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Continuous Singing in the Ordinary Public Worship of God,


Continuous Singing in the Ordinary Public Worship of God,

James Dodson


David Steele,

Pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Congregation, Philadelphia.

Moses led the psalm, and gave it out for the men, and then Miriam for the women.-Matthew Henry.  Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible, Exodus 15:20,21

CHRISTIAN FRIENDS:—You ask my mind on “the manner of conducting public praise in the Church of Christ.” I would be inclined to suppose that the manner as well as the matter of God’s praise had been long since settled and determined both by divine, and also by competent ecclesiastical authority. I am aware, however, that in our licentious age, when the form has very extensively taken the place of the power of godliness; when no principle is considered as determined or order settled, the ignorant rabble and the enthusiastic multitude regard neither human nor divine authority. Endless innovation is a peculiar and striking characteristic of modern society. In ecclesiastical matters especially, nothing almost is considered as either settled or sacred. The matter of divine praise has been keenly agitated in late years by learned disputants. Some of them seem to insinuate that they know what contributes to the honor of God and to set forth his glory in the earth and in the church better than he does himself. Hence those “great, fat hymn-books,” as one graphically describes the modern systems of praise, “because there is so much chaff in them.” You do not ask me to assist in defending from impious assaults, the precious Songs of Zion. This work has been done, and continues to be nobly done by others of her faithful sons. I would only remark that the multiplying of hymns, for the declared purpose of offering them as praise to God, would remind one of the extreme devotion of the ancient Greeks, who multiplied gods to the number of thirty thousand. All these, however, were not enough. Neither are the millions of the gods of the Hindus sufficient. Like the Greeks they cannot be satisfied without the “unknown God,” (Acts 17:23). Just so it is in the case of modern hymns: the more than thirty thousand of them can never supply the place of the unknown Book of Psalms. But, Christian friends, “ye have not so learned Christ.” Satisfied with the suitableness, spirituality, sweetness, variety and perfection of the songs of inspiration, you wish to know how best to use them in order to advance the glory of their divine Author, and promote the edification of his people. I assume that you do not feel comfortable when your own mouths are forcibly shut, or those of your fellow-worshippers in the sanctuary, by the uncharitable and supercilious conduct of those who are “wise in their own conceits.”

Although we are separate ecclesiastical fellowships, I hold myself your debtor, to contribute in any humble service to your establishment in the present truth, “the good old way;” when many of your brethren give evidence of instability and are like “reeds shaken with the wind.”

The primary end of the church’s organization in the world, and of all her instituted ordinances is two-fold—the glory of God, and the edification of his people. “Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.” (Isa. 49:3; Ps. 50:2). “Let all things be done unto edifying,” (1 Cor. 14:26). If either of these ends be disregarded or overlooked in the conduct of divine worship, it will be “iniquity, even the solemn meeting,” (Isa. 1:11-15). Your more immediate concern, however, as intimated in your letters to me, is in reference to that part of public worship which consists in the public praise of God. There are indeed two weighty reasons, among others, why you should be specially solicitous and circumspect touching this part of the solemn worship of God.

First.—It is the only part in which ordinarily all the members of the worshipping assembly can actively participate.

Second.—In this part of divine service, the Lord’s people are employed in that exercise which most resembles the eternal work of the redeemed in heaven: for we have been taught by our pious parents from childhood to conceive of heaven as “a glorious place, where the redeemed will be forever praising God.” And when the saints of God attain to any thing like a heaven upon earth, it is when with united and harmonious voices they sing the high praises of the Lord in the great congregation. Such, I doubt not, is the sweet experience of many.

Now that the manner of conducting this part of divine service in the visible church is unalterably settled by Zion’s Lawgiver, and authoritatively determined by competent authority in the church also, I propose to prove from the word of God, the subordinate Standards of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the deductions of enlightened reason.

I. On this part of worship the adorable object of our praise expressly commands thus:

“Sing ye praises with understanding,” (Ps. 47:7). This is the first property of acceptable worship as divinely required. “Ignorance is the mother” only of Papal “devotion.” To intelligence must be added spirituality. The holy and fervent apostle Paul would combine these two properties in praising God:—“I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also,” (1 Cor. 14:15). But when the whole congregation, following the apostolic example and obeying the divine command, harmonize in praising God, it is obvious that all must be acquainted with the matter of the song. Not only men and women, church members of adult years, are to hear the word of God read and expounded, (Neh. 8:2-8); but all ranks and ages and both sexes are called upon to praise Jehovah:—“Young men and maidens; old men and children,” (Ps. 148:12). That all who are thus required to join in celebrating the praise of God may have it in their power to obey, there must be some means used that intelligence and harmony may exist among the worshippers. One in the assembly of worshippers is blind, another “unlearned,” while a third may be a child in years. “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts,” (Isa. 28:9). In such circumstances there must be a precentor, one who will read in the audience of the whole congregation “distinctly, and give the sense, and cause them to understand the reading,” (Neh. 8:8). And to reach this end the precentor ought to be in some competent measure acquainted with accent, emphasis and distinct articulation, a ready scribe in the law of God; in a word—a person of solid, common sense—sense which, in the matter and manner of God’s praise, is, alas! now very uncommon.

The fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is as well adapted to rebuke the disorders which exist among the professing disciples of Christ in our generation, as it was applicable to similar characters and disorders in the time of the apostle. The great law, the royal law of charity which, as in the days of Cain and Abel, requires every one to be his brother’s keeper, appears to have been forgotten by most professing Christians, or misunderstood; or if understood, to be sinfully disregarded. This law, in its bearing upon social and especially public worship, forbids whatsoever hinders the edification, not only of a fellow Christian, but of a fellow creature; yes, even ONE! (1 Cor. 14:24). “If the whole church be come together into one place,” and are so employed in continuous singing of the divine praise as to promote their own spiritual edification and enjoyment only, have they thereby “fulfilled the law of Christ,” the law of charity? They “verily may have given thanks well,” and offered praise to God harmoniously; but the others have not been edified. Who are these hypothetical others? Plainly they are the “unlearned and unbelievers,” who are supposed to “come in” to the worshipping assembly—no unusual case; and it matters not by what motive they have been actuated thus to “present themselves before the Lord,” will they not say,—These worshippers are “mad,” seeing they “understand not what is sung, piped or harped?” For “the harp and the viol, the tabret and pipe are in their feasts;” and they often call them “feasts of charity,” in the very act of violating that eternal law of charity! Have such worshippers never read the Scriptures? especially such as the following:—“Give none offence (cast no stumbling-blocks in the way of) neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, (Greeks—heathens) nor to the church of God.” Here let the reader notice, that our gracious God directs his worshipping people so to conduct divine ordinances in general, that two of the three classes of the human family, into which the whole are distributed, may not be neglected—much less disregarded in acts of religious worship. “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth,” (1 Cor. 10:24). “Let every one of us please his neighbor (and much more his brother) for his good to edification,” (Rom. 15:2). “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law,” (Rom. 13:8-10). But no greater ill or injury can be done to a fellow creature, whether he be saint or sinner, than to mar his edification; and this is the decision of him whose judgment is according to truth. “Through thy knowledge shall the weak brother (or heathen) perish, for whom Christ died?” For such a one may be within the election of grace, for any thing known to the contrary by the supercilious and uncharitable fellow-worshipper. This royal law is “according to the Scripture:” that is, the law of God, requiring mutual edification among the disciples of Christ, is sanctioned by the infinite authority of him who gave us the Bible, (Jas. 2:8). Let him who disregards this law, in the mode of conducting social praise, think sometimes of the “millstone about his neck,” which our compassionate Redeemer threatens as the just and awful doom of such as “offend one of his little ones.” Yea, “of how much sorer punishment than this shall he be thought worthy?” It is astonishing that any should not know these things!

II. The practice in question, the practice of continuous singing in the ordinary public praise of God, is also contrary to the subordinate Standards of the R.P. Church, the “Directory for Worship” in particular.

That the reader may have before him so much of the Directory as bears upon the present question, it is here given as follows:—“That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a Psalm book, and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the Psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.”

This rule was framed by the Westminster Divines, and adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the year 1645, a little more than two years before the adoption of the [Westminster] Confession of Faith. There is no place left here for a choir of artistic singers. The “whole congregation” are to be engaged in praising God. If a select few were to perform this part of the service, and it were lawful to worship God by proxy, then indeed the reading of the line might be superseded; but it is not supposed that for the present the whole congregation can read and be in possession of Psalm books. And the condition of things is not materially changed in [over three] hundred [and fifty] years from what it was when the Directory was adopted; for “by reason of age and otherwise,” especially by reason of natural incapacity, and more especially by reason of sinful negligence of parents and others, notwithstanding manifold exhortations, there are yet, alas! to be found too “many who cannot read.” And whereas our fathers of the reformation say many; the Holy Spirit limits expressly to one, and he a heathen too, (1 Cor. 14:24)—“one that believeth not, or one unlearned.” Not that our reformers and the Divine Spirit contradict each other, as the ignorant or prejudiced may be ready to conclude; but the argument is from the less to the greater, as logicians know—that is, if one, and he an unbeliever, must not be left in a position where he can receive no edification, much more must the public worship be so conducted as to promote the edification of many.

III. But as the Standards, supreme and subordinate, require that the worship of God be so ordered as to advance his glory and secure the edification of his people, the same doctrine is sustained by enlightened reason.

When Dr. Isaac Watts undertook to “improve the Psalmody of the Church,” by framing an “Imitation of the Psalms of David,” (and why not on the same principle, an imitation of the rest of the Bible?) he could but ill conceal his dislike of the “line parceled out unto us by the clerk.” Disrelishing the matter of God’s praise as given by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he could not well bear the parceling of it by the clerk. Doubtless he calculated that his own effusions would become so popular as to be committed to memory, and thus the parceling of them by line would be superseded. Such anticipations were in part realized. It is quite otherwise, however, with the inspired songs of Zion. For them there is no natural relish, (1 Cor. 2:14).

If “young men and maidens, old men and children”—all ranks and ages, with both sexes, are to join in praising God; reason would say that suitable means must be furnished by which they may all accord in “giving glory to God.” And are there any other means so appropriate,—any other means whatever, by which this end can be accomplished? None conceivable but reading the line.

Let me confirm this point by illustration—actual example. I have attended a funeral where a United Presbyterian minister performed what are called “religious services.” Among these services, part of a Psalm was sung. In the assembly convened on the solemn occasion was a native of Denmark who knew little of the English language, and less of the metrical Psalms. Having read some verses, the minister commenced singing continuously. The assembled company followed as best they could; but the Dane, who had been converted to Methodism, seemed to out do all others in the fervor of his devotion! Now in such a case it is pertinent to ask,—What is the essential difference between this Methodist’s worship, and that of the ingenious and pious heathen who has contrived the labor-saving method of repeating prayers by machinery? The divine caution and warning may be appropriately considered here:—“Be not deceived, God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” The glorious and adorable Object and Author of all religious and acceptable worship, requires a “reasonable service,” (Rom. 12:1).

Thus, Christian Friends, I have given you my mind on the matter “whereof ye wrote unto me,” in as comprehensive and concise a manner as present circumstances with me would allow, and with a brief notice of a few of the more plausible objections to the foregoing principles, and of the history of innovations on this part of our scriptural and covenanted order, I will close the present communication.

It is often objected that the reading of the line interrupts the singing and “spoils the music.” Well, the singing is indeed necessarily and temporarily interrupted; but edification is thereby promoted; and suppose the music marred, or even “spoiled,” what then? Is the chief end now to worship the music? This is idolatry, however refined. It is, I believe, the uniform testimony of those who from this country visit the churches of the reformation in the British Isles, that the united voices of the worshippers in the great congregation there, where all “sing praises with understanding;” far excel all the choirs, solos or quartets in American churches.

Again, it is said that “all our people ought to be so well acquainted with the Psalms as to be able to sing them without a book.” Suppose this to be the case with adults; it is not to be expected of children, whom God commands, as we have shown, to concur in this part of his service. But it is proper to add, that perhaps those who bring this objection, may be found as deficient in this part of Christian acquisition as some of their brethren. Besides, there is a vast difference between committing the Psalms to memory, and “getting them by heart.” Satan himself excels in the former as we see (Ps. 91:11, Matt. 4:6): but the latter is beyond his power. I have known a young man who excelled all the members in a fellowship meeting, in committing to memory all the Psalms and both Catechisms! He married a Papist, and went to mass! His memory was not at fault; but “his heart was not right with God.” “Five words” outweighed with Paul, “ten thousand words in an unknown tongue,” or what is equivalent, absolute silence, (1 Cor. 14:16).

It is, moreover, suggested that “if every one has a book, this will supersede the necessity of reading the line.” So it would, provided all the worshippers could read; and it has to be acknowledged that the reading with an audible voice, whether of the Scriptures or of any other book, can have no rational object but the edification or entertainment of the auditors. But when the lines are not read before singing, how shall edification be secured in the case of those aged disciples whose “eyes are so dim that they cannot see,” or whose memory failed to suggest the spectacles before setting out for the place of public worship? How shall a Christian mother read and sing, and at the same time manage a restless child, which is in the act of contending for possession of the Psalm book? But, omitting other supposable contingencies, what is to become of “him that occupieth the room of the unlearned,” (1 Cor. 14:16), whom the Master careth for, the “unbelieving, the stranger?” (Exod. 12:49). Our compassionate High Priest, who has “compassion on the ignorant and them that are out of the way,” expressly commands that in the ordering of his solemn worship, there be “one law (regulation) to him that is home-born, and unto him that sojourneth among his people.” And how often does a sailor “from a far country,” a weather beaten tar, in Maritime cities, drop in among worshipping assemblies, not to speak of other inland wanderers, “whose souls no man cares for!” How shall continuous singers account to the “Chief Shepherd” for the souls of such persons, who yet may be among the “sheep of his fold?” Let them seriously think of these things.

I have witnessed with painful feelings and forebodings for a period of nearly half a century, the history and progress of this and many other innovations among the professed witnesses of Christ. During about a century and half the rule in our Directory, that the “Psalm be read line by line” before singing, appears to have been uniformly observed, not only by Reformed Presbyterians in the different lands of their habitation; but also by the different classes of Dissenters from the anti-Christian establishments in the British Isles, as evident by the indignant language of Dr. Watts,—“parceling out the lines.” With the introduction of “Paraphrases and Hymns” into divine worship, among the looser bodies, who had declined from the doctrinal purity of the reformation in Britain; continuous singing was also gradually introduced. I say gradually; for innovators did not cease the reading before the singing all at once. No, this would have been too great a change to meet with general acceptance, since habit has been truly called a “second nature,” and pious people’s religious habits are very sensitive. So are those even of idolaters. “Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods?” (Jer. 2:11). The first step was from one, to the reading of two lines of a stanza; as it was said, “two lines more frequently completed the sense or a sentence than one.” This is true; yet from the great transposition of the words in the metrical version of our authorized Psalmody, two lines became more burdensome to the memory, especially of the young of the flock, and more especially to the “unbelieving and unlearned.” And to a person who has not been familiarized to the authorized version of the Psalms, there is perhaps no poetic composition more difficult to read or understand than the Psalms. Indeed every competent judge will admire the poetic genius of those who framed the metrical version, so as to secure “plainness, smoothness, and agreeableness to the text;” to retain and transfuse into the vernacular language the energy and sublimity of the divine original. It is certain that all who have attempted to improve upon their work, have only succeeded in dwarfing themselves by the contrast.

Professing Christians in this country, and among them professing Covenanters, were not slow to imitate the conduct of innovators on the other side of the Atlantic. In the city of Philadelphia, a locality distinguished for the last half century as the prolific source of error and disorder among Covenanters, the first successful attempt was made, so far as known, to innovate on the long established usage of our church in the manner of conducting praises of the sanctuary. This was done, moreover, at the sole instance of the pastor, in violation at once of both his own vows and Presbyterian order. Accordingly, two lines were given out by the precentor, instead of one, as had been customary time immemorial. Some of the aged disciples testified their dislike of the reckless innovation, by retiring from the house of worship. What course was to be taken in the case? What was to be done? The law of charity said,—“Cease from the innovation. Do not force it, to the grieving of brethren, and the marring of their edification. Take up the stumbling-block out of the way of my people. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” But no, the aggrieved members were summarily cited before Session to answer the heavy charge,—”contempt of ordinances!” This charge was false. The Session, not the aggrieved, was guilty of the charge. Of course the aged disciples were suspended.

Not until October, 1838, did continuous singing appear publicly among O[ld] S[chool] Covenanters.[1] In General Synod of that year, at New York, the innovation, advocated by two ministers only, and they of Scottish birth, was frowned down at once. They made a feeble defence, but cowered down in the presence of their more faithful brethren: especially under the ponderous logic and pungent appeals to the conscience of the late James R. Willson, D.D.[2]

Since that time, however, in imitation of surrounding communities, the professing witnesses for a covenanted work of reformation, have very generally ceased to regard the law of charity. The acquisition of more than four score tunes, with manifold “vain repetitions,” will of itself sufficiently tax the powers of the amateur in music, without deigning to think either of the honor of God or the edification of his fellow-worshippers.

Continuous singing in public social worship thus appears to be an outrage upon Divine institution, a violation of solemn vows, and a manifest insult to common sense in almost every thing but the things of God.

When error prevails so extensively; innovation, disorder and change in the Christian community; the Psalmist’s inquiry is appropriate: “Who will rise up for me against the evil-doers? or who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity?” Let us pray for the promised period when “Zion’s watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.”