What Happened to the Singing?

In 1640 the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony printed the Bay Psalm Book. It was the first printed book in North America. It was originally entitled The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Metre. That title highlights the Puritan desire for a psalm book that clearly reflected the original Hebrew poetry of the Psalms. A famous quote from the preface claims that “Gods Altar needs not our pollishings,” meaning the previous psalters were too free in their translation of the original Hebrew poetry. To the Puritans, the Bay Psalm Book represented a return to the literal words of the original Hebrew text.

     But there was a problem. John Calvin, during the European Reformation, had developed the regulative principle of worship. He thought churches should not use instruments or choirs in their worship because the New Testament did not command it. This is why the churches before 1700 in New England only sang from the book of Psalms. In addition, most congregations, including the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, did not use any instruments in their congregational singing. Adding to the problem, Puritan leaders did not include any musical notation in the Bay Psalm Book, not even a simple melody for people to sing (the preface referred readers to tunes printed in another psalter by a man named Thomas Ravenscroft). Their main concern was faithfulness to the original meaning of the Hebrew text. However, the psalms in the Bay Psalm Book were both difficult to understand and hard to sing.

     The problem was not a lack of musical knowledge on the Puritan’s part. “To be sure, cultured Puritans enjoyed music, and even dancing as much as other Englishmen of the era. They were not averse to singing and playing psalms in parts for their own recreation” (Ogosapian, 6). The Puritans were highly educated and familiar with the culture, so they had the musical and artistic ability to smooth out the text. But they refused on what they thought were biblical grounds.

     As a result of a lack of instrumental accompaniment, musical notation, and difficult psalm settings, congregational psalm-singing began to fall apart in New England. Many Puritan leaders and congregants alike recorded their frustration with the poor quality of church singing at the time. Puritan leader Samuel Sewall “served for several years as Precentor of the South Church in Boston, and although seemingly possessed of better musical ability than most, he recorded that on various occasions he had set a tune too high, wandered accidentally from WINDSOR to HIGH DUTCH, and let the congregation slide into ST. DAVID’s when he had set YORK. If such things could happen to a musical Precentor, one can only imagine what might have befallen one of lesser ability” (Owens, 17). [1]

     Sewall’s experience as a precentor describes a practice called “lining out,” in which the song leader would sing a phrase of the song, then the congregation would repeat it. While only intended as a temporary fix, it quickly became settled tradition at this time in New England church history. Music historians generally agree this practice signaled a low point in American congregational singing. It wasn’t until 1698, with the 9th edition of the Bay Psalm Book, that tunes were placed in the back of the psalter, and then only 13 tunes for all 150 Psalms. Thankfully the situation did eventually change. In 1721, congregations in North American would find a new voice as concerned leaders began to publish several books that encouraged the church to sing again. But that is a different story for another day.

     It has been said that history repeats itself. Today we find ourselves at the same crossroads in church music history, though the scenery is a little different. We can glean two simple lessons from the issues surrounding the Bay Psalm Book.

First, if we are not careful in our application of Scripture, we may accidentally destroy the very thing we seek to preserve. The Puritans, in their appropriate but misguided zeal for textual accuracy, actually began to undermine corporate singing in their churches. In the past, people like Martin Luther had not agreed with John Calvin’s regulative principle of worship. In the future, hymns by people like Isaac Watts would soon provide a breath of fresh air to congregations starved of quality singing. We can sympathize with the Puritans, for they loved the Word of God. But they, like us, had blind spots. We should step back and ask ourselves a simple question: Is our music that is meant to edify people actually preventing them from participating? Is it too artistic? Too difficult? Too trendy? Too individualistic? Too academic? Musical notation is a wonderful aid to worship. We should think twice before tossing it out—again. Instead, we should present church music keeping the clearest New Testament command about music in mind, that all the congregation should sing, and they should be able to give thanks while they do it (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)!

     At the same time, we need not box ourselves into a corner like the Puritans did. It is true—God’s Word is the most powerful and effective means of edifying believers (Heb. 4:12). But the Puritans made a weak argument from silence when they required their churches to use only the words of Scripture, and particularly the Psalms. The church has expressed theological truths based on Scripture for centuries in the form of creeds. No doubt, the more Scripture we directly infuse into our hymn texts, the better. But it is also possible to have excellently crafted, theologically rich songs to sing in church without falling into the Puritan dilemma of text versus art. We can be faithful to the text and pursue artistic beauty. Thankfully, God has gifted the modern church with many hymn writers who do just that. Let’s use them.

~CP

Bibliography

A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010)

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007)

Church Music in the United States: 1760-1901 by David W. Music & Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, Inc., 2014)

The Bay Psalm Book and Its Era by Barbara Owen, The Hymn 41:4 (October 1990)


[1] WINDSOR, HIGH DUTCH, ST. DAVID, and YORK are all tune names. A “precentor” is a person who leads a congregation in singing, much like a modern day worship leader.

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