October 14, 2018
What is it about music that can touch us deep within our hearts and souls for generations after is written? It can fill us with joy or bring us to tears. It makes some of us want to dance. It can transport us to times in our lives long gone and fill us with emotions we had long forgotten. I was at the MFA on Friday and visited the Hippy Chic exhibit. They had a jukebox and it played music from the 60s and 70s and I was transported back to my teens.
We all know that music in church can be a prickly affair. We’re from different generations raised on different musical tastes. We sang different hymns growing up in different denominations. What touches one soul doesn’t necessarily touch another’s. And not all hymns are classics, reaching beyond generations. We say in the UCC that God is still speaking. Well God continues to inspire new composers - and I thank God for that. Each generation needs music that will touch its soul.
When the Israelites, crossing that forbidding desert, gathered to worship, the men would form a circle and recite the psalms or prayers and the women would dance in the middle, playing simple instruments like drums and tambourines. So today, to start our service, as the light of Christ is brought into the sanctuary, we’re going to hand out some instruments to anyone who would like to play one. You are invited to dance if you feel so inclined. I think many of you will know this hymn: “This is the Day.”
Susan: In the letter to the Ephesians, the early Christians were instructed: “...be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Roman governor Pliny, after investigating the suspicious practices of Christians, in 111C.E., discovered they met before daybreak each morning and “recited a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god.” For centuries this was the way hymns and psalms were sung.
Many years later the usual method of singing in church was by “lining out”— having a leader say one line, and the congregation repeat it. This was done because hymnbooks were expensive, and many worshipers could not read. People did not sing one line immediately after another, as they do now.
Even in the eighteenth-century, hymnbooks were usually only collections of texts — they did not include musical notes. The first American hymnal to join tunes with texts was not published until 1831.
The psalms are our earliest hymns. The Psalter represents the hymnbook or prayer book of the second (and perhaps) the first temple in Jerusalem. And up until the late 17th century the psalms were the primary source of congregational singing in worship. Up until that time, the powers that be in the church insisted that all hymn singing be biblically based.
Psalm 150 Sung from the Psalter in Chalice P.768
For centuries monks and abbots and nuns wrote beautiful Gregorian chants to be used in worship. But medieval hymns were not sung by the congregation. Martin Luther, who co-produced a hymnal in 1524, helped return hymns to the people, declaring that “I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise.”
For those of you tempted to stick your noses up at contemporary hymnody and praise music, just remember that Luther used bar songs that people knew well for some of the tunes to his sacred words.
The Golden Age of Hymnody in England was to usher in a revolution in church music. The great hymn writer Issac Watts, when he was a young man, hated just singing the psalms all the time in church, so his father suggested that he write some new hymns. He came from a very unconventional family and he followed suit. 750 hymns later he had opened a new era of Protestant hymnody, one that continues today. He introduced non-Biblical poetry put to music, original songs relating the Christian experience. Many of them - “Joy to the World” and “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” continue to be sung in churches today. We have 14 in the New Century Hymnal.
I think we would be remiss if we didn’t sing one of his hymns. Does someone have a favorite? The list can be found on page 901 in the NCH.
Watts began the reform of congregational singing in England. He lived by the principle that texts should express the religious feelings of the people. This was a 180 degree turn around from the previously held view that they should be scripturally based.
And his principle holds today, although it caused quite a stir in his own day. Watts pastored Mark Lane Chapel in London. One man complained: “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired Psalms and taken in Watt’s flights of fancy.” The issue of singing hymns versus Psalms actually split churches. Sound familiar?
The controversy jumped the Atlantic. In May, 1789, Rev. Adam Rankin told the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in Philadelphia: “I have ridden horseback all the way from my home in Kentucky to ask this body to refuse the great and pernicious error of adopting the use of Issac Watts’ hymns in public worship in preference to the Psalms of David.”
Charles Wesley followed right on the footsteps of Watts. He wrote 8,989 hymns. Dr. Frank Baker calculated that Charles Wesley wrote an average of 10 lines of verse every day for 50 years! John and Charles Wesley published 56 collections of hymns in 53 years. 10 of them are in the NCH.
Wesley was also an accomplished field preacher, who on occasion addressed crowds of 10,000 and 20,000 people. He experienced considerable opposition, sometimes from rock-throwing mobs. In fact, his well-known hymn “Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim” was written “to be sung in a tumult.”
Despite this proliferation of hymn writing, the singing of hymns was not officially approved in the Church of England until 1820.
Here, in the New England colonies in 1707, no church organ had yet been installed. The first singing-instruction book would not be written for fourteen more years. While the new hymns were being written and sung throughout England, many American churches and ministers opposed them, preferring to rely instead on the inspired words of Scripture in metrical form. Hymns, when used at all, were employed primarily in private devotional exercises.
Not until well after the middle of the eighteenth century did English hymns achieve a significant place in American worship.
Hymnody has blossomed over this past century. It has adapted itself to the many theologies of Christians over the years, the popular styles of music, and the social issues facing both individuals and our world. Charles Wesley insisted that hymns, both the words and music, should be written to stir the congregation, reinforce its religious emotions and play on the “feel good” factor. I agree with that, but would also add that there are times when they should make us think and challenge us to action.
I was raised on Latin masses. I remember walking through the crypts underneath the sanctuary of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome back in the 80s. It was a Sunday morning - the sound of men singing the mass in Gregorian chant above us filled the cavernous space and somehow lifted my soul heavenward. It wasn’t just the reminder of my childhood. I think it goes deeper - to a connection with ancient voices that have been singing through the ages. We are connected to them and we pass on those musical traditions to future generations. But we must also be open to new voices and styles that stir a new generation. After all, God is still speaking.