of Chicago, IL, and the Hall-Mack Company of Philadelphia, PA.  In addition, he was a Methodist Sunday school teacher who was also involved in the social concerns of his community.  One day he met a girl named Bessie, fourteen years old, poorly clad and the daughter of a drunkard.  At first she readily accepted his invitation to attend Sunday school.  However, when she looked at her tattered clothing, she changed her mind.  But the very next day, a box of nice, new dresses mysteriously appeared on Bessie’s porch, left anonymously by Black of course, and every one of them fitted her just right, so she began going to Sunday school every week.

Yet, one Sunday in 1893 Bessie failed to answer the roll.  Black made a comment to the effect, “Well, I trust when the roll is called up yonder, she’ll be there,” telling the students what a sad thing it would be if, when their names are called from the Lamb’s book of life in judgment, one of them would be absent.  Then he said in his prayer, “O God, when my own name is called up yonder, may I be there to respond!”  Looking around for a suitable song to sing just then, he found nothing.  This lack of a fitting song caused him both sorrow and disappointment, so on the way home he thought about providing a hymn of his own based on the idea.  When he arrived at his house, he decided to do so, and the words of the first stanza came to him in full.  Fifteen minutes later he had finished the other two and soon had the melody also.  The song was first published in the 1894 Songs of the Soul which he edited with Joseph F. Berry.  In its first two years, the book sold more than 400,000 copies.  Also in 1894, Henry Date was publishing a new song book, Pentecostal Hymns, for the Hope Publishing Company of Chicago, IL, with the help of gospel song writer Charles Hutchinson Gabriel.

Date was looking at some hand-copied song manuscripts that had been submitted.  An assistant started to discard them when Gabriel asked to see if there was anything useful in them.  After receiving them, he also was about to lay them aside when one caught his attention because it was written in green ink.  The name of James M. Black was not familiar to the famous composer, but Gabriel decided that “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” had merit and decided to include it, thus securing its popularity.  Shortly after producing the song, Black learned why Bessie was absent that day.  She was very ill, and, in fact died a week later.  In 1904 Black moved to Williamsport, PA, where he was an active member and song leader of the Pine Street Methodist Episcopal Church.  The following year, he was appointed to serve on the Commission for the Methodist Hymnal.  While he was the only gospel song writer to serve on the commission, being credited with almost 1,500 hymns including the tune for the Katherine E. Purvis hymn “Walk Beside Me, O My Savior,” none of his songs were included in the book.  His death occurred at Williamsport Dec. 21, 1938.

Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church for use among churches of Christ,  “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” has appeared in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2, and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 both edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1959 Majestic Hymnal No. 2 and the 1978 Hymns of Praise both edited by Reuel Lemmons; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; the 1965 Great Christian Hymnal No. 2 edited by Tillit S. Teddlie; the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise, all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat; the 2009 Favorite Songs of the Church and the 2010 Songs for Worship and Praise both edited by Robert J. Taylor Jr.; and the 2012 Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs edited by Steve Wolfgang et. al.; in addition to Hymns for Worship and Sacred Selections.

The song focuses our attention on Christ’s return and the general resurrection.

I. In stanza 1 we’re told that when Christ comes again, time will be no more

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,

And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair,

When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,

And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

  1. Time will be no more because the Bible teaches that when Jesus returns, it will be “the end”: 1 Cor. 15:23-24
  2. Just as the dawn of the morning brings a new day, so the Lord’s return will bring a new heaven and a new earth: Rev. 21:1-5
  3. The “other shore” refers to being by the pure river of water of life where the tree of life will be: Rev. 22:1-5

II. In stanza 2 we’re told that when Christ comes again, the dead shall rise

On that bright and glorious morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,

And the glory of His resurrection share;

When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,

And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

  1. While this stanza focuses on the dead in Christ, Jesus said that both the righteous and the wicked dead will be raised at the same time: Jn. 5:28-29 (the original read, “On that bright and cloudless morning,” but most of our books change it to “glorious morning” because the Scriptures teach that Christ will return in the clouds: Acts 1:9-11, Rev.1:7)
  2. In so doing, they will share in Christ’s resurrection: Rom. 6:5 (both spiritual and physical)
  3. Then His chosen ones will gather to their home beyond the skies: 1 Thess. 4:16-17

III. In stanza 3 we’re told that when Christ comes again, we’ll be rewarded for our labor

Let us labor for the Master from the dawn till setting sun,

Let us talk of all His wondrous love and care;

Then when all of life is over, and our work on earth is done,

And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

  1. Our hope of the resurrection should motivate us to labor for the Lord: 1 Cor. 15:58
  2. One aspect of this labor is to talk of all His wondrous love and care in teaching others: 2 Tim. 2:2
  3. Then one day the night will come when our work on earth is done: Jn. 9:4

CONCL.:  The chorus echoes the thought of the roll call on judgment day

When the roll, is called up yonder,

When the roll, is called up yonder,

When the roll, is called up yonder,

When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.

May we always live and labor for the Lord in such a way that we shall be ready to give an answer “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”


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