Sources of Congregational Song

Congregational Song

Allan Groen, Edmonton, AB

In trying to get a handle on what is going on in congregational song today, I want to give a bird’s eye view of the history of congregational singing since the early 16th century. This is a useful starting point for me, because the lives of the three main players at this time overlap: Zwingli (1484-1531), Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-1564).

The three of these were all competent musicians, but it is thought that Zwingli was the best of the three.

By the 1500’s, there was rarely any congregational singing. The singing was done by the “professionals ” such as priests, nuns and monks. The people in general sang poorly and in any case could not read music or words. For that matter, church attendance was also sporadic.

It may seen difficult for us to imagine it, but for centuries, congregants were forbidden to sin in public worship. The Council of Laodicea forbade all congregational singing to protect the church from the Arian heresy. The Arians promoted their faith by putting their heretical teachings into cheerful songs which they sang on the streets. This anti-Arian decision was also the beginning of a movement to move the church back to the Old Testament worship pattern that depended on priests, vestments, sacrifices, candles and choirs composed exclusively on clergy. (In: Lawrence C. Roff, Let Us Sing).

More than a millennium after the Council of Laodicea, the Council of Constance, 1415, decided: “If laymen are forbidden to preach and interpret the Scriptures, much more are they forbidden to sing publicly in the churches.” (Roff).

The attitude of Zwingli can be described this way. As a musician who could play several instruments, one would think that he would love to have great music in all Zwinglian churches, but this was not the case. In fact, Zwingli  was so impressed with the emotional power of music that it frightened him, and for  this reason he banned music and singing from worship. Later,  some of his followers went so far as to destroy organs.

Luther and Calvin both were instrumental in bringing singing back into worship. Luther seems to have had fewer misgivings about this then Calvin did, but each in the end made his own very significant contribution to congregational song.

Luther ‘s contribution revolves around the famous chorals. The words always have biblical themes, and the purpose often seems to have been to teach the congregation in a way that was easy to remember. Luther ‘s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” was intended to be a song of consolation, written for a parishioner who was terminally  ill.

It is worth noting that Martin Luther was by no means the first to write hymns or spiritual songs. Think of Ambrose as an early example, and a few centuries later we have the Gregorian Chants. When Luther also wrote hymns that are not strictly paraphrases of  Bible passages, it becomes like a permission for anyone else to write hymns, too. If Luther could do it, why can’t others, too?

With Calvin the atmosphere is different again. Calvin also wanted the congregations to sing. But when Calvin began to reflect on what the people should sing, it seemed logical enough to begin with the psalms and a few Biblical canticles. Some scholars argue that Calvin wanted to use only paraphrases of Bible songs. Some argue that Calvin did not want the congregations to sing anything but psalms and a few canticle. But I wonder if instead, Calvin thought that people who knew no church music would be best served with starting by singing the Psalms of David. In any case Calvin enlisted poets and musicians, and the result was the publication of the Genevan Psalter.

During the latter part of the seventeenth century, a new stream of hymnody emerged as part of the Pietist movement. During the 17th Century, both Calvinism and Lutheranism began to undergo the influence of  scholasticism. Notions of a rigid, orthodoxy began to carry the day. The leader of a kind of rebellion against this inflexibility was Jacob Spener. Christians, he felt, needed more of a religion of the heart, and of feeling. Spener and his colleagues did not mean to belittle right doctrine, but to have a better balance between head and heart. And within this movement a new hymnody took shape. Perhaps the most important of these hymnodists was Paul Gerhard, (1607-1676). But the influence of this movement on subsequent church history and music was very great.

I know that in our Reformed (Christelijk Gereformeerd) this influence was felt. I was born in a small village in Friesland, were ths church used used only a few hymns, 29 to be exact, and used them sparingly indeed. Mostly our musical diet consisted of psalm singing. This had been the case for a long time. The Genevan psalms had become available in Dutch translation not so long after they became available in French. Congregations were initially expected to sing them without accompaniment. But in big cities, Sunday services were often held in churches with large and good organs, so eventually people began to wonder if the singing would not be improved if they would be permitted to use organs during worship (organs were usually owned by the city, not the church.) Eventually the city fathers agreed to allow churches to use their organs! So that is how it went for a long time: Genevan psalms were the music of the church. I remember vividly how one family in our congregation would be willing to have one of the hymns, although they would not sing them. If the pastor asked for a second one, they would walk out, something the pastor clearly thought to be hilarious. I mention this because early I learned how controversial the singing in church can be.

However, it is obvious that this tradition of psalm singing mostly, and hymns rarely, preferably never, ultimately did not carry the day. That honour belongs to those who approve of and encourage the use of a wide array of hymns, and huge number of hymns were written over the course of centuries.  Very few hymns have received wide-spread use. Sometimes these hymns did not have any inherent quality to merit survival. Most hymns, words and music alike reflect the cultural/religious situation in which they were written. They filled a need for their time and place, but most do not easily move beyond those limitations to fit in our time and our place.

Whatever the case, virtually everywhere where you can find churches, you will sing hymns and psalms. The use of psalms is in decline, it seems to me, aside  from snippets, out of context, for a praise and worship song.

People want to sing songs beyond psalms, and beyond hymnbooks. It struck me that in the church community in which I was raised, people sang almost exclusively versified psalms with Genevan tunes, but then they would go home after church, gather around their harmoniums and sing for an hour from the widely used book by Johannes de Heer. Most older immigrants will recognize that name immediately. De Heer’s “Zangbundel” is a hodgepodge collection. The dominant them is what we now call “heart songs>’ But this kind of hymn could not be confined to the home, and eventually found its way into Christian Reformed Churches, as readily, if not more so, as into many other churches.

Perhaps these ways of coming to terms with the three kinds of songs mentioned in Ephesians and Colossians, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Here are a few pieces of learning for me:

  • Throughout its history, there has been much singing in churches, and there have always been hymns that went beyond versification of Scripture passages.
  • The hymns people use in specific places and times were chosen because in some way these are the hymns people needed or liked. The music too is mostly not too much different from tunes used in other settings. The disconnect between the songs of the people and the songs of the church cannot be too large.  On walking into our apartment recently, a commercial for coffee was playing; it struck me that this was exactly the style we had just used in choir practice for a praise song the following Sunday.
  • When we are in church, we are with brothers and sisters, and as such we need to be patient with each other. So we participate even when the hymns aren’t exactly our taste, or even when we feel they really do not fit the theology of confession of the church. The time for a discussion on these matters is preferably before we use them in the first place, or, failing this, we may need to talk afterwards. Too often there is no conversation about what hymns to use. When we all sang from the one and some hymnal, that was no problem. Now we conversations and times of discernment, preferably before we use a new song.
  • Still it is true, that not all songs that are OK are worthy of being used in services of worship.  Both the words and the music need careful attention for the glory of God and the edification of the congregation.

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