Vida Chenoweth (1928-2018)

Roger W. Lowther

September 30, 2019Tokyo, Japan

"Lest anyone be tempted to say 'she gave up music for the mission field,' let me clarify by saying, 'I have never given up music. I cannot give up music any more than I can give up my bones! It is built in. I cannot give it up like something you can put in a box. It is the sum and substance of an artist’s thought, personality, and a large chunk of his soul. Please don’t let anyone say I gave up music. I gave up my career, my profession, my livelihood, my audiences.”

Vida Chenoweth in a letter to a friend

We have been looking at the tension many missionary artists (e.g., Lillian Trotter, Oswald Chambers, and others) feel between being a missionary and being an artist. Vida Chenoweth was no exception. She lived in a time when there was no notion of 'artistic' missions and she had to fight for legitimacy in the eyes of churches her whole life. Over the past month, I have been pouring over her articles, talks, and letters to get to know this phenomenal artist missionary better.

Vida is well-known in the classical music world as the "first concert marimbist." In 1956, she debuted the marimba at Carnegie Hall and continued through the important concert halls of Europe. She performed concertos with major orchestras with new music commissioned by the world's top composers. She turned out recordings with Columbia Records at a record pace. She was at the top of her field…then suddenly everything changed.

"While attending a church in New York City, the pastor called out, 'Is anyone ready to go anywhere for Christ? If so, stand up.' I could not stand up. I had just been handed a recording contract that I had been aiming for my whole life. I was living in New York City and was performing in the major cities of Europe. 'After the recording, then I will stand up,' I thought and spoke a very drastic prayer saying that I could not give up my career. I could not give up the marimba, and that if He wanted me to, He would have to take my hands or arms because I was incapable of giving up the one thing I was expert in, the one thing I knew and truly lived for."

Three days after this prayer, Vida's hands were terribly burned in a kitchen fire. She nearly lost the fingers of her right hand due to infection and was told she would never play the marimba again! While in the hospital, she started reading materials from Wycliffe, and remembered the prayer she had offered, and that very next summer she went to SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) for missionary training.

For twelve years, she worked tirelessly in Bible translation with the Usarufa people in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (with no electricity or running water!). During this time, as she put it, "God gave me my hands back." However, rather than go back into full-time performing, she began to develop a new method for analyzing unwritten music traditions different than the techniques available at the time (based on tagmemics relational analysis) and went on to analyze and archive music from hundreds of cultures around the world while based at Wheaton College. Vida was uniquely gifted and positioned to develop hymnology in the musical language (not just spoken language) of the peoples of the world.

Vida was first an artist, then a missionary, then a missionary artist. If she was here today, she would encourage us to continue in our own struggles to understand this tension. God calls the peoples of the world to worship him not just through their spoken languages but artistic languages as well. Who better to learn these languages than the missionary artist?

"Why would anyone want to capture all the birds of the forest and give them all the same song? God made each one, and each has its song to sing for Him…Every tongue, both linguistically and musically, is needed to adequately praise God."

Vida Chenoweth
Vida Chenoweth (left) and teammate Darlene Bee with a group of Usarufa children