Dr. Melva Wilson Costen, a leading voice in church worship and song, died Friday at the age of 90. Her funeral services will be held Saturday, September 16, at 1 p.m. EST at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.
In a news release from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, a school where Costen had longstanding career and personal connections, her passing on Sep. 8 was announced and her influence around the globe memorialized.
In 1981, Costen became the First African American woman elected chairperson of the Advisory Council of Discipleship and Worship of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA). She later chaired the committee that produced the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal, an effort that grew out of the reunion of the UPCUSA and Presbyterian Church (U.S.) in 1983 and formed today’s Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Costen’s husband, the Rev. Dr. James Costen, was UPCUSA moderator of that General Assembly (GA195) and the previous one (GA194). Melva Costen directed the choir of the reuniting service for the two denominations.
Ruling Elder valerie izumi, manager for General Assembly nominations in the Office of the General Assembly, remembered working with Costen when she was moderator of the General Assembly Nominating Committee and chairperson of the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit.
“There was nothing that Melva thought I couldn’t do, even when I thought I couldn’t do it (like sight reading music),” izumi said. “She gave me every encouragement to deepen my faith through hymnody and prayer, strengthen my curiosity, ask questions and not take life or anything for that matter for granted.
“Melva enjoyed life, loved to laugh and would give me little punches on my upper arm that were love taps and reminders to laugh at her funny stories and at life … And all the while that you were having a good time, you were learning at her feet. Because at the end of the day, Dr. Melva W. Costen was a teacher, my professor and yours.”
The Rev. Sharon Youngs, Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, worked alongside Costen as a member of the committee that compiled the “blue hymnal” from 1985 to 1990. Youngs remembered meeting Costen at the committee’s inaugural meeting.
“There I sat, a budding 28-year-old seminarian and the youngest member of the committee, surrounded by musicians and theologians with multiple degrees and decades of experience — including Melva herself,” Youngs said. “And yet, she welcomed me and every member warmly and valued each of us as integral to the project.
“She shared the richness of her African American church tradition while embracing the diversity of other traditions at the table … Through it all, she demonstrated in word and deed her deep and abiding faith in God. Over 30 years later, I continue to be influenced by the wisdom and witness of Melva Costen.”
According to the Presbyterian Historical Society’s finding aid to the James and Melva Costen papers, Melva Ruby Wilson was born in Due West, South Carolina in 1933, the daughter of John Theodore Wilson and Azzie Lee Wilson. She graduated from Harbison Junior College in 1948, obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Johnson C. Smith University in 1953 and a Master of Arts in Teaching Music degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1964. In 1978, she received a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction with music as a cognate area from Georgia State University in Atlanta.
Melva met James while attending Johnson C. Smith University, where they married in May 1953. When James was called to be pastor of Church of the Master Presbyterian Church in Atlanta in 1965, Melva became the congregation’s director of music. She 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. Additionally, Melva worked alongside James to develop and fundraise for the creation of a theological school for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.
Costen’s activities in Georgia councils of the Presbyterian Church included clerk of the session of Church of the Master Presbyterian Church, vice-moderator of the Presbytery of Georgia and church elder.
The Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, shared her appreciation for Costen’s life and legacy on Facebook, calling her “a premier professor in Reformed Christian worship and African American Presbyterianism. She was a friend and colleague to so many people, serving faithfully with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. She will be deeply missed by those who knew and loved her.”
The Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary news release lists two of Costen’s most influential scholarly publications, “African-American Christian Worship” (Abingdon, 1993) and “In Spirit and in Truth” (Westminster John Knox, 2004), both “considered essential reading for those desiring to understand the evolution and influence of African and African-American centered worship practices.”
Preceding Melva Costen’s passing were husband James and son James Jr. She is survived by son Craig and daughter Cheryl Hibbler (Melvin), as well as grandchildren, great grandchildren, extended family and friends.
According to the Alfonso Dawson Mortuary, this Saturday’s Celebration of Life Services for Dr. Melva W. Costen at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta will be officiated by the Rev. J. Oscar McCloud. A public viewing will be Friday between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., with a wake to follow.
Read more about Dr. Melva W. Costen:
- Celebration of Life Services information from the Alfonso Dawson Mortuary
- Remembrances on Facebook
- Digital history on Pearl, the digital repository of PHS, including interviews
- PHS Living History interviews: Part I | Part II
- The Costen Institute for Worship Leadership at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary
- Remembrance, PHS blog