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Article from the Original Covenanter Magazine entitled Are Hymns Idols?

James Dodson

ARE HYMNS IDOLS?

Some readers may be ready to retort by a succession of interrogatories as the best answer to the above question: such as—Why ask the impertinent question? Would you insult us by a question so obviously profane and uncharitable? Do you impliedly charge with the sin of idolatry all the learned and pious of the past and present generations, who, living and dying, have regaled themselves with evangelical hymns? &c.

If the reader can control for a little that heat of his spirit which these and such questions suppose, we will then ask him to consider our inquiry in the light of reason and Scripture. Well, if we and our readers can keep our temper, we will assume the being of God. We will farther agree that he is to be worshipped. But worship, whether addressed to a creature or the Creator, means, doing or offering somewhat to his honour—glorifying him. Then we must know what is his character that we may know what will contribute to his glory: for it is certain that according to our conceptions of the character of the object of worship, so will be our selection of the means by which we hope to do him honour. Now all history demonstrates that to natural reason, as to his character, he is an "unknown God." How then shall we worship him? Wherewith shall we come before the Lord? Nature prompts to ask this question, but nature or reason can return no satisfactory answer. God only can give the answer;—"He hath showed thee, O man, what is good." Yes, it is only from the object of worship we learn wherewith to approach him with acceptance. "The only rule to direct us how we may glorify him," he has mercifully given in the Holy Scriptures.

Trees in the forest are beautiful and useful. So hymns may be both entertaining and edifying. If a person, however, "chooseth a tree that will not rot," thereby to enliven his devotional feelings; or if he multiply altars for the same purpose; although he do so with "good intent," we are told plainly enough that his worship will not be acceptable to God. Trees are good and useful for legitimate purposes, but very bad as helps to devotion, whether fashioned in the likeness of a man or a cross. The worshipper may plead, as both pagans and papists do, that they do not worship the image; but though, like Israel at the foot of Sinai, they may profess to honour Jehovah (Exod. 32:5), yet the Lord will charge them with idolatry and treat them accordingly (1 Cor. 10:7). We have no antipathy to poetry, nor to hymns of moral or religious tendency. On the contrary, we love the Muses when kept in their appropriate and respective places. We are no enemies of Gospel Sonnets. But the Psalms are an integral part of the "all Scripture given by inspiration of God." He "spake by the mouth of all his holy prophets." Now it is not the speaker or his mouth that gives divinity or authority to what is spoken. God is the speaker in the Psalms; and it is a dictate of reason that he, and he only, can tell us what contributes to his honour or praise. The holiness of Aaron did not sanctify the golden calf. The calf did not conduce to enliven real devotion. True, it contributed powerfully to rouse the animal feelings of the Israelites:—"The people rose up to play." Yes, "Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted." Blind zeal and idolatrous worship are often noisy (Acts 19:34). Neither David, nor Heman, nor any other, directs our devotion, or prescribes the matter of divine praise: this is the exclusive prerogative of the "Chief Musician," the Lord Christ (Ps. 22:22; Heb. 2:12). It is impious presumption in any man to attempt to exercise this high mediatorial prerogative.

Not only is the matter of praise, but the accompaniments also, are often tinctured with idolatry. Let us be plain. Do the worshippers of our day, especially artistic hymn-singers, seek to "please God?" To do so was the substance of Enoch’s piety. (Heb. 11:5). The prophet Micah dwells with emphasis upon the same point. (ch. 6:6,7). Are the thoughts of the worshippers occupied in modern times with the intricacies of the musical composition, or the adorable perfections and wonderful works of God? We would not be uncharitable, but we fear that the devotion, the enjoyment of the worshippers, arises more from the harmony of sounds than from a contemplation of the harmony of the divine attributes displayed in the economy of man’s redemption. Reader, is it not so? and if so, then your music, whether vocal or instrumental, takes the place which is due to God and is only a species of refined idolatry.

To the same category belong the so-called festivals, decorations, evergreens; &c., which are associated occasionally or periodically with places of worship. Do presbyterians, or even protestants, pause to inquire whence these symbols emanate? Do they not know that all such emblems are of pagan and popish origin, and have connected with them in the minds of their inventors superstitious and idolatrous ideas? But we are told that children and youth cannot be interested in religion without these attractions. Interested in religion! Why, these devices or inventions have no connection with religion. Nay, they have a tendency to alienate from all that is spiritual in the religion of Christ: and when the tender and impressionable minds of children are preoccupied with such scenic exhibitions, and they are accustomed to see them associated with religion and the church, it will be difficult to prevail with them in manhood to "put away childish things." Alas! it is not for the sake of "babes in Christ" alone that we write these things; they are needful also for "young men and fathers." Literal children cry for fiction, evergreens, pictures, &c., as they do for candies at modern religious festivals; and Christian parents of pliant nature or "questionable religion" too frequently comply with the juvenile humour—"not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh."

The objective light shed upon the world by the sacred Scriptures has banished in great measure the practice of prostration of the body to material idols; but the more subtle idols—not of self or of covetousness and such like, but of vain imagination, corrupt and debase the conceptions and affections of the human soul. "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands" of hymns, brass-bands, and the "sound of all kinds of music?" May we not expect to meet the searching question, when offering such will-worship, "Who hath required this at your hand?" (Is. 1:12).

Even pious Henry, one of our best commentators for family use, in his prefactory remarks on the Book of Psalms, lends some countenance to, if he does not inculcate will-worship in the service of praise. He says,—"Further than David’s psalms we may go, but we need not, for hymns and spiritual songs." Of course he means uninspired compositions, and that such may be offered in sacrifice to God. He does not venture to say they must, or even ought to be so used. And this cautious and insidious kind of language is all that the advocates of will-worship can with safety hazard. They seem to be aware that if divine authority were urged to enforce their inventions, tender consciences would take the alarm.

"Further than David’s psalms we may go," &c.—How much further? Where shall we stop? or is there any limit? Such questions are naturally suggested by the pious Henry’s rash assertion. Shall we adopt the illusions of men reputed pious, as Dr. Watts; of whom we have often heard it asserted, that he was at least "as good a man as David, and therefore had as good a right to make psalms;" or "may we go further," as allowed by Mr. Henry, and incorporate in our "collection" of songs for the sanctuary, national anthems, folk songs and political ditties? Alas! that to meet the actual state of the case, we are obliged to rake among such vulgar material. The papists are at least consistent in their will-worship; for they do not profess to be bounded by the Holy Scriptures, having access to an undefined quantity of "traditions:" but the inconsistency is equal to the impiety of those who, while they protest against the idolatry of Rome, are only too closely imitating her antichristian example.

To counteract the present tendency every where visible to follow the footsteps of the Romish church in her apostasy, we know no better means than to call the reader’s attention to some of the mature and solemn declarations of our reforming forefathers, which we believe to be "founded upon the word of God." "The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word." Again, "The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy scripture." The Islamic Koran, Romish traditions, and the Book of Mormon, are declared supplements to the assumed defects of the Bible; are not the innumerable hymns, which are equally conflicting as the preceding, also declaredly supplemental to the system of praise which God has given us in the "Book of Psalms?" Are not all these human inventions direct encroachments on the prerogatives of God? They are all avowedly improvements on the Christian religion, helps to devotion; they are consequently superstitious and idolatrous. Nor can they be successfully defended by plausible arguments from "antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever."

Moreover, even on the supposition that all hymns used in divine worship were what is called orthodox, yet the use of them would render impracticable the union of the Christian Church. How much more, when we know that many of them are not only unscriptural but antiscriptural. There is nothing more certain than that every denomination using hymns in worship, incorporates in its system of praise the principles and order peculiar to the body. Unitarians, whether of the Arian or Socinian class, will exclude all that might be construed in favour of the doctrine of the Trinity, or the supreme Deity of our only Saviour. In their psalmody, as in their sermons, they will "deny the Lord that bought them." The Universalist and Arminian will do the same. Thus while professing Christians cleave to their conflicting "fat hymn-books," and are "mad upon their idols" respectively, it is most evident that union among them is simply impossible.

Our space does not allow us at present to enter upon a discussion of the principles incorporated in modern hymnology; or to point out the errors, and even heresies, which through this fascinating medium obstruct the progress of the gospel. We may resume the subject at a future time. Oh! how they "bereave their souls of good" who refuse the waters of Shiloah, and drink of the streams muddied by the priests’ feet.