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Living a Legacy of Faith
July 23, 2004
By Bryan Cribb
Esther Crookshank, Associate Professor of Church Music
At first glance, the story of Esther Crookshank's family seems like the classic Staten Island story. But, it is much more than that.
Crookshank wasn't even born yet when in 1956 her parents and nine siblings — ages six months to 16 — passed beneath the torch of Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. As immigrants escaping the ashes of postwar Germany, her parents had brought with them their family, faith and little else. Forced to adapt to a new language and curious culture, they clung to the very One who made their story special — a faithful God.
"It is really the story of God's unbelievable providence and faithfulness in our lives," Crookshank said. "He is the One who protected and sustained my parents through the war, who gave them the courage, wisdom and grace to raise us in His Word and to show us what a Christian looks like in their consistent daily lives."
Now, as associate professor of church music in the Southern Seminary family, Crookshank is seeking to bequeath that same kind of godly inheritance and instruction to her younger siblings in the faith — her students.
"My ministry is as a scholar and as a teacher," said Crookshank, who has been at the seminary since 1994. "And I’m grateful to teach everything that I do and also practice the things that I teach in some capacity."
Crookshank’s passion for practice and pedagogy begins with her family heritage. And what a rich heritage it is.
"My parents have an amazing story," Crookshank said. "They have been my strongest role models in life. ... My father and other relatives and friends of ours had the courage to leave everything and come to a new country."
After coming to the United States, the family moved to Oklahoma City, where Crookshank was born. But when Crookshank was six, her parents transported their family to Cleveland, Ohio. There, Crookshank’s father worked as a machinist and served as the lay pastor of a small congregation.
"My parents loved God fervently," she said. "They lived out their faith in our family every day. ... And their lives were dedicated to serving the Lord and others."
Her parents, through God's grace, created a legacy of faith for the children, and all are now followers of Christ.
Crookshank's personal walk with Christ began as a child.
"Regardless of how busy my parents were with all the kids in the family, we always made time for family devotions, in which each of us had an opportunity to read the Scriptures — both in English and in German, I might add," she said. "They also made it clear to us that we had to make that commitment to Christ ourselves."
Crookshank made that commitment as a child, and at age 13, she received full assurance that her sins were forgiven.
"I remember going with my father to a home Bible study once during the height of the 'Jesus' movement," she recalls. "Those young people were new believers, saved from all kinds of lifestyles, and they had a great joy that I wanted."
God granted her that joy.
"With that, I received my assurance and was baptized within that year at an outdoor service in Lake Erie at one of the beaches," she said.
Her parents and family not only gave Crookshank instruction in the faith, but they also encouraged her scholarship as well. She wrote her first story at age seven.
"It was a fun project for my sisters who taught me to read English at age three and a half, after which I was allowed to enroll in an advanced nursery school," she recalled. "I guess I've been involved in school ever since."
In fact, she was so eager to start school that she even coveted her sister's homework.
"Before I could read, I wanted homework so badly because everyone else had it, so I sat around scribbling," she recalled.
Crookshank's parents also encouraged their children to cultivate other interests — especially music.
"They always emphasized and encouraged us and expected us to develop the abilities that God had given us," Crookshank said. "In fact, I don't recall being asked whether or not I wanted to play an instrument. In our family, it was simply a question of which instrument."
She chose violin, and she has loved music ever since.
Crookshank's call to an academic teaching ministry came gradually during her time as a student. The call only grew stronger in her time at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, where she received her bachelor’s degree in music history and literature. The major was a fusion of two developing passions for Crookshank.
Following graduation, she attended the University of Michigan, where she received her master's and Ph.D. degrees. Her dissertation examined 19th century Gospel hymns.
When she graduated with her doctorate and was looking at job openings, she searched for a school that needed someone to teach hymnology and German for musicians. That school was Southern Seminary — a seminary that needed someone to fulfill exactly those roles.
"This, to me, was the dream position," Crookshank said.
Southern Seminary has not disappointed Crookshank.
"I can't be more thankful," she added. "It is a tremendous gift and privilege for me to be able to serve the Lord in this place at this historic time. It is a role that continues to reward and challenge me, with many rich experiences along the way.
"With students, you're always working against the clock because they're here for such a short time. And I want to give them as much as possible during their time here."
In the time that she teaches the students, one of her goals is to pass on her zeal for hymns.
"My passion is to see students discover and claim the legacy of hymns as their own, to mine the riches of hymns and songs in their private devotions and be able to lead congregations in singing biblical, excellent hymns with reverence and joy," she said.
One of the classes Crookshank delights in most is hymnology, a core course for the master of church music degree.
"Hymnology, to me, is the ultimate interdisciplinary course," she said. "It is applied theology in that students need to be able to learn to discern the theology in what they sing so that they can select hymns, songs and worship songs appropriately."
Crookshank does not merely teach at Southern, though. She sets the example for her students by playing violin in many of the seminary ensembles.
"I am privileged to participate in all of our worship experiences and all of our groups that involve string players [at the seminary]," she said. "I am ministered to as a participant in the various musical groups we have on campus."
Crookshank's current ministries also include teaching violin at the Seminary Academy of Music. She will begin a new shepherding group for female church music students in the spring.
And, she enjoys writing. She is currently revising her dissertation for publication as a book and she is working on several articles, including a study of the influence of American Gospel hymns in Germany in the popular grassroots revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Though she enjoys writing, her main ministry remains providing a model of godliness and scholarship to her students — the same kind of example she received from the 12 role models in her family.
"I won't, in my ministry, be able to touch all the churches, but I can touch these students who will touch and reach the churches and the people that God wants them to," she said.