Church Music in the Days of The Puritians

During their day, Puritans would play musical instruments in their homes but never in the church. It just wasn’t done that way. The psalm book that they sang from did not have musical notes or notations but the tune was chosen by the presenter and then the congregation followed. Or at least was supposed to. But with no written music to follow and no musical instruments the singing over the years denigrated into cacophony. Congregations did not even sing the same “tune” the same way.

Judge Sewell according to his diary complained that twice the congregation was started on one tune and quickly charged right into a totally different tune. He soon gave up his job as presenter.

“. . . the Tunes that are already in use in our Churches; which, when they first came out of the Hands of the Composers of them, were sung according to the Rules of the Scale of Musick, . . . are now miserably tortured, and twisted, and quavered, in some Churches, into a horrid Medly of confused and disorderly Noises. . . .Our Tunes are, for the want of a Standard to appeal to in all our Singing, left to the Mercy of every unskilful Throat to chop and alter, twist and change, according to their infinitely divers and no less odd Humours and Fancies. That this is most true, I appeal to the Experiences of those who have happened to be present in many of our Congregations, who will grant me, that there are no two Churches that sing alike. Yea, I have my self heard (for Instance) Oxford Tune sung in three Churches (which I purposely forbear to mention) with as much difference as there can possibly between York and Oxford, and any two other different Tunes. … For much time is taken up in shaking out [the] Turns and Quavers; and besides, no two Men in the Congregation quaver alike, or together; which sounds in the Ears of a good Judge, like Five Hundred different Tunes roared out at the same time, whose perpetual interferings with one another, perplexed Jars, and unmeasured Periods, would make a Man wonder at the false Pleasure, which they conceive in that which good Judges of Musick and Sounds, cannot bear to hear.”

Grounds and Rules 1721, Thomas Walters

Or how about this quote:

“… sad to hear what whining, toling, yelling or shreaking there is in our country congregations.” Master Mace

And another controversy over music and singing.

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

Here is some more information about Edwards:

And the duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.

Jonathon Edwards Religious Affections (WJE Online Vol. 2)

Edwards lived at the time when Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was dominating the world of music. Though the two were separated by an ocean, one was a Congregationalist and the other a Lutheran, and it is probable that Edwards never actually heard any of Bach’s music, Edwards shared a similar vision with the great composer. Bach, as the composer par excellence at the time, used harmony and counterpoint to direct one’s attention to a higher reality. Edwards likened the harmony of music to the proportionality of beautiful physical features on a woman, as musical harmony symbolized future heavenly harmonious relationships. Music, as well, was to him the most perfect means of communication. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Edwards often enjoyed singing with his wife Sarah. As a result of this love of music, Edwards set about to reform congregational singing. Strict Calvinism (and correspondingly high Biblicism) led many to believe, as Calvin did, that the only appropriate songs to sing in church were those found in the Bible, translated literally from the Hebrew or Greek. Thus, the Psalms (usually unaccompanied by instruments) was the only form of musical worship allowed in New England churches. By Edwards’ time, this had become pure cacophony, especially in contrast to the music epitomized by Bach. People like Cotton Mather, Isaac Watts, and Edwards’ grandfather Solomon Stoddard brought in the “new music,” including hymns, into the churches. Thus it was that Edwards was able to enjoy the advent of this new musical revolution, the style of which he dearly loved.

The quote from Master Mace seems that we have come full circle back to where we started centuries ago.

“… sad to hear what whining, toling, yelling or shreaking there is in our country congregations.”

Does that not describe many of our contemporary worship services where the noise of the instruments and the screaming of lyrics obscur any possible value in the words?


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