The Council of Carthage in the fourth century laid this injunction upon the singers: “See that what thou singest with thy lips thou believest in thy heart; and what thou believest in thy heart thou dost exemplify in thy life.” This admonition can never lose its authority; faith must support all true church music. To supplement this ancient warning, however, there comes the behest from modern culture that the music of the sanctuary shall adapt itself to the complex and changing conditions of modern life, and, while it submits to the pure spirit of worship, it shall grow continually in those qualities which make it worthy to be honored by the highest artistic taste.
Now, here are some general principles to guide our choices of church music that will both command respect and be worthy of our worship.
1. Be realistic. Different people speak different languages, musically as well as in the literal sense. The fact that we differ does not prove one right and the other wrong; it simply proves that we differ. Stigmatizing the current musical trend in church music, James A. Pike declared: “Perchance these songs might lift up some to the living God. But for many more it downgrades Him to the commonplace. It is an ersatz religion, without awe, without mystery, without reverence, without judgment, and in the end, without reality.”1
2. Be perceptive. Know what music says and what it does. Know what is contemporary as opposed to what is compromising. Know what you, as a believer, want to accomplish through music. Know what language to use with various audiences in accomplishing your goal. Avoid music that is subjective in nature, that is, music that centers around our own experience rather than music that is objective and points us to God. Would the Lord judge us, as with Israel of old, saying, “This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth . . . but their heart is far from Me” (Matt. 15:8)?
3. Be humble. Not everyone is going to see things your way or my way. What fulfills and satisfies you musically may not be adequate, or even intelligible, for another. Realize that God reserves the right to use people with whom you or I may disagree. However, we have specific counsel relating to using unconsecrated talent. For instance: “We are not to depend on worldly singers.”2 The reason for this counsel follows: “How can those who have not an interest in God’s Word be expected to sing with spirit and understanding”3 and “Money should not be used to hire singers.”4
4. Be constructive. For the Christian, music must be more than a performance; it is a ministry. All we do for God and His people must be done heartily (Col. 3:22-24), with forethought and with sincerity (2 Cor. 4:1; 6:3, 4). Exampled leadership applies equally to directors of music (1 Tim. 4:12). Entertainment is not the criterion by which we should judge. Church music is not an end in itself but rather a means to that end, which is worship.
5. Be balanced. While there is a legitimate place for contemporary sound and innovative procedures, there is need also for a corresponding reverence for all that is done in the name of and for God. Dr. Harold Lindsell observes, “If you were going to be presented to the Queen of England, you wouldn’t go in blue jeans, would you?” Ellen G. White cautions, “Unless you educate yourselves to respect the place of devotion, you will receive no blessing from God.”5
It may be well for directors of church music to consider the advice of Edward Dickinson: “Those churches which, for any reason whatever, keep their musical standard below the level of that which prevails in the educated society around them are not acting for their own advantage, materially or spiritually.”6
Hymns Of The First Advent [Christmas]
Angels From The Realms Of Glory by James Montgomery (1771-1854)
This hymn written by James Montgomery is considered by hymnody students as one of the finest. The text addresses 3 audiences: first the angelic chorus in the first stanza, then the shepherds in the second stanza, and finally today’s believers— calling all to worship Christ our King.
James Montgomery was born in Scotland in 1771. His father was a Moravian minister and later with his wife left for the West Indies as missionaries where they died. From the age of 10, James was writing verse and was even expelled from a Moravian school because it interfered with his studies. He left school, found work in various places and finally was apprenticed to a bookseller and editor of the Sheffield Register. Later, Montgomery took over the newspaper and became its editor for 31 years. He became a popular lecturer on poetry in Sheffield and London. He defended freedom of speech and opposed slavery and was twice jailed for his convictions. He wrote about 400 hymns and three hymnbooks and alongside Watts and Wesley was a major contributor to English hymnody.
Henry Thomas Smart composed the tune, designed and built organs, was a music editor of Psalms and Hymns for Divine Worship, composed cantatas, operas, and contributed many tunes to Hymns Ancient and Modern.
The Advent Of Our God by Charles Coffin (1676-1749)
It is remarkable how the musical, translation, and compositional skills of three men from three different countries combined to give this vibrant Christmas hymn birth! A Frenchman, Charles Coffin, the author of this hymn was the contemporary of Bach and Handel, and rector of the University of Paris. He published the Latin original of this hymn in his book Hymni Sacri (Sacred Hymns) in 1736. An outstanding Latin scholar, he also wrote the hymn “On Jordan’s Banks.”
An Englishman, John Chandler, the translator of this hymn, was an Oxford graduate and Anglican minister. He published two books of hymns between 1837-1841. He believed “that ‘modern’ hymns were unsuitable to sing along with the ancient prayers that were part of the service, so he translated older hymns from the Latin.”
An American boy organist from Newark, New Jersey, William Henry Walter, composed the tune. At age 17 he went to New York City, and had an outstanding career as organist in many churches including Columbia University’s Chapel. The tune was published in 1872 by John Ireland Tucker, in The Hymnal With Tunes Old and New. The hymn is unique because it combines the 1st and 2nd Advent themes as in Hebrews 9:28 (See stanzas 2 and 3).
O Little Town Of Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)
Phillips Brooks visited the Holy Land in 1865 and on Sunday, December 24, went into the fields outside Bethlehem where, according to tradition, an angel appeared to the shepherds. From there he proceeded to the Church of the Nativity where he remained until early Christmas morning. The music and the scenes left an abiding impression. Three years later, while pastoring the Holy Trinity Church in Boston, he wanted a special carol for the Sunday school children to sing for the Christmas program. Recalling the peaceful scene in the Bethlehem church, he wrote 5 stanzas of the carol in one evening. He gave a copy to his organist, Lewis Redner, and requested him to compose a melody designed for children. On the evening just before the program was scheduled, Redner awakened suddenly from sleep and with the melody ringing in his ears, wrote out the tune which was sung on December 27, 1868.
Phillips Brooks was born in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He was 19 when he graduated from Harvard in 1855; he was in his thirties when he assumed the pastorate of the Trinity Church in Boston and 42 when he delivered his famous lectures in the Beecher series at Yale. At his death in 1893, twenty thousand persons gathered to mourn.
His memory is evident in this Christmas carol.
Silent Night by Joseph Mohr (1792-1848)
This beloved hymn was written by two Swiss men from villages in the Tyrol Alps not far from Salzburg, Austria. Joseph Mohr, an assistant priest in the Oberndorf Church of St.Nicholas and Franz Gruber, schoolmaster of the nearby village of Arnsdorf, were discussing music and agreed that a perfect Christmas song had never been written. It was Christmas Eve in 1818. Mohr quickly wrote the text and presented it to Gruber who said: “Friend Mohr, you have found it—the right song—God be praised.” Gruber immediately composed a tune that perfectly fitted the words and the carol was completed in time for the Christmas Eve mass. Since the organ of St. Nicholas Church was not functioning, Mohr and Gruber sang their new hymn to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar.
The carol was not published for 20 years, but it became known through the organ repair man, Karl Mauracher who heard the carol, secured a copy and circulated it around his district. For a long time it was thought to be a folk song of the Austrian Tyrol. There have been many translations and it was translated into English in 1863 by John Freeman Young, an Episcopal minister who was appointed the bishop of Florida in 1867.
1 James A. Pike was an American Episcopal bishop, prolific writer, and one of the first mainline religious figures to appear regularly on television.
2 Ellen G. White, Evangelism, 508.
3 Ibid. 509.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, 5:608.
6 Edward Dickinson, Music in the History of the Western Church, 403.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.