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Ancient and Modern Mode of Singing the Psalms.

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Ancient and Modern Mode of Singing the Psalms.

James Dodson

[Originally appeared in THE ASSOCIATE PRESBYTERIAN, 1862].


A GRAND movement on the part of mankind in any direction, or for any purpose moral or political, with a view to reformation, is an interesting and proper subject to be studied. It is so not only for those who eagerly participate in it, but also for those who stand aloof from, or even oppose it. Man being by nature possessed with some degree of veneration, is ever ready to adore some deity either true or false; and that part of his worship which most affects his animal nature, in that he is almost certain to err, if not restrained by the light and spirit of divine revelation. Music in all ages has occupied no inconsiderable place in society, both in its social and sacred character. We learn from the Bible that at the earliest period, almost coeval with man, music became one of the social enjoyments of at least a part of the human family, the descendants of Cain. There perhaps never has been a nation, either enlightened, civilized, or savage, but has been in some sense swayed by its sceptre or has worshipped at its shrine. There is a strangely potent influence in the combinations of sounds that can summon up our emotions, as if a spirit had made those sounds its home, and entering by them were playing a responsive symphony on the chords of the heart. Love, joy, sorrow, triumph, and devotion, all find in music appropriate expression; and by it men are stimulated to acts of daring as well as to infatuation in worship. It has led armies to battle, and marshaled Satan’s hosts in all the idolatries of past ages.

And at the present day it stands pre-eminent in all the refined idolatries of the churches. As an illustration of its power, many schemes have been invented for raising money for benevolent objects, but none have been so successful as to sugar-coat philanthropy with music. Do we wish to raise money for the poor, for the church, for missions, domestic or foreign, we have only to hire some proficients in music, advertise a splendid ball, with tickets from one to three dollars apiece, and hundreds, yea thousands, of the gay almoners in the city will besiege the place designated, and spend money without stint. It is scarcely necessary here to say that music occupies the most conspicuous place, as there would be no dancing without music, and the result is that the managing committee carries off plethoric bags of gold for the benevolent object. So also to aid our Sabbath School, or build a church, we have only to get up a concert of music, and the coveted dollars are forthcoming. To give currency to this OR ANY OTHER HUMAN INVENTION, the city churches have nothing more to do than fulminate some new mode in worship, then the rural districts will frictionate the batteries and flash the lightning.

Having seen the magic powers of music in abstracting money for sacrifice, the point to which we wish to call special attention is its deleterious influence in what purports to be ascriptions of praise in public worship, which we have no hesitation in saying is nothing more than a musical entertainment as conducted under the auspices of alleged improvements in the service of the sanctuary. That refined music in our churches has brought the different denominations of professed christians, with perhaps one or two exceptions, to the footstool of Apollo and Euterpe, the fabled god and goddess of music, is evident from the fact that instrumental music which was by our forefathers denominated ensigns of Baal, are introduced into many of the churches, and in still a greater number the vocal is performed by a choir, which is made to serve in the place of congregational singing. It is a lamentable fact that all the popular churches have become academies of music, where only the initiated can participate—a kind of religious opera, where crowds are attracted to hear our prima donnas. This practice would doubtless meet with greater opposition were not that the Clergy are marshaled in its favor, it having proved the most efficient auxiliary in keeping up an audience, and also in some degree contributing to that indispensable object, an ample salary of from one to five thousand dollars, and even more in some of the cities.

But should there, in some mysterious way, a radical change come over the lay members of the different denominations, requiring a mode of singing better adapted to the capacities of all the worshippers than at the present; and assured likewise that by the change the accessions to each denomination would be accelerated, and their financial concerns greatly improved, and the interest of the clergy better promoted according to the proverb "like people like priest," under such circumstances, and in a very brief period, there could not be found one in all this Israel from Dan to Beersheba but would sound the key-note in favor of reform, and there could not be found on the pages of inspiration a passage upon which to predicate an argument in favor of a restricted mode of singing. No pulpit orator would slumber at his post, or be guilty of remaining dumb, but all, priest and people, with one voice would submit to fashion’s decree, and music not at all artistic would soon become pleasant and profitable to refined ears. Sad as this picture may appear, and it may be thought by some to be overdrawn, let those who think so read Micah 3: 10, 11—"They built up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity. The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets divine for money."

As different views are entertained with reference to the proper place that music should occupy in religious worship, it may be necessary in the examination of this subject, and that we may not be misunderstood, to define more clearly our position. The question does not concern the practice of concert or continuous singing, or of the use of instrumental music in private, nor their use on extraordinary public occasions about which we have nothing to say here, but simply their use in the ordinary public and divinely instituted worship of God. It is against this use I protest, and this argument is not intended so much as a general one, but rather as a special one addressed to Presbyterian people professing Presbyterian principles. The Associate Presbyterians of America, and those from whom we descended in the old countries, and particularly those of Scotland and Ireland, from whom we have received our common faith, have always, and under all circumstances as a body, opposed and rejected every human addition to God’s word, God’s ordinances, and God’s worship. They have considered this principle fundamental, not only in Presbyterianism, but also in Protestantism and in christianity, and upon this point their testimonies are clear and abundant against Papists, Prelatists, Lutherans, and all errorists. But here a question is presented, had our forefathers any authority for opposition to those denominations, some of which had introduced instrumental music as a part of the public worship, and others continuous singing, etc., as well as at the present day; or does the Scripture give us no light on this matter? Are we left to walk in regard to this important subject "in the sight of our own eyes and in the light of the sparks that we have kindled." To the two first interrogatories we give an affirmative answer, but to the last an emphatic no. The first conspicuous example that we find in Scripture in which music was employed as an appendage to the divinely appointed ordinance of praise, is contained in Exodus 15, on the deliverance of the Israelites at the Red sea. Moses and Israel, no doubt, by divine inspiration indited this song and delivered it to the children of Israel to be sung before they stirred from the place where they saw the Egyptians dead upon the shore. They there expressed their joy in God and thankfulness to him. "Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake saying, I will sing unto the Lord for he hath triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea," etc. On this text HENRY says, "The solemn singing of this song, Miriam or Mary presided in an assembly of the women, who, according to the softness of her sex and the common way of those times for expressing joy, sang this song; Moses led the psalm and gave it out for the men, and then Miriam for the women." The whole circumstance furnishes indubitable evidence that the first time music became a part of the public praise of God, that lining was the only, the proper expedient, and necessary to a universal participation.

Take another example. First Chronicles 13:1-2—"And David consulted with the captains of thousands and hundreds, and with every leader. And David said unto all the congregation of Israel, If it seem good unto you and that it be of the Lord our God, let us send abroad unto our brethren everywhere, that are left in all the land of Israel, and with then: also the Priests and Levites which are in their cities and suburbs, that they may gather themselves unto us. And let us bring again the ark of our God unto us." And in chapter 16:7, it is said, "Then on that day David delivered first this psalm, to thank the Lord, into the hand of Asaph and his brethren;" and in the context David directed the Israelites to "give thanks to the Lord, sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, O ye seed of Jacob, Israel his servant;" and lest the requisition should appear limited in its application, in the 23d verse of the same chapter it is said, "Sing unto the Lord all the earth." This remarkable case proves beyond the possibility of cavil, that lining out the psalm was the necessary practice of that day of solemn convocation, for even the Levites themselves could not sing it without being given out or lined, how much less that august assembly, and whatever God requires in his moral government of one, he cannot demand less of another, if religion be at all a living principle in the professor, and in public worship the word of God contained in the psalm is reiterated or parceled out, and this same word (not refined music) is reciprocated from the fullness of the soul, then only does music become the vehicle of genuine praise, the spontaneous outgushing of true worship. Throughout the book of Psalms the most general terms are employed to set forth a universal obligation to celebrate God’s praise. Let the following passages out of many that might be adduced suffice: Psalms 66: 4—"All the earth shall worship Thee, they shall sing unto thy name." Psalms 95:1—"O come let us sing to the Lord, come let us every one." Psalms 148:11-13: In this psalm all are required to praise the Holy One of Israel, and are given in detail. "Kings of the earth and all people, princes and all judges of the earth, both young men and maidens, old men and children, let them praise the name of the Lord." Space does not allow us to quote all the passages which refer to this subject, but after an examination of every passage in the Bible usually referred to in this connection, and of a multitude of others hearing upon it, I have no hesitation in saying that it does not contain a single text which asserts or implies any other mode of singing praise than that of lining out the psalm in public worship, or is in harmony with the capacities of all.

The next inquiry is, has the educational advantages of the nations or people from the time this law was first given to Moses until the art of printing was discovered, been such that congregations could praise God in a song without it being lined or given out? Let history answer for this period. On this subject writers are pretty generally agreed. In "A Narrative of Church History," compiled by WILLIAM GIBSON and ALEXANDER MCLEOD, D. D., page 29, in reference to the education of the Jews, they say "Instruction before the people learned to read was conducted entirely by the conversation of the prophets, the priests, the Levites, and the heads of families. The progress of the Jews in literature was very slow. Eight hundred years after writing the law by Moses it was rare to find a copy of the book in which it was contained. During the reign of the pious Josiah there was some difficulty in procuring a copy for the king’s use." On page 38 they say.—"The rapidity with which the Gospel spread during the Apostolic age, and the prospect of spreading it still farther, exposed all the Apostles to great and unceasing danger and toil. They had the care of all the churches, but they could not be present everywhere. The first converts in general were simple and pious, and the first ministers were faithful and zealous. The means of information were, however, few. The canon of Scripture was not yet complete. Copies of the Scripture were scarce; pious books were not to be attained. And few persons could READ." We might add quotations, but we presume the above will be sufficient to establish the fact that scarcely a tithe of the population of the globe, from the giving of this law to Moses for near three thousand years, could read a single paragraph. This is not at all strange when we take into consideration that education was then imparted through the medium of writing, and that too under unfavorable circumstances. If these premises are correct, the conclusion follows that concert or continuous singing then in the churches could not be conducted in accordance with the law already adverted to without making the office-bearers chargeable with a willful disregard of the statute.

The next thing that claims our attention, is to examine the title upon which this stupendous Babel, the singing without lining, is predicated. The advocates of this practice do not pretend to have either precept or example from the word of God, but their highest authority is the practice of the reformed churches of Scotland, and particularly the Scots Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, that framed the Confession of Faith, were opposed to the clause in that instrument requiring the psalms to be lined in public worship. And further, that we may not be charged with taking a one-sided view of this subject, and also that the friends of this religious heresy may see themselves in their own mirror, we will introduce WALTER STEWART of Pardovan. In his "Collections," page 85, he says, "It was the ancient practice of the church, as it is yet of some reformed churches abroad, for the minister or precentor to read over as much of the psalm in metre together as was intended to be sung at once, and then the harmony and melody followed without interruption, and people did either learn to read or get most of the psalms by heart; but afterwards, it being found that when a new paraphrase of the psalm was appointed, it could not at first be so easy for the people to follow, then it became customary that each line was read by itself and then sung. But now, having for so long a time made use of this paraphrase, and the number of those that can read being increased, it is but reasonable that the ancient custom should be revived, according to what is insinuated in the Directory on this subject." And with regard to the Scots Commissioners, LIGHTFOOT, in vol. 13: page 344, says, "Then was our Directory for singing psalms read over to the Scots Commissioners, who were absent at the passing it. And Mr. HENDERSON disliked our permission of any one to read the psalm line by line, and this business held us some debate." These remarks of STEWART follow the act of the Church of Scotland authorizing the use of the present version of the book of Psalms, which occurred two years after the adoption of the Confession of Faith; and here let it be remarked, that this author does not say that at that time there were many congregations that sung without lining the psalm, "but that there were some," and farther, he says they were not in that section of country, they were abroad, so that according to this advocate of continuous singing, he was an exception. But admit for the argument’s sake that there were some, it docs not prove continuous singing right; if it did, the friends of hymns of human composition would have quite as easy a task to prove that among some of the Reformers there were those that advocated and used hymns in their public and private worship, both at home and broad, or that the doctrine of consubstantiation was right because LUTHER and some of the churches of Germany adopted it as a part of their creed. When the Westminster Assembly adopted that article of our Confession requiring the psalm to be read line by line before the singing thereof, it was not until after due deliberation and in strict conformity to the necessities of worshipping assemblies. And if we regard the spiritual interest, and have a due respect for the rights and capacities of the unlearned, the blind, etc., it will be indispensable in all coming time. For we are assured that the poor will never cease out of the land. And it is further obvious to every one that there is no one article of our Confession that harmonizes to a greater degree with the true spirit of christianity, and every day’s experience, since its utterance until now, confirms its wisdom and commends its truth, although the practice is now cast in the shade by those that are wise above what is written. There is in the unrenewed mind a desire to improve upon the divine arrangement by some scheme of human wisdom, to which neither the Bible, our standards, nor the past history of the church, gives any sanction. These innovations are almost universally based upon some human policy regulated by expediency, employed, to enlarge the congregation, or subserve some supposed necessary end or interest. And the advocates are ever ready to be drifted into the current of popularity and to be steered by the uncertain chart of public opinion, rather than by the divine standard of truth and duty. Persons may become infatuated by music. A case occurred not long since which may in some degree serve as an illustration. A minister of a psalm-singing church, by invitation as we understood, preached a sermon in the college hall at Cannonsburgh, Pennsylvania, before the literary societies, and in deference, as we suppose, to the faith of our Bishop, a few copies of the Psalms of David were procured for the occasion. At the rear of the building there were a few seats occupied by the prima donnas, and a few of the sterner sex, if such were possible, with music books before them, tune selected, and after pitching the tune, one of the most skilled of the fair commenced the sound. By this display, and a renewed performance in the village church the same evening, our minister was again brought under the influence of continuous music; and such was the effect upon this so called Reverend, that he even stepped aside from his subject, when declaiming, to pass an encomium upon this improved mode of singing. Nor did he fail to indulge in language that obviously cast reproach upon the practice of his own church, who have not yet cast off Presbyterianism and adopted Congregationalism on this subject. We need not at present quote his rehash, which has been reiterated a thousand times, as it would neither give vitality nor zest to our article.

Again, on all occasions the plea is presented by the friends of fashionable, continuous singing, that the expedient of lining is no longer a necessity, since nearly all can read. With reference to those countries, and those honored descendants from whom the Confession of Faith emanated, a single quotation on this point will suffice. Dr. THOMAS DICK, whose testimony, we presume, will not be disputed, in his work on the "Mental Illumination and Moral Improvement of Mankind," page 27, says that "In Scotland, which is reckoned one of the best educated countries in Europe, it is found that only one in eleven out of the entire population has the benefit of education," or can read and write. But this obstacle, we admit, does not exist to the same extent in America. Still there is a large number that cannot read in the States, if we take the Census as evidence. In 1850 every twelfth person in the South, and in the North every twentieth, were unable to read, and this is doubtless far below the number of the uneducated, because few will admit that they labor under that disability. Thus, a correspondent of the NEW HAVEN JOURNAL, in a letter from Roanoke Island, says that in one company, any of the "Wise Legion," out of sixty-four men seven only could sign their names; and in another of the same Legion, out of fifty-eight men but five were able to write. There is also a considerable number who, by impaired sight, are in the same situation; these added would form a large class that would be deprived, not to speak of those contingent cases, such as the aged not being in possession of their glasses at the time, women having the care of children, strangers, etc. All these would be barred the privilege of raising their voice in praise to God by any other mode than that of lining out the psalm in public worship.

But leaving out of view entirely those that cannot read, the blind, etc., still there remains a valid objection to continuous singing in public worship, which is this: After its adoption, and a little progress in the way of an artistic performance which always follows the practice, an insuperable barrier is soon presented, and a large number in each congregation, not having suitable qualifications, are deprived of joining in this exercise. In every congregation there are those that are past the age of improvement in music, and also matrons who cannot leave their domestic duties and with their families attend the singing school even for two or three months. But a life-long employment would be indispensable, if, as the friends of artistic melody seem to allege, and their practice would indicate, as the tunes sung in our popular churches are changed about as often as the moon in the solar system. Again, admit however for argument’s sake, that continuous singing may enter the church modestly upon the pretext of making better music, and that it is only to help the service, still, like every other unwarranted innovation, it soon grows proud and exclusive and cannot rest until its artistic display takes the place of decent and united praise to God. Thus, psalm-singing has in too many instances been exchanged for mere tune singing, so that it is the tune and not the psalm that is sung; or, if the psalm be connected with the tune, it is sung for the tune’s sake· This is obvious from the great care that is so manifest in noting the time by some motion of the body, so that the animal part lose nothing of its offering. But who does not, or should not, know that vocal sounds in themselves have no power to please Jehovah, and that he is glorified, not by the music, but by the effect which the word has upon the heart. With regard to outward order two extremes are to be avoided—a rude confusion of voices on the one hand, and on the other a manner of singing which is too complex and artificial, the attainment of which would require too much application. For it is but idleness and folly for church members, and especially the rising generation, to occupy in acquiring mere sounds the time that ought to be employed in acquainting themselves with the grounds of their religious profession. I am no enemy to music as a human art, but let all things be in their place. The ear is the avenue to the heart, but when we intensify the ear with the melody of sounds, the outgoing of the soul towards God is thereby interrupted and drawn away from communion with Him. In our religious offerings no greater insult could be given to Jehovah than to awaken mere emotions in the mind by music, while the heart and understanding are not directed to the words sung, whose power only is efficacious to produce spiritual affections. Music has a subjective reference to the worshipper, and the word an objective to the great object of praise, so that praise if it is at all rendered to God it is through the word as the medium, and not the music. There is a universal obligation to celebrate God’s praise, as is obvious from passages of Scripture already given; but at the same time to adopt a mode that will admit a universal participation, as without lining, there cannot be; and likewise the music being so complex that a large portion in each congregation are prohibited from joining in the exercise, the initiated assuming, the entire service so far as the singing is concerned, an anomaly which professors of christianity should never adopt. I am aware there has been a systematic effort the last half century to pass off on the church what purports to be the practice of the church of our forefathers in regard to continuous singing, which they never approved, and which bears no more relation to the truth than the genuine word of God did to the traditions of the Elders, and equally as absurd. They made the word of God of none effect through their traditions, absolving a man from all filial obligation to support his parents by a theological trick, "saying it is a gift." It is also obvious that artificial complex music has been more than all others united, the great engine in corrupting the public praise of God, and has been for centuries one of the peculiar devices of Papists and other errorists to seduce mankind into attendance upon their superstitious and idolatrous worship. And it is clearly a divine principle, to which the approbation of God has been set (as, for example, in the order to destroy the brazen serpent), that things in themselves indifferent, or even commendable, become unlawful when they have been made instruments of dishonor to God or peculiar temptations to men.

When we commenced our article we had intended to offer also in proof of our position that uniformity in the church required the mode of singing that we have prescribed. But as our essay has already far exceeded the length we had intended, and would require more space than our limits will allow, permit me to say in one word, that the practice of singing by one mode in one congregation, viz: by lining, and continuous by another of the same denomination, is far from being in harmony with that law which requires that all things in God’s worship "be done decently and in order;" and would be as inconsistent with presbyterial church government to decide this question by a majority vote, as has been done in the case, as to decide whether baptism by immersion, or pouring, or sprinkling, be the practice, as this by many is considered as much a matter of indifference as lining or not lining the psalm in public worship; or the fate of divine songs, the choice of hymns of human composition might with equal propriety be put to the same test. Time has sufficiently proved that all these innovations follow in the same train. We always have had doubts of the pretensions to religion of those who exalt expediency above God’s law. In conclusion, notwithstanding all this absurdity before our eyes, there are in our own church those who are so fired with enthusiasm that they are ready to plunge into the same vortex.

M.R.