Sacred Harp Singing – Losing Its Heart

This weekend we attended the National Sacred Harp Convention in the Birmingham, Alabama area. I enjoyed getting to hear the style singing that I grew up listening to. Although I found I was seriously out of practice. I could not sing as fast as they did.

The National Convention draws some of the best Sacred Harp singers from around the world.

There were around a dozen singers from the UK, lots from Canada, one lady was from Holland, and many from all over the USA. Singers drove or flew from Oregon, Montana, New York, and California. There was one lady that has flown from England for ten years for this conference.

We didn’t see anyone we really knew this year. Most of the older individuals aren’t able to travel any longer or else they have passed away. We saw several that we are familiar with but really don’t know, many that are part of promoting Sacred Harp Singing nationally. And of course there was the eclectic older individual man that is a regular each year. You never know what to expect from him. I guess you would call him a modern day hippy. The day we saw him he wore shorts, a printed shirt, black knee high socks, and some kind of rolled beret hat. The day before he was proudly wearing a NO WAR shirt.

That was a symptom of a larger problem which I have noticed for years but never so much as this year. What is the problem? The fact that although in some ways Sacred Harp Singing is thriving and being introduced to more and more younger generations, it has lost its heart.

What do I mean about losing its heart?

The National Convention has become a singing for the sake of singing and promoting Sacred Harp singing. But the real reason for singing is lost, just like Christmas today has no evidence of the purpose intended. The heart of Sacred Harp singing is worshiping our Lord, singing praise to His name and His wonderful provisions for us. But that was missing. Now granted there were those there that were singing to praise and worship the Lord, particularly the older individuals. But many, many were there to sing a style of music and they had never caught the reason for the singing.

Sacred Harp singing was a method of learning to sing notes and carry tunes in order that hymn singing in worship services might be beautiful praise to the Lord. It was developed at a time when reading music was not known by the general population and tunes were sung differently in different churches just from memory.

Within a generation or two, the Puritans forgot many of their psalm tunes, and the pace of singing slowed. Lining out, a practice in which a clerk or precentor sang or read a line followed by the people’s singing of that line, gradually became more popular. This call-response pattern and the slowed tempo encouraged individuals to improvise their own variations on the psalm tunes ever more loudly in an increasingly cacophonous sea of sound. Ministers like Thomas Walter found this “singing by rote” intolerable and began in the second and third decades of the eighteenth century to argue for a return to “regular singing.” By 1800 the practice of “lining out” had died in New England and moved South, more of its own accord than by argument, but concern for “regular singing” helped to create singing schools.

Dictionary of Christianity in America

So villanous had church-singing at last become that the clergymen arose in a body and demanded better performances; while a desperate and disgusted party was also formed which was opposed to all singing. Still another band of old fogies was strong in force who wished to cling to the same way of singing that they were accustomed to; and they gave many objections to the new-fangled idea of singing by note, the chief item on the list being the everlasting objection of all such old fossils, that “the old way was good enough for our fathers,” &c. They also asserted that “the names of the notes were blasphemous;” that it was “popish;” that it was a contrivance to get money; that it would bring musical instruments into the churches; and that “no one could learn the tunes any way.”

Sabbath In Puritan New England by Alice Morse Earle

So Sacred Harp singing developed as a way to teach the hymns and tunes to the congregations in order that the hymn singing could be done “decently and in order”.

If you visit a small Sacred Harp singing in a church there is often praying and testimonies given during the singing. Even the songs attest to the Lord’s Grace and faithfulness to us worthless sinners. Although the singings may be doing the right things and saying the right words, they are becoming lacking in the truly important things – worshiping the Lord with all the heart and spirit.

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