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Bradbury, William Batchelderlocked

(06 October 1816–07 January 1868)
  • Mel R. Wilhoit

Bradbury, William Batchelder (06 October 1816–07 January 1868), music teacher, composer, and publisher, was born in York County, Maine, the son of David Bradbury and Sophia Chase. When Bradbury was fourteen years old the family moved to Boston, where William began the study of harmony and decided to become a professional musician. He attended the Boston Academy of Music, sang in Lowell Mason’s church choir, and studied organ. In 1836 Bradbury relocated to Maine, where he began teaching private music lessons and singing schools. He married Adra Esther Fessendon in August 1838; they had four daughters and one son.

After four years of financially strenuous musical itineracy, the Bradburys moved to Brooklyn, New York, where William became music director at the First Baptist Church and later at the Baptist Tabernacle. There he introduced singing classes for children that developed into highly successful annual music festivals and resulted in the introduction of music instruction in the city’s public schools. In response to the need for suitable material for his classes, Bradbury began composing his own music. In 1841 he published The Young Choir, later to be revised by Thomas Hastings, a pioneer in church choral singing and psalmody, with whom Bradbury collaborated on four additional collections.

In July 1847 the Bradbury family set sail for Europe with the intention of furthering William’s musical studies. At Leipzig Bradbury pursued work in piano, harmony, and composition; he also met Franz Liszt, heard Robert and Clara Schumann, and resided three doors from Felix Mendelssohn. During his two years abroad, his correspondence concerning matters personal and musical was published in the New York Observer and the New York Evangelist, enhancing his recognition at home.

Upon his return from Europe, Bradbury continued to conduct musical conventions, compose, and edit books. His first book was The Mendelssohn Collection (1849), which reflected a continued move away from the musical aesthetics and practices of the American colonial singing school tradition of William Billings toward a more European-based musical approach. In 1854 Bradbury joined Mason, Hastings, and George F. Root in their Normal Musical Institute, the earliest systematic training for music teachers. With his brother E. G. Bradbury, William also formed a partnership to manufacture pianos that soon received widespread recognition for its excellence.

Bradbury’s most lasting musical contribution resulted from his work with Sunday School hymnody. At a time when there was little difference in the style of religious music provided for children and adults, Bradbury began composing music that was pleasing, lively, and more attractive to children. Although his first collection in this genre, Sabbath School Melodies, was issued in 1850, it was not until after the success of Oriola in 1859 that the composer formed the William B. Bradbury Company in 1861 to publish his own music. Its first publication was The Golden Chain, which met with such success that a whole “Golden” series soon followed. Unlike the traditional, large, rectangular singing school books containing religious music, Bradbury’s Sunday School song collections were a pocketsize five-by-six inches and sold for a quarter. Most significantly, his collections contained not only a more rhythmically animated type of song but also included a more modern musical feature—a chorus or refrain that its proponents boasted would insure the sentiment of a religious text like “a nail in a sure place.”

In 1864 Bradbury met the blind poet Fanny Crosby and encouraged her to take up hymnwriting. Soon afterwards, Crosby began writing for Bradbury’s company, becoming Sunday School hymnody’s most important poet. Combining a keen business sense with the ability to write pleasing melodies for the growing Sunday School movement, Bradbury sold over three million books in less than a decade. By 1867 Bradbury’s failing health caused him to sell his interests in both the piano business and his publishing company. The piano company was eventually absorbed by Knabe Piano, and the music publishing business was purchased by Biglow and Main, which billed itself as “Successors to William Bradbury.”

Although Bradbury composed several cantatas, thirty anthems, and scores of other sacred and secular works (as well as dozens of collections), it is the Sunday School melodies that have proved his most lasting contribution. Intended primarily for children, many of these tunes and their texts have become standards of Protestant hymnody. Of Bradbury’s nearly one thousand hymntunes, the most popular include “Bradbury” (“Savior, like a shepherd lead us”); “He Leadeth Me”; “Jesus Loves Me”; “Olive’s Brow”; “Sweet Hour” (of prayer); “The Solid Rock”; and “Woodworth” (“Just as I am”).

During his lifetime Bradbury stood squarely at the dawn of a new age of music in the United States, an age that he helped to usher in and to guide. It involved the concept of widespread and systematic music instruction for public school students and their specialist music teachers. It also included a new paradigm of church music based on European aesthetic models combined with the beginnings of the modern music publishing industry. Bradbury was clearly the first important moving force in developing music for the Sunday School movement. He died of respiratory complication at his Monclair, New Jersey, home. His songs continue to be sung around the world.


A study of Bradbury is Alan B. Wingard, “The Life and Works of William Batchelder Bradbury (1816–1868),” (D.M.A. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary [Louisville, Ky.], 1973). Additional works on church music provide various perspectives on his life. These include Leonard Ellinwood, The History of American Church Music (1953); J. H. Hall, Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers (1914); Donald P. Hustad, ed., Dictionary-Handbook to Hymns for the Living Church (1978), with an introduction tracing the history of Sunday School music; Frank J. Metcalf, American Writers and Compilers of Sacred Music (1925); and Bernard Ruffin, Fanny Crosby (1976), with a good account of Bradbury’s relation to Crosby. Most hymnal companions contain a brief biographical sketch in addition to information about his hymntunes. The most accessible overviews of Bradbury’s career, which also contain a fuller list of his publications, are found in both The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986). An obituary is in New York Musical Gazette 2 (1867–1868): 25.