Why I Don’t Watch TV

When I was in high school a friend of mine recommended the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It was and still is a fascinating read; Postman proved to be prophetic regarding the negative influence of television and show business on our culture. I wish I could say my initial reading of that book caused me to stop watching television, but it didn’t. What it did do, however, was encourage me to think more critically about my viewing habits.

It wasn’t until college that I broke the habit. Ironically, I stopped watching TV, not because I wanted to break away from the “Devilvision” (as one of my brothers affectionally called it), but because I was extremely busy. It was not really a conscious decision. When I got married, my wife rarely watched TV as well. Some friends gave us our first TV, an ancient-looking square-shaped Benq screen with a handle on the back to help you carry it around. We still have the same set. I have no clue where our DVD player came from. We watched a movie about once every six months. In the last few years that number hasn’t changed much. Except for a dose of children’s movies with our girls and a few movies/shows with the teens in our youth group, we don’t spend much time in front of the TV.

That’s not to say, however, that we don’t have our own screentime battles. The smartphone is an ever-present enemy. For that struggle, I found the book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke to be of great help. I’d say my phone is the biggest timewasting threat in my house.

Now, lest you judge me as a backward, sheltered homeschooler, I’ll remind you the TV transformation happened in my 20s, after I was done homeschooling. And you know what I have found from my experience? I don’t miss the TV. I don’t miss it at all.

As a kid, I used to love getting to the hotel room on family vacations because they had so many more channels. More sports! More movies! More entertainment! But now, whenever we sit down to watch a movie, my wife and I usually come away more disastified than satisfied. There’s something that rings hollow about the world behind the screen when you spend almost all of your time in the real one. Truth is stranger than fiction, but we have lost the eyes to see it.

The narrative power of everything you watch shapes you. Every image lifts up or puts down characters, behaviors, and values, subtly suggesting you do the same. Books work the same way, but because they require more cognitive engagement, written words don’t bypass our mental filters as easily. Images flick instantly and effortlessly into our minds, shaping how we think, what we value, and, most importantly, who we love. We might be tempted to think we are strong enough, and we can handle it. But that’s what the addict says, too, then adds, “Just one more.” The radically shifting morals in our culture indicate just how devastating it is for us to consistently watch trash. All the while we condemn the very trash we are consuming.

I am reminded of Proverbs 4:23, which warns us,

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life.

Or, as another translation puts it,

Above all else, guard your heart,
    for everything you do flows from it.

What we watch shapes our heart. So we should guard what we watch zealously.

Particularly in this Covid pandemic, the constant barrage of news is designed to ensnare us in a never-ending spiral of urgency and crisis. Not just local crisis, or national crisis, but international crisis, and crises we have no power to fix. Our hearts were not created to carry the weight of that load. They ought not carry that load. That’s a burden for the King of heaven and earth to bear.

Perhaps part of the reason we like to keep up on the news is a fear of missing out. I like to check a few select news outlets daily just to keep up. But the reality is, if something important happens, I can guarantee you will hear about it from someone you know. Or you could read in-depth about it, carefully forming an educated opinion. That’s how people used to find out news.

Plus, think of all the constructive things you could be doing with your life. You could catch up with an old friend, spend time with your kids, start a new hobby, knock off a few items on that honey do list, memorize Scripture, or spend more concetrated time praying about this insanity we call 2020.

Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying we ought to bury our heads in the sand. I am not saying everyone should be just like me and give up movies for six months. But if we were more selective about our daily media intake and more intentional about how we engage the vast array of information at our disposal, we would all live more happy and fruitful lives by the grace of God for the glory of God.

Technology is certainly useful, but all things have their limit. And once you get a taste of freedom from technology’s life-dominating stranglehold, you won’t want to go back.

~CP

The Fruit of the Womb

A little over a week ago, my wife and I welcomed our third daughter, Lucy Virginia, into the world. It was an excruciating yet thrilling experience, and the joy never diminishes with each child. I think it actually increases.

I cannot tell you, though, how many people have asked us, “Is this your first one?” We usually smile sheepishly and admit it is our third. I keep encountering this assumption in society that young people should wait to have kids. I can see it in the age of other parents when we take our girls to the playground. Like many of my peers, I had been encouraged even from high school to stick to the pattern. Go to college. Find a spouse. Graduate. Get married. Finish up graduate school (for some of us). Get an established, well-paying job. Enjoy life a little… then have children. If you want. It is almost as if we were being told not to grow up.

And I accepted this advice with no questions asked. A lot of people I respected suggested it or seemed to imply it, so I figured it was the wisest path to follow. Then one day during my graduate school years we were hanging out at my cousin’s house, trying to talk over the noise of his two (or was it three?) kids. He mentioned in passing, “Yeah, people talk about it being hard to have kids, but you can do it.” I don’t think he was trying to persuade me, but God wedged that casual comment in my brain, and I couldn’t get it out. I decided to do a Bible study.

And you know what I found? God consistently portrays having children as a sign of divine blessing. Let me share my favorite passage of Scripture that talks about this truth.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
    and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
    for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
    who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127

This Psalm makes two truths clear. First, we are dependent on the Lord for everything (building houses, watching cities, balancing work and sleep). Second, having children is an incredible blessing the Lord alone can provide.

As I write this, I am sensitive to friends and family who have either lost a child or never been able to enjoy the blessing of children. To me, their stories provide a stark, painful contrast to the self-centered assumption in our society that rearing children is an inconvenience to be delayed or avoided. So many long for their own child in this life while scores more neglect having children or, God help us, murder them. I cannot comprehend God’s plan for those who endure this pain of withheld blessing, but I can, with Jesus, remind them that God has blessed them with “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). There is no stigma for the child of God; every believer is blessed to be a part of his heavenly family.

And we should not downplay blessings in the Bible. The reality that children are a blessing motivates us to have them. God does not drive us from behind with a stick; he attracts us with the beauty of blessing. And beyond this initial blessing, we have the blessed opportunity to make little disciples within our homes. To be clear, I am not specifying how many or how often. I am simply saying, with the psalmist, “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” And we need to reclaim this lost ground in the church.

~CP

Jehovah Rapha (The Lord Who Heals)

Dealing with all the dirtiness of the Coronavirus made me start thinking about all the biblical themes of uncleanness that permeate the gospels. Jesus, by nature of his healing power, seemed to draw both physically and spiritually dirty people to him.

It isn’t something we like to think or talk about, but our world’s real and deadly plague reminds us of the deeper infection that all humanity already is plagued by. It reminds us that the only one who can heal us of our sin is Jesus Christ. The name Jehovah Rapha is a Hebrew title for God, meaning “the Lord who heals.” God may or may not choose to heal us from physical sickness, but the gospels make clear Jesus stands ready to heal anyone who comes to him for spiritual healing.

I wrote a song to try to capture this idea. I hope it ministers to your soul. You can watch me sing it here: https://youtu.be/TrKmHNil-yA

Jehovah Rapha (The Lord Who Heals)

“Unclean!” The leper cries,
He dare not lift his eyes,
But staggers up in shame and makes a scene.
For having found the Christ,
He begs with all his might,
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Unclean a dozen years
With flow of blood and tears,
The suff’ring woman reaches through the crowd.
With just a simple touch
Her flow of blood dries up,
“Who touched me?” Says the Savior, turning round.

Jehovah Rapha, touch us with your hand,
For we cry “Abba! Father! Heal our land.”
If you are willing, you can make us clean.
For You alone are able to redeem.

With trembling and with fear,
We all can still draw near,
With wounds that go far deeper than our skin.
For Jesus saves the soul,
Who begs to be made whole,
Repenting from the plague of sin within.

Jehovah Rapha, touch us with your hand,
For we cry “Abba! Father! Heal our land.”
If you are willing, you can make us clean.
For you alone are able to redeem.

Copyright 2020 by Cameron Pollock

Transcending the Worship Wars

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.”

Handwritten fasola notation by Dr. Fred Coleman (American Hymnology, BJU 2020).

     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.

HollowSquareInSacredHarp

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.

~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 by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

Moravians in America

Very soon after I had moved to Pennsylvania to serve as an assistant pastor, my senior pastor took me to visit a couple and their newborn baby. My pastor decided to show me around the area as we went, and he pointed out, as we drove past, a Moravian church in the town of Lititz. He talked about a pair of shoes from the Revolutionary War that had been discovered in the attic of their main building (it was used as a hospital during the war), of famous people who had stayed on the grounds, and of a museum and tours that gave more information about the Moravians. The details were interesting, and I remembered a few vague facts about the Moravians from church history, but I didn’t think much more about it. I failed to realize how much history was waiting, basically in my own backyard.

Lititz Moravian Settlement

     The Moravians were originally followers of Jan Hus, a man who protested the abuses of the Catholic church decades before Martin Luther. He was offered safe passage then burned at the stake for his convictions by the Roman Catholic Church. His followers, called Hussites, continued meeting under threat of persecution. A powerful German noble, Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, learned of these Hussites when he met an immigrant Hussite laborer named Christian David in 1722. Zinzendorf had been heavily influenced by the Pietist movement, a movement which stressed the importance of genuine Christian faith evidenced by spiritual fruit. Zinzendorf believed in living out his faith, and he took compassion on these persecuted believers, inviting them to come live on his estate. These settlers became known as Moravians, and you can still visit their original village of Herrnhut (meaning “God’s shelter”) today in Germany.

     Because Moravians also believed in the importance of evangelism, they eagerly took part in settling the New World. They accomplished much for the cause of Christ. It was through witnessing the unflinching faith of Moravians on a boat bound for Savannah, Georgia that the Wesley brothers began their journey to true faith in Jesus Christ. Zinzendorf wrote a hymn many churches still sing today, Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness, as he encouraged the spread of the gospel in the West Indies. Indeed, the Moravians became famous for their sincere, exuberant corporate singing. They often held Love Feasts (not the same as communion) where congregants would partake of sweet bread and coffee or tea between congregational singing. But they didn’t want the music to stop, so the choir would sing while they ate and drank. Their worship service would often continue, unbroken, for 45 minutes (think mega-hash chorus!).

moravian-instruments18th century cello and viola in the archives of the Lititz Moravian Museum

     The Moravians eventually settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, just an hour and a half away from where I now live. “By 1757, the city had a sophisticated musical establishment, fully European in its tastes, standards, and repertoire with its centerpiece the famed collegium musicum. The same instrumental ensembles and choirs provided music for Moravian worship. Bethlehem’s musical activity would reach its height in quality and quantity in the decades between 1780 and 1850. Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin visited the city and came away impressed with its music” (Ogasapian, 64-65).

Bethlehem Moravian SettlementArtist’s rendering of Bethlehem, PA, as it would have looked when settled by the Moravians.

     The musical contributions of Moravians in American are incredible. Much more could be said. But for now, we would do well to remember the simple truth that ignorance is not always bliss. We may miss out on a wealth of fascinating history, and the lessons that come with it, if we fail to be curious. We need to appreciate the local history that surrounds us. I, for one, have a few trips I need to take in the near future to Lititz and Bethlehem. Who’s with me?

~CP

Bibliography

The Diary of Samuel Sewall and Congregational Singing in Early New England by David. W. Music, The Hymn 41:1 (October 1990).

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

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

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

Bring Back the Psalms!

We talk about what we love. I have found in a church setting that the best way to connect with someone from a different demographic is to ask them about what I think they might love. Elderly people like to talk about their family and their past experiences. Middle aged people often talk about their work environment, their favorite hobbies, or their kids. Young people usually like to talk about anything new and exciting, their friends, or what is going on in school.

     The same is true about what we sing in church. What we sing reflects what we love; it reflects the theology we believe and cherish. If we were to look back in church history just before the time of the Great Awakening (1730s-1740s), we would find that many churches sang only Psalms. Church leaders, especially among the Puritans, believed that it was wrong to sing “hymns of human composure.” So they would sing Psalms from psalters, often to a limited number of familiar tunes. But, as historians have shown, congregational singing had suffered greatly in those churches. The tempo was often slow, people easily mixed up the tunes, and in an effort to keep the words true to the Hebrew text of Scripture, the psalters often lacked poetic beauty. While the people believed what they sang, they were not enable to express their beliefs in the natural forms of their native tongue.

What we sing reflects what we love; it reflects the theology we believe and cherish.

     Meanwhile, across the Atlantic ocean, a man named Isaac Watts had begun composing modified texts of the psalms. He eventually released them in 1719 in a collection entitled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Watts knew he was not following the pattern suggested by the Old Lights (the group that, among other things, advocated Psalm-singing only), but believed paraphrases that sang well were better than strictly literal texts that sang poorly. He was, in a sense, creating hymns based off the Psalms.

     His efforts were considered controversial for failing to stick to the literal text of Scripture. The prominent Boston minister and Puritan Cotton Mather initially admired Watts’ early works, but only endorsed them for use in private worship. Mather eventually published his own psalter, Psalterium Americanum, but neither Mather’s psalter nor Watts’ early works made much of an impact in America. Even Benjamin Franklin complained that Watts’ Psalms of David Imitated, which he had reprinted on his press in Philadelphia, sold poorly. It would take something far more momentous and theologically deep to shift the church music landscape in America.

     That momentous shift occurred during the Great Awakening. Fellow Englishman and friend of Watts, George Whitefield, toured the American colonies in 1739-1740, preaching to massive crowds. A spiritual revival began spreading through the colonies. Around the same time, Congregationalist pastor Jonathan Edwards started witnessing an amazing work of God in the churches he ministered. Edward’s 1741 sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, marked the height of this movement called the Great Awakening. Edwards was perhaps the keenest theological mind America has ever produced. Both he and Whitfield appreciated the works of Watts and promoted the use of his texts. By this time, the church in North America was now ready to sing Watts. It was a fitting combination, for Watts’ texts reflected the robust, Calvinist views of Whitefield and Edwards. Isaac Watts simply echoed the biblically faithful truths that had given birth to the Great Awakening; now people in churches all over American wanted to sing Watts’ texts because the truth was real for them. And they found that his God-centered texts gave a full, natural expression to the change God had worked in their souls. Watts made such an impact that hundreds of years later in America we still sing many of his texts.

alabaster-co-cz4WB-DQIdM-unsplash

     The Great Awakening reminds us of the truth that saving faith drives worship. Before people can sing with all their heart, God has to change their heart. They will only sing about what they love. We can use music to manipulate people into an emotional state (though we shouldn’t), but only God can transform a sinner’s heart. We need to understand the difference.

     In addition, many American churches today outside of Presbyterian Reformed circles have neglected Psalm-singing altogether. Yet Watts himself and other proponents of hymn singing (like the Wesley brothers) did not intend to replace Psalm-singing with hymnody. It was a “both-and” in their mind. Watts simply wanted to express the truths of the Psalms in a more natural manner, and we should too.

     With each passing generation, even Watts’ classic texts grow more difficult to understand. The church needs modern hymn writers who will imitate the Psalms in a fashion similar to Isaac Watts. The theological and historical background of many Psalms require a level of explanation that may be too difficult to fit into one simple song. The solution is not to abandon the Psalms, but to give them special attention. We should write more Psalm-based hymns, not less, and mine the deep theological truths they contain. As we sing the theological truths the Psalms teach us, the church will begin to rediscover a long-lost aspect of its worship heritage. Even within the last few years there has been a resurgence of Psalm-singing and writing among modern hymn-writers, and we should be thankful. The Bible clearly commands us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). So if the worship leader in your church stands up and says, “Let’s learn a new Psalm today,” I hope you will inwardly say, “Yes!” and sing with all your might.

~CP

Sex Enslaves

I have seen a lot of people complaining in the social media universe about the lewd, sexually explicit nature of the Super Bowl halftime show. Last night millions upon millions of grown men and boys watched in a stadium or on their screens at home—often with their mothers, sisters and daughters fully present—provocatively “dressed” women act out sexually charged dance routines all in the name of entertainment. It was no accident. I mean, come on, this is the Super Bowl we are talking about, perhaps the most culturally iconic sports even in all of American society. I did not watch the half-time show (I was intentionally putting my two girls to bed with my wife), but it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going to happen, given who it was taking center stage last night.

Here’s my simple take—Americans will complain, get angry, go to social media and multiply likes upon likes, but they won’t stop it. In fact, they can’t stop it. Why? Because sex enslaves.

I am not talking about the healthy privilege that one man and one woman enjoy in a covenant commitment to each for life, called marriage. I’m talking about the raw, unfettered, sexual drive that we knowingly unleashed a long time ago in our culture. I’m talking about taking something good the Creator has given us, sexual intimacy within marriage, and turning it into an idol that we worship. Sex enslaves countless numbers of women in our society through human trafficking, yes, but it also enslaves untold numbers of souls. We have a porn problem, even in the church, because sex enslaves. We have a sexual revolution on our hands because sex enslaves. And the ones driving the revolution will in the end be engulfed by their own revolution because sex will make clear it is the master, not them.

The sexual revolution can put on a nice face. It will tell us not to judge, that your belief is OK for you to hold but not for me, that we should just be tolerant. But in the end it gets up in your face, as we saw last night, and bites like a serpent. Sex-enslaved individuals targeted an innocent Christian cake baker in Colorado named Jack Phillips, and sued him all the way to the Supreme Court. He won the case, only to be targeted again. Sex-enslaved individuals have already shut down several Christian-based adoption agencies, wishing that orphans would go homeless rather than let them be taught biblical principles of morality. Sex enslaved individuals will promote a #MeToo movement only to reenact sexual perversions on the silver screen, which Americans gladly pay to watch. Sex enslaved individuals want your children and my children to be forced to learn from sex education curriculum in our public schools, starting already in California.

Sex enslaves and then destroys the human soul. It can enslave and destroy you, and it can enslave and destroy me. That is why, though Americans may protest, we won’t stop. Indeed, we can’t stop, because we are slaves to sex.

The only hope for a culture this far gone is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel teaches us that if we confess our sins, including sexual ones, we are forgiven by grace. And if we watch sex acts, we are complicit in sexual sin (Job 31:1-4; Matthew 5:28). It’s serious—Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sexual sins. If someone wants to argue with me that men should just get over it, that it is their own problem if women act or dress in a provocative way, we simply need to recognize God already told us that certain portions and acts of a woman’s body are off limits to everyone’s view except that woman’s husband (Proverbs 5:15-23).  

Grace forgives us of such wrongdoing, when we confess it, and that same grace frees us from enslaving sexual desire. The gospel is the precious key that unlocks us from our chains to sin. Paul tells us in Romans 6, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” When we believe in Jesus, we die to our sin, and we live in Christ. Sex enslaves; grace frees.

“The gospel is the precious key that unlocks us from our chains to sin.”

Grace also kills our pride in any self-righteousness. Religion and morality never saved a single soul. It is not as if I have the power to deliver myself from slavery to sexual sin. Only Jesus Christ can do that. And if Christians want to make a difference in our culture, we need to humbly start by seeking to share the gospel with every opportunity we have. We don’t sympathize with sin, we call it out for what it is. But we do so graciously, humbly, pointing others to Christ, knowing we ourselves are only sinners saved by his grace. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). I pray Jesus will give us grace and strength to do just that.

~CP

The Harvard Reformers: Learning to Sing Again

You’re standing to sing in a new church. The worship leader gets up to lead the first song, with the words on the screen behind him. Then you realize you can’t sing the song because you’ve never heard it. Did the worship leader write it? Who knows. But you’re left standing there, with about a third of the rest of the people. Perhaps you haven’t been in that situation before, but I have. Many times. What’s the problem with singing in our churches? Is it a new problem? Can we fix it? If we dig a little bit into the past, we may find some answers that help us, even today.

Early in American church history, just after the turn of the 18th century, certain graduates of Harvard grew dissatisfied with a problem they saw in their churches. Most Puritan congregations sang “by rote,” meaning they could not read music. According to various accounts from dairies, the quality of congregational singing was poor at best and sometimes even disastrous. Many churches were “lining out” their music, meaning a deacon or some appointed individual would sing a phrase of a psalm, then the congregation would repeat the phrase “by rote.” This was considered the “Common Way” of singing in New England. These Harvard Reformers were convinced that the poor congregational singing signaled a serious spiritual problem, so they published several works that encouraged the practice of reading music, or what they called Regular Singing.

     In 1720 a man named Thomas Symmes published The Reasonableness of Regular Singing, or Singing by Note. He “claimed that the ‘new way’ of singing by note was actually not new at all, but was the oldest form of psalm singing and needed to be revived” (Music & Price, 126).  Symmes promoted the creation of formal singing schools where students could meet two or three evenings out of the week and learn how to read music. In 1723, Symmes also published a pamphlet entitled Utili Dulci, humorously written in a condescending tone, to refute common arguments against Regular Singing.

     Symmes had a hard row to hoe, for many people were comfortable with their bad singing, and reading music smacked too much of “Romish” church choirs which would end in “popery.” Most of the vehement objections came from older members of rural churches. But, in spite of conflict, the singing schools were largely a success, with many churches even voting to end their practice of “lining out.”

          Soon after Symmes published his first book, John Tufts published An Introduction to the Singing of Psalms-Tunes, In a Plain & Easy Method (1721). In it he included one new tune along with older English tunes. He gave “Directions For Singing The Tunes which follow,” teaching people how to sing the psalm tunes with a system much like the popular “Do-Re-Mi” song from The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Tufts’ book met a definite need; it went through 11 editions and was often bound as a supplement to the Bay Psalm Book, the primary psalter of choice for New England Puritans.

“The Skill of Regular Singing is among the Gifts of GOD unto the Children of Men.”

Cotton Mather

     Another Harvard graduate named Thomas Walter soon published his book, The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained: Or An Introduction to the Art of Singing. This singing book included 24 tunes written in parts for three voices, including one original tune. Walter was the nephew of the prominent and powerful Boston minister Cotton Mather. Mather, along with 12 other well-known Boston ministers, endorsed Walter’s book. Mather used his sizable influence to help all the Harvard Reformers (John Tufts was also Mather’s first cousin). As a result, the manuals by Tufts and Walter dominated the singing school landscape for the next fifty years.

     In 1722, with the encouragement of ministers like Mather, the Society for Promoting Regular Singing was established in Boston. Mather himself wrote, “The Skill of Regular Singing is among the Gifts of GOD unto the Children of Men, and by no means unthankfully to be Neglected or Despised. For the Congregations, wherein ’tis wanting, to recover a Regular Singing, would be really a Reformation and a Recovery out of an Apostacy, and what we may judge that Heaven would be pleased withal. We ought certainly to Serve our GOD with our Best, and Regular Singing must needs be better than the confused Noise of a Wilderness” (quoted in Ogasapian, 18).

     We can glean three simple takeaways from the history surrounding the Harvard Reformers. First, we need clarity and order in our worship, and being able to sight-read music is a tool we can use to that end. Paul even uses a musical metaphor to remind the church that when people witness our worship, it should be both intelligible and orderly (1 Cor. 14:6-21). Truth clearly communicated will edify the hearers.

     Second, we need to give God our best out of a grace-infused theology. Grace teaches us that even our righteousness is as filthy rags before God (Is. 64:6). But when we serve God by faith, striving to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, God sees us wrapped in the robes of Jesus’ righteousness and accepts our worship (Rev. 7:13-17). If we love God, we will not want to offer God poor worship, but our best by faith in Jesus.

     Third, every Christian should be aware of their own congregation’s cultural context. Some church music historians look positively on the individual ornamentation and rustic practice of “lining out” in the New England churches. Are they nostalgically viewing the past through rose-colored glasses? Not necessarily. We need to recognize the cultural nature of what was happening, especially in the rural churches. Some of the Harvard Reformers could be rather elitist and condescending, even though they pursued a worthy goal. We ought not give ourselves that kind of poor excuse for walking in the flesh.

     Pastoral wisdom demands that leaders, depending on a church’s history and culture, discern what is best for their particular church. A rural country church may not ever have a choir and may only sing the melody. An educated, big-city church may use elaborate music in their worship services. Both settings are acceptable to God because both are biblical; what truly matters is that we give God the best that we have.

Bibliography

The Diary of Samuel Sewall and Congregational Singing in Early New England by David. W. Music, The Hymn 41:1 (October 1990).

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

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

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

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.

Lesson Learned in 2019

Every New Years, instead of making resolutions, I try to look back over the year and make a list of “lessons learned.” This year I think I can honestly say one big lesson stands out above the rest. Any other lessons I learned either flowed out of this big lesson or led me back to it. It was such a fundamental shift in my thinking, I believe it will change the way I live for the rest of my life.

How It All Started

Sometime this past year I was listening to a podcast in which the speaker claimed the sovereignty of God lined almost every page of Scripture. That, to me, was a fascinating claim, and I wanted to see it for myself.

So there I was, diligently underlining in my Bible reading every word, phrase, or sentence that spoke directly about or in some way implied God’s sovereign work. And I realized I was underlining a lot. Do you know how many times God has said, “I will,” in the Bible? More than I could count. Sometimes I underlined whole chapters, page after page, that spoke of God’s sovereignty. Over and over again the prophets proclaim, “thus says the LORD,” and then the LORD accomplishes all he has said. All he has to do is speak, and it is done. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is packed with words that all cry out, “God is sovereign!”

How It Changed Me

After noting the sovereignty of God every day and every time I opened my Bible, the truth started to sink in. If this is true in the Bible, shouldn’t it be true in my own life? I know we believe that “all things work together for good,” but I’ve tended to only look for the “all things” when I need an explanation for why those “all things” weren’t going my way.

But God is really for us in all things. I discovered I was very poor at recognizing God’s sovereign hand in my own life. I was not in tune to his careful attention to detail, his quiet way of working, his beautifully loving means of shaping not just me, but everyone else in my own life. And I knew I didn’t look for his sovereign hand or trust him like I should, because I was way too uptight and fearful about so much in my life.

After looking for God’s sovereignty in my Bible, and underlining the evidence, God started teaching me to underline it in my life. And the recognition of God’s grace brought peace. It brought joy. It built my faith and encouraged my prayers. Truly, God has worked in so many ways this year I have probably forgotten more instances than I remember.

God in his sovereignty also teaches me how much I need to grow. When I fail to trust his sovereign hand, I feel so foolish for forsaking the One Who alone knows my future. When I coddle arrogant thoughts, I despise my pride for thinking I somehow could take credit for the grace of God in my life. Grace kills pride, and that is something we all can be thankful for. I don’t think I will ever get over that truth.

~CP