Thomas Synes was a New England Puritan pastor anxious to promote literacy in his congregation through the new practice of singing from musical notation. In 1723, he wrote this parody of the objections he encountered:
“It’s too new, worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style. Because there are so many songs, you can’t learn them all. There is too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances, making people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it. It’s a money-making scheme. Some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.”1
Sadly, change in church music selections and performance can create division in a congregation. Here are some hints to help avoid stirring up controversy as new songs are introduced.
1. Don’t neglect the great hymns of the past. The Christian community draws strength from a sense of continuity with the past. God has done mighty things as the God of salvation in history; these hymns keep that awareness alive.
2. Don’t introduce large amounts of new material in a short time. When presenting new songs, present them to the congregation in a familiar instrumental style. In other words, “Do the new in an old way, and do the old in a new way.”2 Use PowerPoint technology. Consider, for a moment, some of the advantages. Musically speaking, it is better for singers to have their heads lifted up rather than buried in a hymnal. Further, congregants are more unified with each other and with music leaders when they are focused on the same point in the sanctuary.
3. Start new songs that are reminiscent of the familiar hymn style. Plan for musical variety in their presentation but be aware that “new” music enjoys no immunity to boredom. Tell the story behind the song. Remember to observe copyright laws.3
4. Be aware that style reflects culture. It may surprise you to learn that “frequently folk songs and dance melodies were used for the religious texts.”4 For instance, the tune “Amazing Grace” used to be a plantation song, and the music for “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” was a cantata written by Mendelssohn in praise of Gutenberg’s printing press; the music was later united with Charles Wesley’s lyric to become a Christmas carol. For his hymns, Martin Luther chose tunes with which people were familiar. He later saw the incongruity of using tunes on Sunday mornings that were sung in the pubs on Saturday night! However, he added this rejoinder: “Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and made them.”5
In the end, related to “taste” in church music, Donald Hustad observed that “someone will argue that one’s personal alabaster box is another’s mess of potage. . . . Like the biblical counterparts, one is costly self-indulgence and the other is sacrificial worship.”6 Certainly, the ultimate criterion for our choices in church music should be that which would “uplift the thoughts to high and noble themes, to inspire and elevate the soul.”7
Leaders of worship need to preserve the best of the church’s past musical heritage and foster an openness to discover the best of the present and the future. If choices are wise and the musical offerings beautiful, the souls of the worshipers should be moved.
HYMNS OF GRATITUDE
FOR THE BEAUTY OF THE EARTH by Folliott Sandford Pierpoint (1835-1917)
Picture yourself standing at the top of a hill in the city of Bath, Somerset, England. It is late spring, and violets and primroses are in full bloom. At your feet, the Avon River winds its way into the distance. You rest and survey the beauty of the scene. It is the perfect place to meditate. This is the setting that led Pierpoint to write the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth.” With thoughts filled with the manifold gifts of life, his pen quickly summarized these musings leading to this hymn written for a Communion service. It consisted of 8 stanzas, was entitled “The Sacrifice of Praise,” and first published in 1864. Besides the beauties of God’s creation, the content of these verses also included his social blessings—friends and home, as well as the spiritual blessings as represented by the Church—God’s chosen agency for accomplishing His divine purposes in the world.
Pierpoint, was born in Bath, educated in a grammar school, and graduated from Cambridge University with a Bachelor’s degree in 1857. He taught classics at Sommersetshire College and later moved to South Devon and did occasional teaching. He published 3 volumes of poems and wrote several hymns. The tune was composed by Conrad Kocher who founded a School of Sacred Song in Stuttgart, Germany, and reformed German church music by creating four-part singing. The hymn is a musical prayer to the One who is the source of every blessing.
LET ALL THINGS NOW LIVING by Katherine K. Davis (1892-1980)
This hymn, a two-part anthem and favorite of church choirs everywhere was written by Katherine Kennicott Davis who was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, USA. She earned her B.A. degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and did graduate study in music composition, theory, and piano. She taught at her alma mater for 8 years and went into full-time work as a composer, editor, and arranger. Her most famous text is “The Little Drummer Boy,” 1941. Her published works number more than 800, for which she received an honorary doctorate from Stetson University in Florida, USA.
The tune, named THE ASH GROVE is a Welsh melody “that uses the separate notes of the three major chords almost in arpeggio form,” making it enjoyable to sing. The source of the tune is from a Book of National Songs. The present arrangement in four-part harmony is by Wayne Hooper, a song leader for H.M.S. Richards as well as a member of the King’s Heralds.
The song is a lament of a lover for his sweetheart who “sleeps ‘neath the green turf down by the ash grove” hence the tune title. However, the tune is far from melancholic, rather, the lilting melody triumphantly sweeps us into “a song of thanksgiving to God the Creator.”
NOW, THANK WE ALL OUR GOD by Martin Rinkhart (1586-1649)
It is ironical that a hymn of thanksgiving could be born out of a religious war and a plague that reduced the German population from 16 to 6 million in 30 years!
The author of this hymn, Martin Rinkhart, studied for ministry at the University of Leipzig, taught at the Eisleben secondary school in 1610, conducted choirs, and was called at the age of 31 to pastor the state Lutheran church of Eilenberg, his hometown. His arrival coincided with the beginning of the 30 Years War, a horrendous conflict between warring Catholic and Protestant forces from various European countries.
Eilenberg was a walled city and gave asylum to political and military fugitives. It soon became overcrowded. Food shortages and disease quickly followed. The plague of 1647 came into the walled city, took the life of two residents and two refugee clergymen, including Rinkhart’s wife, leaving him alone to minister to the dying and conducting up to 40 burials a day.
This hymn was sung in all the churches as a hymn of thanksgiving for the end of the war. It was titled “The Chorus of God’s Thankful Children,” was included in Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Hymn of Praise in 1840, and stands as a remarkable statement of faith.
FOR ALL THE SAINTS by William Walsam How (1823-1897)
William How wrote the text of this hymn (originally 11 verses) in 1864 for use in the Anglican church liturgy commemorating All Saints Day. It first appeared in a book compiled by “A Layman,” Horatio Nelson, who was the grandson of the brother of Lord Nelson of Trafalgar fame. It was originally titled “Saints Day Hymn-Cloud of WitnessesHebrews 12:1.”
Of course the “witnesses” refers to the heroes of faith mentioned by the apostle Paul in Hebrews 11, together with their spiritual descendants who have proclaimed, witnessed, and died for the Christian faith.
The tune was composed in 1906 by Ralph Vaughan Williams who is credited with 25 choral orchestral works including “Festival Te Deum” written for the coronation of King George VI and performed at Westminster Abbey, England, in 1937. “For All the Saints” is considered one of the greatest tunes of the twentieth century and combined with the text is a call for all Christians to emulate the noble example of those who paid the ultimate price for their faithfulness.
1 Leslie Flynn, Worship: Together We Worship, 75.
3 See: Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc., 6130 NE 78th Court, Suite C-11, Portland, OR 97218-2853.
4 The Harvard Dictionary of Music.
5 Luther’s Works, 53:316.
7 Ellen G. White, Education, 167.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.