What do you think when you walk into a church building and see an organ placed prominently toward the front? What about a drum set? How about an electric guitar? Depending on your views of worship and music, the mere sight of an instrument at the front of the sanctuary can evoke a wide range of emotional and mental responses. Nothing summarizes the issue of the “worship wars” better than the use of instruments in worship. Some debate whether we should use any instruments in worship at all.
And yet, for a brief moment, I would like to transcend the entire debate by pointing to a piece of our history that endures even to the present day. I would like to use history to highlight an instrument in our worship that we can all heartily agree upon and be thankful for. Let’s talk about The Sacred Harp.
In 1844, Benjamin Franklin White (1800-1879) and E.J. King (1821-1844) published a tunebook in Georgia entitled The Sacred Harp. Just nine years before this publication, White’s brother-in-law William Walker (1809-1875) had issued his own popular tunebook in South Carolina, The Southern Harmony (1835). Tunebooks were oblong shaped and generally contained the same material: “a few European psalm tunes, pieces by Northern composers such as Billings and Holden, previously-printed folk hymns by Chapins and others, and an assortment of folk hymns that were being published for the first time” (Music and Westermeyer, 54). Unlike other southern tunebook compilers, however, White and King also chose to include a few of their own pieces—White’s “Baptismal Anthem” and King’s “Reverential Anthem.”
These tunebooks are known as “fasola” books because they utilize shape notes. “Fah,” the first note of the scale, is represented by a triangle, then “sol” by an oval, and “law” by a rectangle. Singing teachers used the system to aid in sight-singing. While the idea of shape notes developed into a variety of systems, The Sacred Harp endured beyond its contemporaries, enjoying successive reprints for several generations. In fact, groups today still host singing sessions using a revised, 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp (visit fasola.org to discover more). Singers gather in a “hollow square,” with four parts siting on each side of a square facing each other. A leader in the middle directs the group in singing selections from The Sacred Harp. The result is an intimate, communal setting where the sum is greater than the parts.
Layout of the “hollow square” for tunebook singing groups
How remarkable that a tunebook published over 175 years ago still endures today, not just in print, but in song. To me it is a fitting tribute to The Sacred Harp, for the title itself refers to the human voice. The human voice is the sacred harp, the instrument we all are gifted by God at birth. Regardless of your denomination or generation, we all can give thanks to God for that most wonderful of instruments, the human voice.
I don’t know about you, but I long for a day when we won’t have to argue about church music anymore. Praise God we can find bright spots of unity even in the midst of the chaos.
I don’t know about you, but I long for a day when we won’t have to argue about church music anymore. Praise God we can find bright spots of unity even in the midst of the chaos. More important than the instrument that sits at the front of the sanctuary is the instrument God placed within you, the instrument you carry with you everywhere you go, and the instrument that can be a source of comfort and encouragement at all times and all places—your voice. During this time of change and uncertainty, our voices are a powerful gift from God we can use to shine light in very dark and distant places. I hope you will “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Certainly this truth is something we all can agree on.
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 by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).