T he Seventh-day Adventist church has always used music as part of its worship service, from the days when it was composed of small scattered groups who sang the Advent hymns, to the present day of the too-large church with its great organ and splendid choir.
In the beginning we sang the songs of other churches, adding to them new songs reflecting our own doctrines, which usually were poems sung to any well-known tune of the same meter. An example of this was the hymn "Jesus Soon Is Coming," which was sung to a tune called "Expectation." This was the same tune as that used for "Nelly Was a Lady, Last Night She Died." (See Spaulding, Origin and History of Seventh-Day Adventist, vol. 2, p.132.) From this it might be concluded that our founding fathers did not overly concern themselves with the idea of sacred tunes so long as the words had a religious message.
Today we are confronted with the challenge of assembling some sort of philosophy to be used as a guideline for the music we perform in our churches. To do this, it is necessary to agree on the purpose or purposes of music in the church, the musical tradition, if any, that is ours, and also consider the problems we have found with the contemporary styles.
We should all agree that the main purpose of music in our church service is worship. In other meetings it might be that of singing about our doctrines, or the story of salvation, or the joys of fellowship with Jesus. The function of music, then, is to add to the worship service and to be another avenue through which we might express ourselves in these religious exercises.
The guidelines given to us in the Spirit of Prophecy are good, though general, and deal with the overall aspect of the uses to which music should and should not be put. This has been the way of most of the writers who have published articles in our church papers. They have given good general ideas but in most instances have avoided discussion of problems that might have been found.
When one attempts to put into words his beliefs concerning church music, he finds himself confronted with an overwhelming multitude of questions.
First, let's look at tradition. Our church has no real musical tradition as do some of the older Protestant denominations such as the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists. Any tradition we may have must be centered on evangelism. This leads to the tradition of the gospel song that which tells of Jesus and His love for us. We find also that our Adventist hymn writers have written songs that pertain to most of our doctrinal beliefs, including temperance and Ingathering. We have had very few hymns of worship composed by Adventist hymn writers. I might mention that F. E. Belden wrote a few and Harold A. Miller wrote at least one, but the vast majority of songs by Adventist composers are gospel songs. This brings as to the first problem in the setting up of our philosophy: Whose path do we follow in ascertaining a proper kind of music for the church service?
There is a very vocal minority whose unshakable faith is in the great Protestant musical tradition the great hymns of Luther, Wesley, and others. They find no place in the worship service for the gospel song or for the lighter style that it brings. We might refer to these folk as the church musical traditionalists.
Then there are the evangelists, who think that any song whose text fits the sermon that is planned must be appropriate for the service regardless of the style or structure of the music.
Another group is composed of music educators and professional musicians, who are trained in a professional curriculum and consider themselves to be authorities on church music. They do not compromise or bend in any way at all, and use only the music of the masters in their preparation for religious services.
A fourth group consists of people, many times well educated, many times uneducated, but usually completely without knowledge. However, they are seeking spiritual refreshment and growth through the religious service. And they know what they like, and they like what they know.
Last but by no means least are the youth. This very vocal segment of the church likes the familiar style of popular music. Because we have been so lax in their guidance we cannot expect them to automatically choose what is best. Therefore, many of them are unable to distinguish between the styles of sacred or secular music.
We must also consider the following facts:
1. That we should have had this meeting 30 years ago. Our efforts now are almost like trying to stop and bring back the water that poured over the dam long ago.
2. That we have been without any unified church standard on music until the present time with the exception of that set forth in the writings of Mrs. White, which are excellent but not explicit in detail.
3. The music educators and the ministers of the church usually have seemed to be working in different directions and have become further and further apart in their ideals and goals for the music of the church.
4. We have been so seduced and enamored of the melody and beat of the popular gospel songs that we have lost our sense of worth and value, and seem content to float along with the musical tide, immersed in a sea of sound that seems in danger of engulfing us unless we are able to find a life raft on which to save ourselves and to regain our sense of musical equilibrium.
When we consider all these points as problems it would seem that the task of developing a philosophy of music for the Seventh-day Adventist church is impossible to accomplish, but with God's help we will find our way around these obstacles.
In the November 24,1958, issue of Christianity Today there appeared an article by Edward A. Cording entitled "Music Worthy of God." Following are a few quotations taken from the article that express the concern of other generations and their ideas for solutions.
"The spiritual level of the church today is recorded in the type of music and the character of the songs that are sung. If that is true, then the present day church has hit a new low. Today the catchy tune is the thing which is popular, and frankly you can dance to some present-day church music. On the radio you can't always be sure whether it's a ballad, boogie, bebop, or the latest chorus of the church. Several song writers are getting rich writing this low type of music, a type which appeals to the flesh. It's like taking dope, the more you hear it, the more you want to hear it, until you become addicted to it." -Dr. Vernon McGee, Church of the Open Door, Los Angeles, California.
"Where Christianity ought to be worship in the highest sense of the word, it has too often fallen short of the glory of God through the failure of its music. Where entertainment becomes the goal, it is no mystery why we have a perverted expression of the Christian faith, for the goal of the entertainer and the goal of God's messenger are inherently different. With one, it is what the people want; with the other, it is what they need. We are as guilty in our singing as in our preaching if we declare not the whole counsel of God." - Irving Sablosky, critic, Chicago Daily News.
If we keep it well in mind that music in the church is not an end, but a means to an end, we will have less difficulty in charting our path. The end sought is the glory of God, and not the glory of the performer, or of the music.
To arrive at a conclusion concerning church music it is necessary to consider the many different types of services in our church. We must have hymns of worship for our Sabbath morning services in our church. We must have hymns of worship for our Sabbath morning service as well as the gospel-type song for use in the service of Sabbath school and prayer meeting. In choosing this second type of religious music great care should be employed in the selection of both words and music so that nothing trite or cheap becomes a part of our services. Music for the youth must be contemporary enough in sound and word to be attractive and meaningful to them but should not include the popular cheap style that has become common. There is nothing inherently wrong with the use of instruments such as guitar, bass, and drums, but guidance and instruction should be given in the way they are used. Great care must be taken so that the elements of rock music do not become a part of our services.
As we struggle to come forth with our own philosophy of music, we must keep in mind that the great hymns of the church are those of worship; that the story of salvation and God's love for us is told in the gospel songs; that we must endeavor to cultivate in our church that which is of lasting worth and value, and to discover guidelines whereby we can help the young as they grow. We must not condemn the youth with a "Thou shall not" when they bring us a way-out version of some religious rock song, but we must help them to find what is good and what can truly bring a spiritual blessing.
With God's help we will have the wisdom to approach the throne of heaven with music that is "simple, melodious, and of praise to God."
Charles L. Pierce was chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at Columbia Union College at the time of this writing.