Remembering Melva Costen
"Let's continue our worship. You're just going to have to follow the cantor," begins Dr. Melva Costen at the beginning of a seminar on African American worship, leading the group in the Zulu church song Thuma Mina. The group sings "Send me Jesus, send me Lord." Dr. Melva Wilson Costen, Presbyterian intellectual, and key source in the study of African American church music and worship, died September 8 in Atlanta. She was 90 years old.
Melva Ruby Wilson was born in Due West, South Carolina, May 29, 1933, and graduated from Harbison Junior College in Irmo, South Carolina in 1948. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in 1953, a Master of Arts in Teaching Music from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1964, and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from Georgia State University in Atlanta in 1978.
While attending JCSU, Melva met Jim Costen and the two married at the campus chapel on May 24, 1953. The couple moved to Rocky Mount, North Carolina to serve Mount Pisgah Presbyterian Church, and inexorably, to work in the Freedom Movement. Melva recalled in a 2013 interview that in 1962, Jim and his minister colleagues smuggled Martin Luther King Jr. from Raleigh to Rocky Mount in a funeral cortège. "This was where we really could have been killed."
When Jim was called to be pastor of the Church of the Master Presbyterian Church in Atlanta in 1965, Melva served as director of music. Melva joined the faculty of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in 1973 and became the Helmar Nielsen Professor of Music and Worship in 1987, also directing the Center Chorus. She retired in April 2005 and later became Visiting Professor of Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
Her chief written work, African American Christian Worship, was published in 1993, with a second edition following in 2007. It traces the development of new forms of Christian worship, derived from the "common historical taproot" of African life in diaspora and under slavery, from secret worship in "brush arbors" or "hush arbors" out of the sight and earshot of slavers and overseers, through to contemporary gospel rap music.
Melva and Jim were the centers of a vast extended family, "because they adopted everyone," remembers valerie izumi. Melva was the first of izumi's mentors: "She taught me valuable lessons about Presbyterian history, Black Presbyterianism, how to navigate within a white church with a strong sense of heritage and history. Because of the faithful witness and examples of Melva and other Black leaders who did not abandon the church, my formation was further developed and strengthened. And I stayed, too. I am grateful beyond words to have known her, to have been in her presence, for the impact she had on my life and the lives of so many others. Rest in power, rest in peace."
The Costens' family extended to Philadelphia, where Melva served on the Presbyterian Historical Society’s Advisory Council.
PHS Executive Director Nancy J. Taylor reflected on Melva’s legacy: “I first learned about Melva as the person responsible for the beloved 'Blue Hymnal.' In fact, she chaired the committee that produced that 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but that accomplishment was just one of many ways she shared her love of music and her commitment to education and to civil rights with the church and wider community.” Taylor continued, “It was an honor to have her serve on the PHS Advisory Council. Melva and her family supported our African American Leaders and Congregations collecting initiative, and I am glad we were able to process the James and Melva Costen Papers in 2022 as part of the African American Leaders and Congregations Collecting Initiative.”
A celebration of Life Services for Dr. Melva Wilson Costen will be on Saturday, September 16, 2023, 1:00 PM at Central Presbyterian Church, 201 Washington Street SW, Atlanta, GA 30303, Rev. J. Oscar McCloud, Officiating. A public viewing will be on Friday, September 15, 2023, between the hours of 1:00 PM and 5:00 PM with The Ivy Beyond the Wall Ceremony beginning at 5:15 PM. and a Wake to follow.