Introduction: The Origins of a Timeless Hymn
“Who can bring joy to the heart like Jesus, with His divine presence? True, tender, pure, and invaluable; How blessed I am to call Him mine! All that exhilarates my soul is Jesus; He means more to me than life itself. In my blessed Lord, I see the most beautiful being among thousands.” – Thoro Harris
The hymn “All That Thrills My Soul” holds a special place in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Hymnal as number 189. It was first published in 1931 by Thoro Harris—a composer and compiler of hymns who remains relatively unknown. However, the story behind this hymn goes beyond mere literary biography.
A Fascinating Family Heritage
Thoro Harris and his sister Worthie Harris Holden were born into a racially mixed family. Their parents, Joseph Dennis Harris and Elizabeth Worthington Harris, navigated a society that rigidly classified individuals as either black or white. In order to assimilate into white society, Worthie and Thoro eventually had to “pass” as white. Interestingly, their cousin Esther Georgia Irving Cooper became a civil rights activist, while their uncle Cicero Richardson Harris served as a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Despite these notable relatives, Worthie and Thoro had no connection with them. The fact that their parents’ interracial marriage occurred at a time when it was illegal adds an intriguing element to their story. The process of “passing” sheds light on the challenges they faced—a phenomenon that was widespread in the United States from 1880 to 1940, according to a recent study by the Bureau of Economic Research. In an era marked by oppressive discrimination, strict segregation, and racial classification based on association, successfully passing required active choices, significant transformations, and a need for secrecy akin to entering witness protection. One also needed a sufficient amount of European ancestry to pass as white.
Exploring Paternal Heritage
Joseph Dennis Harris was born around 1833 into a household that included both free and enslaved individuals of mixed race near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Unfortunately, historical records from the 1830 and 1840 censuses offer limited information about him. However, after the death of Joseph’s father, Jacob Harris, in 1847, it was revealed that he had significant property, which would be divided among their eight children.
On the other hand, not much is known about Joseph’s mother, Charlotte Dismukes Harris (1808-1913). Her surname is uncommon, suggesting a potential connection with the family of Revolutionary War hero George Dismukes from Chatham County, North Carolina. At the time of Charlotte’s birth, this was the only family in the state with that surname, and they were known to have owned enslaved people. The 1850 census introduced the distinction between black and mixed race individuals, marking Charlotte as “mulatto” after her husband’s death. In the years following his passing, she relocated to Ohio with most, if not all, of her eight children, eventually settling in Cleveland. Joseph’s journey to prominence began there. He actively participated in the abolitionist movement and eventually became an officer in the Ohio State Anti-Slavery Society. Advocating for the resettlement of free blacks, he even traveled to the Caribbean in 1860 to search for suitable locations. Joseph chronicled this journey in a book titled “A Summer on the Borders of the Caribbean Sea.” His encounter with tropical diseases during his travels inspired him to pursue medical training. He attended Western Reserve College and the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa, completing his studies in 1864. During the final year of the Civil War, Joseph served as a Union Army surgeon and became involved with the Freedmen’s Bureau. His political activities during Reconstruction even led to his nomination for lieutenant governor of Virginia, although his bid for election was unsuccessful. Following that, he practiced medicine in South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, DC. Sadly, Joseph experienced a mental breakdown in 1876 and was admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane (later known as Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital) in 1877. He passed away in 1884, leaving behind a 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son who likely had no memories of him.
Unveiling Maternal Heritage
In sharp contrast to her husband, Elizabeth Worthington Harris’s early life remains shrouded in mystery. She was born on March 30, 1840, in Michigan while her father, a Presbyterian minister, served a term of mission service. Her childhood was spent in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where her father pastored. Both of Elizabeth’s parents hailed from families that had migrated from England in the 1600s. While there is no concrete evidence, it is speculated that Elizabeth worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, which may have facilitated her introduction to J. D. Harris.
After her husband’s institutionalization and subsequent death, Elizabeth remained in Washington, DC, where she raised her children. In the late 1880s, she discovered the Adventist message and became a founding member of the first Seventh-day Adventist church in the city. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Worthie also joined the church during that time. However, it is unclear whether Thoro ever received baptism into the Seventh-day Adventist faith. Elizabeth passed away in 1898, severing her children’s ties to Washington, DC, and their mixed-race heritage.
Carving Their Own Path
The siblings combined their father’s intellect with their mother’s faith. Worthie took the lead in assimilating into white society. As children living with their widowed mother, they were identified as mixed race in the 1880 census. Worthie first attended one of Dwight L. Moody’s schools in Northfield, Massachusetts, before transferring to Battle Creek College in Michigan. It was there that she met her future husband, William Burroughs Holden, a white physician. After graduating in 1894, Worthie worked as a Bible worker in New York City for a year. She married William in Washington, DC, on September 1, 1896, with their marriage license notice appearing in the “white” section of Washington’s Evening Star newspaper. The couple resided in Battle Creek and then Chicago, where Dr. Holden taught at Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s Chicago Medical Missionary Training School. Finally, they settled in Portland, Oregon, where Dr. Holden was called to serve at an Adventist sanitarium. Worthie and William had two daughters, Margaret (1898-1961) and Virge, who unfortunately passed away shortly after birth in 1906. Worthie chose to disassociate herself from her mixed-race heritage and never identified as black or mixed race again. Living on the other side of the country ensured that she would not be discovered by acquaintances from her past. Alongside her numerous poems about the Christian life, which encouraged readers to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus and have hope in His Second Coming, Worthie actively participated in the Central Portland Adventist church. Before her death, 122 of her poems were published in a booklet titled “Songs for Our Pilgrimage.”
Although several biographical sketches mention that Thoro also attended Battle Creek College, there is little evidence to support this claim. It is possible that he did attend, or perhaps it was part of a narrative he constructed about himself. Notably absent from the standard biographies are details about his parents and his time at Howard University in Washington, DC. He graduated from the normal department (teacher training) at Howard University in 1894, but it is unclear whether he taught music in the city. In March 1898, Thoro married Agnes Hart, a young mixed-race woman, and their marriage license notice appeared in the “black” section of the Evening Star newspaper. Thoro published his first hymnal, “Echoes of Paradise: A Choice Collection of Christian Hymns Suitable for Sabbath Schools and All Other Departments of Religious Work,” in 1903. Subsequently, he moved to Chicago at the invitation of Peter P. Bilhorn, a prolific hymn writer and evangelist who occasionally collaborated with Billy Sunday and Dwight L. Moody. In Chicago, Thoro compiled, edited, or produced at least fourteen hymnals. Some of these notable works include “Light and Life Songs” (with William Olmstead & William Kirkpatrick, 1904), “Little Branches” (with George J. Meyer & Howard E. Smith, 1906), “Best Temperance Songs” (1913), and “Hymns of Hope” (circa 1922). Thoro’s talent as a composer was even more remarkable, with over 1000 melodies attributed to him, in addition to the lyrics of more than 800 hymns. Working on commission, Thoro published hymnals such as the “Blessed Hope Hymnal” for the Advent Christian Church and “Carols of Truth” for the Pentecostal Herald. Regardless of who he worked for, Thoro’s hymns consistently focused on a personal relationship with Jesus and the hope of His second coming.
Just like Worthie, Thoro and Agnes eventually identified as white after their move to Chicago. Their four children—Ulric, Equador Saretta, Jesse B., and Delna Preston—were described as white on their birth certificates. While Thoro gained recognition for his hymn writing, he sometimes worked as a carpenter to make ends meet during the early years. In 1930, Thoro retired to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, with his second wife, Freda, a German immigrant. Following Freda’s passing, he married Rubye Bryant, the daughter of a white Mississippi farmer, on February 5, 1937. Thoro continued to compile hymnals during this period, publishing five more between 1930 and 1943. When Thoro passed away on March 27, 1955, Rubye, the informant on his death certificate, left the section for his father’s name blank. It remains uncertain whether Thoro never disclosed this information to her or if she chose to omit it as a means of safeguarding both Worthie’s and Thoro’s chosen identities.
A Retrospective Look
Thoro’s decision to identify as white during the Jim Crow era can be understood to some extent. Raised by a single white mother and having no relationship with his mixed-race father, it made practical sense for him to pursue economic opportunities and wider acceptance in white society. In contrast, Thoro’s connection to the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is more elusive. There are no records of his baptism, but during his teenage and early adult years, he maintained some affiliation with the church. One of his poems, published in the Review, included a note indicating that he believed in observing the seventh-day Sabbath while attending Howard University. His poetry frequently appeared in Adventist publications from 1896 to 1911. However, there is no evidence suggesting that he maintained ties with the Adventist Church after that period.