Farmville Enterprise October 11, 2017
“Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20)
The first book published in the English-speaking colonies was “The Bay Psalm Book,” a collection of sacred music. Printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640, this was a metrical Psalter, or portions of the Book of Psalms to be used in congregational singing. The early settlers in New England who were Puritans used this book exclusively for music in public worship. They subscribed to the theology of John Calvin, who played a large part in the Protestant Reformation. Calvin believed in singing only Scripture during worship, usually the Psalms, and abolished the use of instruments, choirs and polyphony (two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody). Many Reformers agreed with Calvin and saw the need for an increase in congregational participation in singing. Due to the focus on “sola scriptura” they believed that the words of Scripture made better lyrics than those that were “human inspired.”
Martin Luther, the man who initiated the Reformation 500 years ago this month, had a heart for all kinds of music, including that of the Roman Catholic Church. He tried to preserve much of that musical tradition. Luther wrote at least 36 hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress is our God” and believed that music was an important means for the development of faith.
The early Quakers opposed all music during worship but approved of “singing in the spirit” if it was an individual’s natural response in praise to God. During the 1730s and 1740s a Protestant revival called the “First Great Awakening” made waves through New England. An Anglican preacher named George Whitefield encouraged the singing of the Psalms as well as hymns by Isaac Watts, author of “Joy to the World,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and many more. Whitefield also used the “Hymns and Sacred Poems” by fellow evangelists John and Charles Wesley. His influence marked the successful introduction of English hymnody in American churches.
No music tradition is more rich than that of Christians from African-American congregations. Before 1865 the lyrics of African-American spirituals were tightly linked to the lives of their authors, who were slaves. Most of us are familiar with “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and other songs of hope for God to make a way for a better life.
In congregations today we see a wide variety of music styles. In the Church of Christ no instruments are used during public worship. They believe that choirs, solos and instruments hinder all-member participation. The Presbyterian Reformed denomination has 100 churches in North America which sing only biblical Psalms without instrumental accompaniment. Like Calvin, they note that no passage in the Bible shows that churches in the New Testament ever used instrumental music during worship while recognizing that Scripture never condemns its use. Most churches include congregational singing and instrumental music in weekly corporate worship.
Christian musical heritage is rich, from the traditional African-American spirituals and line singing to the Lutheran chorale to the anthems and Evensong of Anglicans to Roman Catholic hymns. We all agree that in public worship there is an audience of one. God is the audience to whom our praise is directed. “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” (Psalm 95:6-7)