Located in McMahan, Texas, in eastern Caldwell County, Bethel Primitive Baptist Church has become the regular meeting place for the Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention. The congregation was formed on June 19, 1852. During its early history the church had seven different locations in the area before constructing a wooden building on the current site in 1901. A cemetery, which began in 1847, sits adjacent to the site. A new building was constructed in 1952, and the earlier structure was converted into a lunch room.
Sacred harp music, whose name comes from B. F. White’s 1844 compilation of hymns entitled The Sacred Harp, came to America in the late 1700s and helped bring religious music to rural communities that lacked the means for formal musical education. Sacred harp music is sometimes called “fasola” or “shape-note” music, because each note (fa, sol, la, and mi) is represented by a shape. Anglo settlers brought sacred harp music to Texas from the southeastern United States during the nineteenth century.
The first official singing convention in McMahan was the South Union Singing Convention, held at the Round Top School on April 28, 1900. The name of the event was later changed to the Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention, which has since met the first fifth weekend each spring. (The first fifth weekend is the last weekend of the first month that has five weekends.) In the early 1900s the convention gathered at various schools or churches, predominately throughout Central and South Central Texas. However, from 1947 into the twenty-first century, the convention has always met at Bethel Primitive Baptist Church. The church was honored with a Texas Historical Marker in 1986.
The convention is a two-day event in which participants gather in the morning and sing two sessions, one before and one after lunch, each with a recess in the middle. Singers, who sit in a square with every member of the convention facing the center, are separated into groups of tenors, altos, basses, and sopranos, and each group forms one side of the square. A leader, which may be anyone from the group, chooses a song, and the “pitcher” or “keyer” gives the singers the correct pitch. The singers sing it through once with just the notes (fa, sol, la, and mi), and then again using the actual words. In recent years, participants have used the Cooper book, which is a revised and updated version of B. F. White’s original hymnal. Over the course of two days, the participants will sing more than 100 songs, and the sessions are always opened and closed with a prayer. Though the church is Primitive Baptist, singers of any denomination are welcome, and the convention draws 200 to 250 people each year from throughout the country. Most come to sing, but some simply come to listen.