"What Are They Doing in Heaven?" written by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley in 1901, was first recorded around 1927 by Washington Phillips, an African American minister who accompanied himself on a instrument called a dolceola, somewhat like an autoharp, but with a bell-like sound.
Rev. Tindley, one of the founders of American gospel music, was born July 7, 1861. He was separated from his slave parents when he was only five years old, and taught himself to read and write when he was seventeen. Charles found a job as a janitor at the Calvary Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia while attending school in the evenings. He then earned his divinity degree through correspondence school and, in 1902, was called to be the pastor of the same church where he had once been in charge of sweeping the floors. The church grew under his leadership so that several times in his lifetime they had to build larger sanctuaries. By the time of his death the church had over 12,500 members and had been renamed (in spite of his protests) the Tindley Temple Methodist Church.
In addition to "What Are They Doing in Heaven?" Tindley wrote nearly fifty other hymns, including "We'll Understand It Better By and By," "Nothing Between," "Leave It There," "Stand By Me," and "I'll Overcome Some Day," which was adapted in the 1960s to become the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."