Congregational Singing: A History of Reform and Revival
Three of my absolute favorite courses to teach at West Coast Baptist College are Hymnology, the study of Christian song, Philosophy of Church Music, and Theology of Worship. I believe all three are necessary for a biblical and balanced worship program. Our biblical theology of worship builds framework for all matters of corporate worship, including music. Philosophy of Church Music then flows from that theology as an application to current times and culture.
Hymnology, I believe, helps us understand where we came from and how biblical theology was applied at different times in different cultural contexts. Without this understanding, pastors, missionaries, and worship leaders often mistake what was merely a philosophical application of one time or culture with a biblical principle for music or worship.
If there will ever be unity among Christians on the topic of congregational worship music, it must begin with an agreement about what the Bible actually says about our worship and music, what it does NOT say, and where our extrabiblical philosophies might vary.
By unity, I do not intend to imply uniformity. I am past the point of believing that any independent church should look, sound, or sing the same way (again, speaking of matters beyond biblical revelation or principle). There’s beauty in God-made diversity, but humans are all to quick to rank other humans into a superiority system which always leads to schism and division.
The story of congregational singing, for example, is one of divergence, reform, and the shedding of prior philosophical applications with the intention of improving the worship of the church for the glory of God.
Jewish revivals of the Old Testament often resulted in a return to the songs of their past. Conversely, revival and reform in Christian singing have most often been characterized by moving the church forward. These Christians revived the biblical principles of worship by reforming then-current practices to better fulfill their purpose.
Change is never a satisfactory end in and of itself. However, it is often the means necessary to shed the “dead skin” of a practice that hinders God’s church from fulfilling its purpose in each generation. Let’s explore an overview of how this has been accomplished throughout church history.
The Early Church
New Testament Christians came to faith within a predominantly Jewish tradition. The repertoire of the first church would have primarily been the Hebrew psalms. For example, most scholars believe that when Jesus and the disciples “sang a hymn,” they were likely singing a psalm from the Great Hallel (Psalm 113-118). I know it might come as a shock to some that they weren’t singing “Victory in Jesus.”
Clearly, though, these Psalms could not fully express their newfound faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through the writings of the apostles, new expressions of faith were written such as the nativity canticles and the creedal hymns of Paul. While we cannot say that these texts were written as hymns, it is clear that they became the source for congregational singing in the early church.
But this was a divergence. This was a break away from the tradition of the Jews, particularly when Paul’s ministry brought the Gospel to the Gentile world.
While we have much in the way of texts from the early church, we know little about the actual music used. Niceta of Remesiana provided a great window into the practice of congregational singing in the early church with his sermon on the liturgical singing. You can read a translation of this work here.
Throughout the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, congregational singing would slowly diminish in light of theological controversy and the ultimate rise the Roman Church where the clergy would assume the role of singing on behalf of the church.
The Lutheran Chorale and Metric Psalm
The next story of divergence is found in the work of two reformers: Martin Luther and John Calvin. At this time in church history, the Roman church carried near absolute authority in both political and religious matters. In the years prior, music in the church had been limited to the clergy, just like other matters such as Scripture reading. Additionally, the Bible and the liturgy were given in Latin.
Martin Luther had many grievances with the church at this time. Two are most notable for this discussion. First, he believed that the Bible should be given in the language of the people. Second, he believed that every believer had direct access to God in worship. Therefore, the entire congregation should be involved in singing. These beliefs, among many others, led him to create great hymnic works for congregational singing such as Ein feste burg ist unser Gott, now translated “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Luther took the truths of the Bible and married them to the finest elements of German poetry and music, drawing on the finer music of his current culture. His work would go on to influence many including the work of J. S. Bach.
Another reformer of his day took a more radical approach to corporate worship. John Calvin also believed that every Christian should participate in singing. His criteria for congregational songs were simplicity (because everyone needed to be able to sing them) and modesty (because he believed God was not impressed with human complexity). Furthermore, the only words he deemed worthy of use in worship were inspired Scripture. Therefore, only the texts of the Psalms were used. This led to a practice of simply unison singing without the accompaniment of instruments.
The content of these hymns was predominantly objective, but war and tragedy would soon bring an influx of introspective and subjective texts.
Metric Psalmody and the Lutheran Chorale would develop as two parallel streams for many years in the Protestant church. English churches primarily followed the teachings of Calvin and rejected the use of hymns of human composure for many years. The singing of Psalms, though the accepted tradition of the day, was quickly deteriorating into an aesthetic mess. The Earl of Rochester reflected on the travesty when he penned these words:
Sternhold and Hopkins had great Qualms
When they translated David’s Psalms,
To make the heart full glad
But had it been poor David’s fate
To hear thee sing and them translate
It would have made him mad.
Many attempts were made at reforming this practice, but none were quite as successful as the work Isaac Watts.
Watts was a poetic genius. Even as a child, his ability to speak in verse confounded (and even frustrated) his parents and others. Growing weary of the dead worship in his church, he complained to his father who proceeded to instruct him, “Isaac, if you don’t like the songs of the church, then write something better” [paraphrase]. This might not have been an actual challenge, but Isaac certainly took it as such.
Watts would proceed to pen some of the greatest English hymns of our faith. While they were slow to come into use in England, they made up exactly half of the first hymnal ever published on North American soil. His disillusionment with the congregational singing of his day pushed him to question the status quo and produce songs for the church that continue to be influential to this day.
His work became influential to many English theologians and authors, such as John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and others. The simplicity of his poetry served as a model for congregational singing for many years to come.
Early American hymnody would have developed in similar ways as that of Britain. Men like Lowell Mason would endeavor to follow the loftier, more sophisticated practices of European music. In many ways, however, the story of American folk song is the story of American hymnody.
Because of primitive conditions and slow development in many parts of the United States, music education (I guess education in general) was often lacking. This gave birth to such traditions as the “Singing Schools” and other itinerate endeavors that sought to fill in the gap with the specific goal of improving congregational singing.
Other attempts were made to simply deal with the poor singing quality. Some churches began to “line out” their congregational singing. This practice involved a song leader would sing a line of the song while the congregation, in antiphonal chaos, responded by elaborating and elongating the phrase. Perhaps a video demonstration would help…
Once again, this practice led to great controversy because the tunes would vary so much from one congregation to another. Of course, the overall aesthetic quality of such singing left much to be desired. Preachers and musicians alike began to call on reason and Scripture to advocate “Regular Singing” or singing by note.
No tradition has had as profound an impact on the practice of the American church, particularly that of Independent Baptists, as the revivalist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The evangelistic meetings of Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham led to the creation of a more evangelistic style of music that often utilized common folk tunes coupled with simple expressions of salvation and Christian experience. I would dare say a vast majority of the songs we sing each year have their origin in the revivalist movement or the years just preceding.
These meetings were rarely associated with a single church, but the practice of evangelistic meetings and song services quickly became popular in the Christian church. Some churches retained a more formal service on Sunday mornings while beginning or changing their evening services to reflect the character of the evangelistic meetings. This sparked another round of controversy because of the predominantly subjective content of the songs and the use of simpler folk music in the worship service. Moreover, the question of who was the audience of the assembling together brought great division. Was the gathering together for believers to develop into more mature disciples of Christ or was the assembling together for the purpose of attracting the lost to hear the Gospel.
Moreover, the question of who was the audience of the assembling together brought great division. Was the gathering together for believers to develop into more mature disciples of Christ or was the assembling together for the purpose of attracting the lost to hear the Gospel?
Seeing that we are in the midst of many technological developments and social change, it would be difficult to provide a story of modern changes and controversies. As with every change in the past, their effects may not be fully known for years to come.
One broad and general observation could be made. Churches today generally follow one of two streams of thought that directly influence their practice of congregational singing. One stream is based on the general consensus that the assembling is first and foremost for believers, not the lost. The repertoire is chosen based on its effectiveness in building religious affections, teaching spiritual truths, and expressing piety and devotion.
The other stream is that of evangelicalism in which the music, repertoire, and service style is designed with the lost audience in mind. The worship services are by and large evangelistic in nature. There are some, of course, who might have a greater balance of both.
Whatever the stream, I would say that there is a growing dissatisfaction with dull, lifeless congregational singing. This is not an issue of style, per say, as much as it is a failure of church leadership to encourage and model exciting congregational singing. Some might also say it is the result of over-commercialized services where the platformed performers seem to be the main thing while all those in the congregation are mere spectators who play no vital role in the service. This is all for another post.
From this brief overview of the history of congregational singing, I want to offer a few observations for your consideration:
- There appears to be a swinging pendulum all through the history of congregational singing. On one side, you have objective truth, sophisticated music, and formality. On the other side, you have subjective experience, accessible music, and more informal music making. When congregational singing reaches either extreme, there is typically a reaction among Christians to bring about the needed elements on from the other side. For example, formal rigidity over time fosters meaningless tradition and vain repetition. Informal subjectivism over time fosters sentimentalism and an elevation of experience over truth. There are elements from both sides that are necessary for balance.
- The established tradition of the day is often unwelcoming to those who would reform it for a more meaningful practice. What one generation ridicules in favor of tradition the next generation often embraces in favor of a meaningful change. This can be encouraging or very concerning.
- The best of each generation’s songs live into the practice of the next generation. While Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby each wrote over 6,000 hymn texts, we only tend to sing a handful of them. This doesn’t mean the rest were necessarily poorly written, they simply didn’t connect in as meaningful a way as others. As one famous church musician said, “We don’t continue singing these songs because they’re old. We continue singing them because they’re great.”
- The “hymns of our faith” were born mostly out of great controversy. but they were always carried forth on the wings of reform and revival. In other words, the hymns we know and love are not part of some inspired repertoire, but rather the result of constant struggle toward a better way and a more meaningful expression of our devotion to Christ and commitment to His kingdom’s work.
I recognize that much of this discussion is abbreviated and much more could be said. I hope this overview will encourage some thought and reflection. I also hope it will assist in contextualizing the current issues in light of the long history and development of congregational singing.