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Letter I.

Database

Letter I.

James Dodson

INTRODUCTORY.

EVERY POWER OF MAN SHOULD BE DEVOTED TO THE SERVICE OF GOD—IMPORTANCE OF PSALMODY—DIFFERENCE OF OPINION ON THE SUBJECT—DIVISION OF THE CHURCH—IMPORTANCE OF UNION—PROPOSAL OF ACCOMMODATION—HOPES OF SUCCESS—MISTAKES CORRECTED—ATTENTION TO THE SUBJECT REQUESTED.


DEAR BRETHREN:—Every subject which relates to the peace of the church, the institutions of God, or the exercise of the saint, must be interesting to you. Psalmody, in its matter and forms, has always claimed, and deservedly obtained, no small share of Christian attention.

Every faculty of man should be consecrated to the service of his Creator. In the promotion of the divine glory, and in the advancement of personal holiness, all the principles of our nature, by a mutual influence, ought to co-operate. Man’s powers of intellect, the sensibilities of his heart, and the capacity of expressing these sensibilities in appropriate strains of melody, are laid in requisition by our holy religion. Psalmody, employed in the spirit of its institution, is peculiarly calculated to engage the heart, and to call forth an elevated devotion. In no other act of social religion, is an opportunity afforded for so much unanimity, in actual and congregated expression of devout sentiment; and, it is more than probable, no other part of instituted worship is so well adapted to interweave sentiment with every fibre of the heart of man.

"There is in souls a sympathy with sounds; 
Some chord in unison with what we hear
Is touch’d within us, and the heart replies."[1]

Who has not felt the melting influence of the soft strains of well-conducted music? And how powerfully the martial band operates, by inspiring with courage, is well known to the warrior in the day of battle. When sentiment is accompanied with the fascination of music, it requires no common effort, even when the principle is disavowed, to break the charm.[2] This suggests to us the importance of proper matter for the Psalmody of the church of God; it urges the necessity of circumspection, to guard against the introduction of incorrect sentiment, or of crude and superficial opinions, in the sacred songs we employ. How often error is thus introduced into the mind of man, and blasphemy shed before the throne of the Eternal, need not now be told.

The celebration of God’s praise, in suitable songs, is one of his own institutions. It is his appointment that his people "come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms." Hear the New Testament injunction: "Is any merry? let him sing psalms." The practice was exemplified by two illustrious heralds of the cross, Paul and Silas; and that in circumstances very unfavourable to the exercise; it was at midnight, and when confined in the dungeon at Philippi. In his own practice, our Redeemer himself gave his sanction to the social singing of praise, as an ordinance divinely appointed. After the institution of the eucharistic feast, he and his disciples ‘sung a hymn:’ one of those comprised in the hillel, that is, those psalms from the 113th to the 118th, inclusive.

This part of our worship is confessedly important. Its importance is manifested by the time devoted to it in our solemn assemblies; by the disputes agitated respecting it in several sections of the church; and by the care which God has taken to furnish his worshippers with a system of songs; songs indited by his Spirit, and remarkably adapted to the condition of the subjects of his grace, in their progress through life. The present brief, and it is hoped, candid investigation of the subject, is justified by these considerations, as well as by the fact that opposing opinions respecting it divide, at this day, in practice, not a few of the Saviour’s friends; opinions and practices, maintained respecting this portion of our sacred services, that constitute one of those numerous exciting causes, that have aroused into warring factions so many branches of the church of God.

This state of things is not as it should be. The church of the Redeemer is really one:—that she is not more visibly one, is the sin, as well as the affliction of her members. Without just cause, no division or separation, in this holy corporation, should receive the countenance of any friend of God, or advocate of Zion’s peace. No practice, no maxim, calculated to wound the sensibilities of the meanest among the children of grace, unless enforced by divine authority, should be indulged; for to wound the sensibilities is to alienate the heart, and, if not to affect the conscience, certainly to enlist the passions. The natural result of irritated passions is separation and a state of hostility.

Practices long indulged become familiar, and, in their associations, not unfrequently venerable. In religion, habit often connects its expedient forms with its divinely appointed institutions; and, except the mind be more than usually versed in the science of abstraction, a change in the one is not unlikely to lead to an infringement of the other. He understands but little of the constitution of man, or but slightly regards the interests of society, who, with the wanton hand of rashness, would expunge the convenient institutes which have long given body to opinion, and order to practice. The friend of peace, and the patron of order, will therefore treat with delicacy those forms that are recommended by ancient usage. A departure from this course can only be justified by a full and well-founded conviction, that such forms are either essentially wrong, or, from certain circumstances, pernicious in their effects. This caution must still be greater, when we go beyond forms, to the substantials of religion; to the matter of that worship which God himself has ordained to be offered before his throne.

In the psalmody of the church there is, indeed, as in other social institutions, convenient forms, in which, according to circumstances, a variety may be innocently practised; but there is also something in it of positive, divine appointment, with which no man may interfere. The matter must be moral and evangelical. In this we must hearken attentively to the voice of the Lord; and take heed lest our fear toward him be taught by the precepts of men. Our spiritual song must be that which God approves.

That good men entertain different sentiments, as respects the application of the general truth now stated, is readily admitted. One believes he may, with divine approbation in public worship, employ the effusions of the pious muse, which are marked by no special disconformity to the sacred oracles. Another feels his conscience bound exclusively to the use of those songs which God has given by the inspiration of his Spirit; which his church has used; and which he believes was designed for the saints in the public, social worship of the church. These songs are found in the pages of the book of God.

It is not now intended to discuss the merits of this question. My object in this letter is to find a point where the jarring parties may meet in concord; where they may ungird their armour, forget their animosities, and unite for awhile in a song of praise to God their Saviour. In this age of Bible triumphs, and catholic liberality, I cannot think the desired point is difficult to be found. May not both parties meet in the use of those songs indited under the inspiration of God? In the use of those songs, presented in the most correct version to be found, could any complain of inroads on tenderness of conscience, or the purity of worship? No. Methinks I hear both with ecstasy exclaim, "In the use of these songs we can cordially unite. They are the words of God; and they are sweet to our taste."

But is this response an illusion of fancy, or is it a reality? I trust it is the deliberate and practical sentiment of every friend of the book of God. Acting upon it in the present instance, would be attended by the happiest consequences. The more that Christians are conversant with these songs, the more their fulness will be seen; and the more familiar they become with their matter, its adaptation to the purpose of sacred praise will more obviously appear. Why then rend in pieces the body of Christ? Is not the propriety of the contrary practice, the use of hymns of human composition, doubted by numbers who are seriously devout? Is it not opposed by not a few in different ecclesiastical connexions, who, in talent, information and fidelity, are not inferior to the chief of those from whom they differ? Is there, by such a measure, any end to be gained of sufficient value to counterbalance the loss of one bond of union in the family of Christ? Let this be seriously pondered.

But granting for a moment that the admission of hymns of human structure, instead of inspired songs, is in itself allowable, this inquiry, and it is an important one, offers itself to our minds: Is it expedient? Let us attend to the language of Paul: "Take heed, lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak.[3] When ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ." He loves his body. Its humblest members he regards with kind affection. "He that toucheth them toucheth the apple of his eye."

As friends of Zion’s peace I address you on this subject; and again, I repeat the question: Why, in a matter of doubtful disputation, to say the least of it, rend the church of Christ? Consider, ye friends of godliness, the great importance of union in the household of faith. Seriously reflect on the fearful consequences of disunion among those who love the Lord, and who ought, with cordiality, to love one another. To effect this harmony, the Father of mercies purposed to shed abroad his love in his people’s hearts; to accomplish it, the Son of God humbled himself and became obedient unto death; to unite those living stones that compose the building of mercy, he shed his precious blood; to effect the same end he appears as our intercessor within the vail; his prayer now, as formerly on earth, is that those who are given him may be one. In answer to his intercessory prayer, and in pursuance of the same design of grace, the Holy Ghost descends into his church. The whole tendency of his operation is to bring the subjects of his grace into one; not only as regards their connexion with Jesus, as their living head, but also as respects their principles, dispositions, hopes and practice.

Among the professed disciples of the Redeemer, diversity of views, and difference of practice, do indeed prevail; but let each of them be assured that no just ground of these proceeds from the Spirit of God. So far as they are actuated by him, the disciples of Christ, in sentiments and pursuits, are the same. He, though acting in different subjects, and under different circumstances, is never at variance with himself. This fact, taken in connexion with existing animosities among the avowed friends of religion, affords no flattering assurance to the present age of a great measure of the Spirit’s influence being enjoyed. I am, indeed, aware that there is much talk of union; and that schemes are devised, no doubt with the best designs, for its extension: but you likewise know that the elements of schismatical faction also have a place in the church. That there should be more of union is readily confessed. That means more efficient for its attainment must be employed, all but the most superficial thinkers do admit. Too much, we have reason to fear, is attempted on this subject by one effort; and that one not well directed. Under the influence of a thoughtless impulse, early opinions, ancient prejudices and confirmed habits, may for a moment be forgotten; but that impulse once gone, that moment past, they will return in all their wonted force. So far as contending parties unite on principle,—and for an unprincipled union, no man of enlightened piety will plead,—it must be effected by deliberation, and a precise inspection of the ground on which they meet.

Is it not, then, worth while to inquire how far the subject of Psalmody at this day, in our country, tends to divide the church of God, "which he has purchased with his own blood?" And to whatever extent it may produce an effect so unhappy, should not the most effectual remedy be speedily applied ? Let none say that this is only one point, in which some sections of the great community of Christians disagree. Though it be but one point, it is a very important one. And is not a single point of union, fairly gained, of much consequence? The more numerous the points of contact, in principle and in practice, the more strong is the spiritual edifice of the house of God. The man who has observed with attention the progress of religious contentions, knows well that discord in a single article tends to alienate the minds of the parties at issue upon others, more than would otherwise be the case. And he knows but little of the structure of the human mind who needs to be informed that concession in one point at issue prepares to mitigate the demands in others that are litigated. Should not then, as far as proper, the experiment be made in this case? Should it succeed, how noble would be the triumph over the unaccommodating and arrogant spirit of party! more worthy of memorial, than those victories that are recorded in the blood of thousands. "He that ruleth his spirit is better than he that taketh a city."

Admit, for a moment, that it is a narrow prejudice which makes some more than hesitate to use, in solemn acts of worship, a hymn of human composure; still it must be granted, that their preference of a scripture song is not marked by what deserves the name of crime. It corrupts no ordinance of God. You, indeed, may not perceive any just cause for our scrupulosity; but you can have no objection to join in our devotions. We have, however, objections against uniting in yours; objections which a high-handed practice is not calculated to obviate, in a manner which reflecting Christians can approve.

In moments of devout reflection, the man of piety will approve of that course which, on proper grounds, most effectually tends to unite the followers of the Lamb. Whatever in his conduct has a contrary tendency, will, one day, call up the bitterest regret. Why, then, in the use of a freedom, (if such it be) certainly not necessary to your spiritual growth, banish from your solemn assemblies any who love the Redeemer’s name? Or, if there, why impose on him the hard alternative of wounding his own mind, or of keeping silence, in this interesting part of social devotion? This would be, with a witness, to destroy the harmony of Zion. Rather let us endeavour to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."[4] If the exclusion of modern hymns, and the restoration of inspired songs, be the price of union, among any of the friends of the Redeemer, let that price without delay be given. I plead for this, as one important step toward a permanent accommodation of differences among the Christians of our country.

Will you, then, can you, ye friends of concord, refuse this? While in the name of God you plead for union, while you adduce from the gospel page, and urge with an eloquence almost more than human, those holy motives, so well adapted to soothe, to repose every turbulent emotion of the mind, and to enlist all the better affections of the heart upon your side,—dare you, with all those accents of peace on your lips, refuse this offer? Will you, in place thereof, professedly light a torch at the sacred fire of the altar of God, and, carrying it in your hand, kindle in his temple a destructive flame? will you kindle a flame which consumes the bonds of peace, of love, and all that is cheering to the heart, leaving to the view the cheerless prospect of desolations? for, when angry passions take the place of holy zeal, confusion that of order, or form that of life, ICHABOD, the glory is departed, may be inscribed on the doors of our sanctuaries. That an unaccommodating spirit, productive of such consequences, prevails at this day, I cannot easily persuade myself to believe. I shall therefore continue to hope, that no measure consistent with the purity and order of the church, shall be left untried, to accelerate among her sons a happy unanimity. A brief review of opinions and practices, ancient and modern, on the subject of psalmody, may be interesting to some; and, it is believed, will be subservient to the proposed end,—uniformity in this part of sacred worship, and an approximation towards that oneness, so desirable in the church of God.

This oneness, it is too well known, cannot now be found. While in some things gaining, yet in purity, in consistency, in firmness, and in elevation of character, the churches generally, for more than a hundred and fifty years past, have been losing ground. To be more than convinced of this unpleasant fact, the mind has only to glance at their history. They are greatly broken into fragments. And even in those sections that profess union, the cohesive principle acts with a too feeble influence on their constituent parts. Their principles, their forms and matter of worship, are discordant. This is remarkably the case in that interesting service,—psalmody—which, of all others on earth, most resembles the employment of those perfect spirits who, in unison, strike the harp of glory before the throne of God. Cast your eyes over the several churches; listen to their song: it is the confusion of Babel! What thoughtful Christian has not felt and deplored this evil? Amidst all this accumulation of modern hymns, under which our presses and our shelves are groaning, and the public mind confounded, no rallying point can be found, where the redeemed of the Lord may unite in public praise.—But the thought is painful; let it, at present, be no further pursued.

It is, nevertheless, a cheering reflection, that the articles of faith on which the sections of the spiritual empire of our Lord, most remote from each other, agree, are very numerous and very important; and in the prosperity of that empire of which they are fellow citizens, they have a common interest. That there are jarring views among them, on a few important points, is matter of poignant sorrow; for, in their number, there is no mind so perverted, as to rejoice in the divisions of Zion; no heart so hard, as not to relent at the signs of alienated affections among her sons. Defective in duty must he also be esteemed, who, in his proper place, attempts not to heal those wounds, and to harmonize those affections. Success in such an undertaking is not hopeless. These relentings, these numerous and important points of agreement, the common interest of saints in the progress of truth and peace, give assurance of an ultimate triumph.

Let not, then, the infidel rejoice in our unhappy discords. He and his companions, too, have their wars; and they maintain them without a heart. The sons of Zion are friends to truth; children of the same family, they touch with freedom each other’s mistakes, they reprove with an affectionate heart, and love as brethren still. They well understand the worth of that compliment, which is couched under a manly appeal to consistency on a point at issue. Differences can never be removed unless they occupy a share of thought, and find a place in free and meek discussion. Discussion, to rise above chicanery, must be plain; to be useful, it mast be meek. The result of an opinion is not always seen by its advocate; and when disavowed, though it belong to his system, should not be imputed to the man. And, for that liberality which, under the shield of venerated names, would save from exposure sentiments or practices of evil tendency, I know you are not the advocates.

Regardless, then, of the charge of bigotry,—a vulgar term, ill defined, and successively applied to all on this side the realms of absolute skepticism, and from which I shall be freed by your award; as well as from the imputation of violating the law of charity, a lovely term and lovelier grace; a term, however, which, from lack of knowledge of its import, is often pressed into many an unholy service, uncongenial with its nature,—I proceed in my discussion, after adverting to an idea, a mistaken idea indeed, but one which in some circles is used with considerable address, and not without effect. It is this; that the regard shown to the subject advocated in these sheets, is a prejudice, originating in foreign attachments, and is fostered by transatlantic partialities. You, brethren, know this to be a mistake; and through you it may be well to correct it.

To say, indeed, that you and I do not cherish, with kind respect, the memory of the Calvins and the Bezas, the Luthers and the Melanchthons, of continental Europe, would betray ungrateful affectation. To disavow a veneration for the Wickliffes, the Knoxes, Buchanans, Wisharts, Cranmers, Rutherfords, Renwicks and Owens, of Great Britain, would be to falsify some of the best affections of our hearts. And as long as the union of pre-eminent talent with piety of the first order, shall be venerable in the estimate of man, so long shall homage be paid to the Westminster divines, and their memory be kindly cherished, and their labours duly prized. And notwithstanding the slander and the infamy which an ungracious policy has attached to the Emerald Isle, our hearts refuse to disregard the memory or the works of her Ushers and her Boyles, her Berkeleys, her Lelands and Magees. But still we demand credit for our tenderest affections being cisatlantic; and certainly, so far as we have national partiality, it is of American growth. While we would duly estimate foreign genius, literature and piety, and give them credit for our drafts upon their stores, it is not with less heart that we recognise the luminaries of America. It is with a just pride we can boast of our Mathers and our Edwardses, with a constellation of others, whose beams not only dissipate the gloom of our wilderness, but add to the splendour of European light: yet still, our faith and our devotions must not be subjected to any, nor to all of these; before the authority of Heaven, and to that alone, in matters of religion, are we permitted to bow.

But after all, it is hard to see how the preference of psalms given by the inspiration of God, to the productions of an English poet, can be, even apparently, placed to the account of foreign partiality. Let the idea of a local religion, whether European or American, be far from our minds. The religion of the Bible is adapted to every province of God’s empire in this world. Instead, then, of Americanizing religion, as some idly talk, or accommodating its substance and its forms to every impulse of popular prejudice, let it be our care and our endeavour, in our respective departments, that the national character be stamped with the image of the lively oracles of the God of truth.

Trusting, brethren, that among the very numerous and greatly important objects which solicit your attention, and occupy your time, some interval of leisure and of seriousness will permit the subject of these letters to come before you; and when such a season shall occur, not to these letters,—for that is not hoped,—but to their subject, do I beg your respectful attention. And whatever may be the consequence of your inquiry, we know, that on this point, no discrepant opinion shall be permitted to break in upon the charities of social life. Those charities we feel, and their exercise is enjoined by our blessed religion. This exercise, while we deplore sentiments of unhappy tendency, and condemn practices which we cannot approve, teaches us to admit the evidence of motives that mitigate their criminality, and to rejoice in the virtues that recommend the man.

[next LETTER II.]


Footnotes:


[1] Cowper.

[2] Let me, said Judge Hale, be ballad-maker for a nation, and I care not who are legislators.

[3] A stumbling block.—How become a stumbling block, in the case before us? By inducing them to think and assert that the use of scripture psalms is calculated to make heresy triumphant, spoil devotion, and naturally lead the worshipper to sing his own malignant execrations against his own personal enemies; and to think he did God service by breathing out revenge! These are the weak ones, and this is the stumbling in the case of Psalmody.

[4] Eph. 4:3—Is not this scripture frequently misunderstood and incorrectly applied? Unity and peace are chimed over without regarding their characteristics. "By the unity of the Spirit, we are to understand not only a spiritual unity, but also a unity of sentiments, desires, and affections, such as is worthy of and springs from the Spirit of God."—Clarke.

Union in falsehoods and contradictions, is not intended by the apostle.