23 May 2011

Church Music in the Eighteenth Century

To many Christians today, one of the more controversial topics of discussion can be what type of music gets sung in church on Sunday.  Some act like this is a new controversy that just began in the last thirty to forty years with the advent of "Christian Rock".  However, this is definitely not the case.  The type of music sung in church has been a controversial subject for at least the last 300 years.  This may seem confusing to some readers because they think only hymns were in existence at this early date.  Actually, the controversy involved hymns.

In the last few years, I have read two scholarly biographies on Jonathan Edwards, who is far from being considered one of the most liberal theologians in American history.  In both of these biographies, one by George M. Marsden, titled Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and another that I recently reviewed on this page titled Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, written by Douglas A. Sweeney (http://americanchurchhistory.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-im-reading-jonathan-edwards-and.html), a topic that both writers discussed was the relationship of music to the church.

Most Puritans in Edwards' day believed that parishioners should only sing Psalms in church.  These very conservative Puritans considered the singing of any music other than Psalms (yes, they would announce the 23rd Psalm as the day's selection) a very controversial and almost scandalous act.  Edwards received quite the reputation among many old-line ministers for singing Isaac Watts hymns in church.  For those who may be unfamiliar with the name of Isaac Watts, Watts was a hymn writer who wrote and published such hymns as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed" (without the 'At the cross, At the cross, where I first saw the light...' refrain, which was added nearly 200 years later).  Few Christians of any denomination would have a problem singing these songs in church today, but in the eighteenth century, they were considered inappropriate for worship.  The focus of the service, even the music focused on the Word, hence the singing of Psalms. 

I personally find this a very interesting topic.  I know of some Christians who believe that only hymns should be sung in church, but very few who want to sing the Psalms.  I also know of many who sing songs that are more contemporary.  This evidence from the 1700s almost makes one wonder what songs people will argue about in another 300 years if Jesus hasn't returned by that point.

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