The Regular Singing ControversyBy Linda R. Ruggles, Lecturer, History The University of Maryland University College Asian Division
I am credibly inform'd, that a certain Gentlewoman miscarry'd at the ungrateful and yelling Noise of a Deacon in reading the first Line of a Psalm: and methinks if there were no other Argument against this Practice (unless there were an absolute necessity for it) the Consideration of its being a Procurer of Abortion, might prevail with us to lay it aside. James Franklin, New-England Courant (February 17/24, 1724)1 called attention to the problems of singing as practiced in the Congregational churches of New England. This sermon was published in Boston that same year with, as was the custom, a lengthy title which spelled out the details of what was to become a controversy:
The Reasonableness of Regular Singing, or Singing by Note. In an Essay to revive the true and ancient mode of singing psalm-tunes according to the pattern of our New England psalmbooks, the Knowledge and practice of which, is greatly decayed in most congregations. Writ by a Minister of the gospel. Perused by several ministers in the town and country, and published with the approbation of all who have read it.There followed over the next decade a variety of sermons, tunebooks, letters, and newspaper notices dealing with the issue of regular singing (using written music) versus the old way (an oral tradition called lining-out). The Puritans, both in England and New England, adhered to the teachings of John Calvin regarding music in the worship service and used unaccompanied psalmody. Calvin and his followers sought to abolish all forms of ritual, which they saw as worship without understanding. Regular singing, with its use of written music, was seen by its opponents as "Quakerish and Popish, and introductive in Instrumental Musick."2 From the initial settlements of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies singing in the churches was a capella, frequently using lining-out. This practice consisted of a precentor who set the tune by singing or reading each line of a psalm, which the congregation then repeated. Lining-out was used especially in churches where psalm books and tune books were not generally available, and was common both in America and England. The practice was given official sanction in England, where Parliament, in the Ordinance of 1644 (regarding details of the worship service) specified its use in congregations which had members who were not able to read, until such time as they became literate.3 The tunes were commonly known ones found in several tunebooks printed during the 17th century. Thomas Ravenscroft's The Whole Booke of Psalmes... (London: Thomas Harper for the Company of Stationers, 1633), and the Sternhold-Hopkins Psalter, were the most likely sources in Massachusetts Bay.4 As is usual in an oral tradition, the tunes were altered according to the individual singer's interpretation and abilities.5 During the century after the establishment of English colonies in New England, the tunes became unrecognizable from church to church, and even within a single church, as each person embellished them. This style of singing featured extremely slow tempos, with notes added to the melody by each individual singer. In addition, since the singing was unaccompanied, people who were not sure of the melody would wait until the leaders sang the next note before joining them. This had the effect of slowing the tempo, which further blurred the rhythmical patterns and also caused several notes (not always in harmony) to be sung together.6 Thomas Symmes gave a colorful description of these difficulties in his treatise, Utile Dulci (1723):
Hence you may remember, that in our Congregation we us'd frequently to have some People Singing a Note or Two, after the rest had done. And you commonly strike the Notes not together, but one after another; One being half way thro' the second Note, before his Nei'bour has done with the First, &c.7The concept of regular singing was introduced to address these problems. It was part of the continuing debate of who had the final authority within the church, the minister or the congregation, since the ministers weighed in on the side of regular singing against the resistance of many in their congregations. The records of the controversy are contained almost exclusively in the published sermons of those ministers who favored the use of regular singing. Many of them included within their titles, or in prefaces, endorsements by other clergy that they should be read by clergy and laity alike for the purification of worship. That these sermons were published is an indication of the significance of the subject matter beyond the aesthetics of the music as it affected the structure of worship and influence of the clergy.
II. The ControversyIn Puritan churches of New England singing was an act of worship and a form of prayer, according to those who first wrote on the subject. It was a requirement of worship from the very beginnings of their church, and they used the Bible to support this contention. The texts to be used, it was generally agreed, were those found in the Bible: psalms and other hymns and songs of praise. Cotton Mather compiled a long list of poetry from the Bible which had been sung during biblical times and was thus suitable for use by God's churches in New England.8 He went on to speak of what else might be used in song, all from the Bible:
But supposing that we have no other Portions of the Inspired Writings exhibited in the Tunable Poetry of the Ancients, must we thence conclude that we are forbidden to put any other Portions of them into such a Metre, as may render them capable of being Sung among the People of God?9The answer was that these portions could and should be translated into English verse for the children of God to sing to His greater glory and their salvation, for the words which they sang told of God's grace. They were to use English meter so that all could understand the lessons contained in the biblical songs and were preferred over words composed, however inspired they might seem, by human beings.
Cover Page from the First Edition of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in the British North American colonies Click image to enlarge
Promiscuous Singing No Divine Institution; Having neither President nor Precept to support it, either from the Musical Institution of David, or from the Gospel Dispensation. Therefore it ought to be exploded, as being a humane Invention, tending rather to gratify the carnal Ears of Men, than to be acceptable and pleasing Worship to God.The primary objection against Regular Singing appeared to be a reluctance on the part of the congregations to adopt any new practice or method of worship. Thus the ministers had first to show that Regular Singing was not an innovation, but rather the usual practice of the founders of Puritan New England, and was sanctioned by the Bible. All of the works commenced with a discussion of the biblical basis for singing as a part of worship. They repeated the justifications given previously by John Calvin, John Cotton, and others. For example, the author of The Reasonableness of Regular Singing cited the Bible for proof of his position, but he also gave several other arguments, which he noted were
...in the plainest, most easy and popular Way I can (for 'tis for the sake of common People I write) to shew, That Singing by or according to Note, is to be preferred to the Usual Way of Singing. . . .The first Argument may be taken from the ANTIQUITY of Regular Singing. Singing by Note is the most Ancient Way of Singing, and claims the Preference to the other on that Account.10Once the ancient and biblical proof of singing as a requirement for worship and Regular Singing as the means to satisfy this requirement were established, the ministers went on to show that skill in psalm singing was practiced in New England from the establishment of the colonies. Thomas Symmes provided three cogent arguments:
It was studied, known and approv'd of in our College, for many Years after its first Founding. This is evident from the Musical Theses which were formerly Printed. If Singing by Note was not designed, Why were the Notes plac'd in our New-England Psalm-Books, and some General Directions there given about them? There are many Persons of Credit now Living, Children and Grand-Children of the first Settlers of New-England, who can very well remember, that their Ancestors Sung by Note, and they learnt so to Sing of them.11His final, and in many ways most compelling, proof was that Regular Singing was most like that which was practiced in Heaven, and thus everyone should practice the art of singing.12 Symmes answered the objection "That it is a New Way, an Unknown Tongue"13 by first admonishing the reader to consult the treatise, The Reasonableness of Singing by Note, wherein all questions and objections were answered.
Furthermore, (as is evident from a Psalm-Book of Elder Chipman's, now in my hands) The Church of Plymouth (which was the First Church in New England) made use of Ainsworth's version of the Psalms till the Year 1692. . . . and till about 1682, their excellent Custom was to Sing without Reading the Line. Now, in Ainsworth's Psalm-book, there are about 44 Tunes, and but 4 of them that I ever saw (to my knowledge) any where, save in that Psalm-book: And there the Tune is prick'd as in Ravenscroft's and Playford's at the beginning of the Psalm, or you there find a Reference to the Tune the Psalm is to be sung in, so that all the Chief Musician or Chorister had to do, was to give the Pitch and lead the Tune, and all were to sing according to the Notes in the Psalm Book.14Even more important to the argument that Regular Singing was the correct way and older than the Usual Way, was Symmes' discussion, in which he showed that skillful singing was directed by the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. In The Sweet Psalmist of Israel, Thomas Walter (1696-1725) used David to establish the necessity of singing as a form of worship and to show that singing as an art was practiced from the very beginning. He set his thesis in the dedicatory letter printed as a preface to his sermon. Extolling the Society for Promoting Regular Singing, to which he addressed his sermon, he stated, "I would fain hope it will not be long e'er the Ignorant will be convinced, that they have mistaken Novelty for Antiquity, and will be brought to own, that the present Depravations of our Tunes, which they now so pertinaciously adhere to, and unreasonably insist upon, can lay no manner of Claim to their beloved Title and Denomination of, THE GOOD OLD WAY."15 The talents which each person received from the Lord were to be used for the benefit of the church, and thus, argued Walter, "a faithful Servant of God beholds all his Accomplishments, whether Natural, Moral or Divine, under no other Notion or View, than that of so many Consecrations to God, or Talents for the Improvement of which he is accountable."16 He did not rest his argument for Regular Singing on this one point but continued with a discussion of the nature of music and its effect on the souls of man:
There is a Mathematical Sweetness and Pleasancy in Sounds. This is no other than the Doctrine of Concords, to which there are required more Sounds than one, so proportioned and distanced in certain Intervals, as to create a pleasant Harmony and Agreement. The Pleasure arising from this Mathematical Sweetness or Agreement of Sounds, is a more Intellectual Pleasure; that from the Physical Sweetness, a more Sensual. Hence not only all Men, but the very Brutes too are capable of receiving a Delight in a single pleasant Sound or Voice, but none of the Brutal Race, nor all of the Humane are capable of relishing the Melody arising from the harmonious Agreement of a Diversity of Sounds. This requires a tuneful Soul, as well as a good Ear.17The concept of a tuneful soul was one which could be found in the writings of the Greeks, the ancient Hebrews, as well as the early church Fathers, such as Augustine and Boethius, and continued to be endorsed by clerics down through the centuries to the Puritans in New England. John Calvin, to whose writings the Puritans frequently referred, acknowledged the affects of music on the hearts and souls of worshipers.18 The advocates of Regular Singing used many of these writings, especially of David and Calvin, to show how tuneful music would assist the worshiper in achieving a calm and quiet mind, that he might contemplate the glories of the Heavenly Father without distraction. The Bible even provided proof that singing instruction was condoned by God: "And Chenaniah, chief of the Levites, was for song: he instructed about the song because he was skilful."19 This passage was used by several proponents of Regular Singing.20 The anonymous author of A Brief Discourse Concerning Regular Singing, Shewing from the Scriptures, The Necessity And Incumbency thereof in the Worship of God, provided a series of objections raised by the defenders of the Usual Way, each followed by his response. To the objection that
If the Tunes (as the Psalms are) were of Divine Inspiration, or had we the Hebrew Tunes; then it were Reasonalbe to conform to them and endeavor after Skill; but since we have not those, we have no Rule at all: nor do we see Rule necessary.21The author of this essay answered the objection with the statement that if the Hebrew tunes were necessary, they would have been provided. The admonitions in scripture to sing skillfully were enough for this author to advocate Regular Singing.
And tho' the Hebrew Tunes have not been Preserved, as we know of; yet the Skill, and general Rules of Singing, have doubtless be Retained (as well as of other Arts & Sciences, Logic, Philosophy, and the like) from Age to Age; 'till now: several of which are plainly discerned in the Scriptures (as in the Book of Job and some of the Prophets, and more in the New Testament:) And this is a sufficient Warrant for us to improve our Skill in composing and using Tunes for Psalms, which comes under the general Rule, and Command of Singing them with Decency & Order.22As is clear from the above, the proofs offered from biblical sources, as well as from the practices of the founders of the colony, were the foundations of the arguments in favor of Regular Singing. Since none of the published sermons argued against Regular Singing, opposition to it must be inferred from statements made in these sermons. For example, in Utile Dulci, Symmes composed a debate between a minister who was in favor of Regular Singing and a "Hearer" who was opposed. This opponent gave seven objections:
(1) That it is a New Way, an Unknown Tongue. (2) That it is not so Melodious as the Usual Way. (3) That there are so many Tunes, we shall never have done learning. (4) That the Practice of it give Disturbance; Roils & Exasperates men's Spirits; grieves sundry good People, and causes them to behave themselves indecently & disorderly. (5) That is Quakerish & Popish, and introductive of Instrumental Musick. (6) That the Names given to the Notes are Bawdy, yea Blasphemous. (7) That it is a Needless way, since their good Fathers that were Strangers to it, are got to Heaven without it.23Here can be detected reluctance to change and institute a formalized practice which would take away the comfort of custom and threaten the possibility of employing ritual in worship. Symmes gave these objections a sarcastic cast, but they are also found in more sober guise in other sermons. The Reverends Peter Thatcher, John Danforth, and Samuel Danforth stated that many had learned Regular Singing, more than had learned to use the Usual Way. They quoted the author of The Reasonableness of Regular Singing, without attribution, on this point.24
An Old Custom may be altered, and a new Custom and Habit gained by frequent tryal and practice. Custom then is no sufficient Reason for the Continuance of old Practices that need to be Reformed: And is our good Singing a Duty required of Us by Heaven? Surely then we are Obliged to use all agreeable means to qualify and enable Us to do the Duty required. No Difficulties (at least short of impossibilities) should hinder Duty.25Nathaniel Chauncy (1681-1756) also dealt with the problem of custom and allowed that the power of it was such that it gained the force of law after many years of practice, regardless of its virtue or lack thereof.26 He argued that the tunes which were used had originally been composed "by the Art of Musick," along with directions for singing the tunes. Thus the practice of singing by the rule was not a new idea but rather a return to orderly worship.27 There were other arguments put forward in the justification of Regular Singing; among them one which held that it was of a more orderly nature than the Usual Way and therefore more seemly and dignified for the worship of God. Nathaniel Chauncy quoted I Corinthians 14:40: "Let all things be done decently and in order." All things, singing included, were to meet this requirement. Regular Singing would help create an atmosphere of worship which would be "conducive to Decency and good Order, and in the the End to the Glory of God."28 Decency and good order seem to have been forgotten by some people, as observed in this description given by Cotton Mather in a letter to Thomas Hollis in 1723:
Numbers of Elder and Angry People, bore zealous Testimonies against these wicked Innovations, and this bringing in of Popery. Their zeal transported some of them so far that they would not only use the most opprobrious terms and call the Singing of these Christians a worshipping of the Devil, but they also would run out of the Meetinghouse at the Beginning of the Exercise.29Mather wrote that others who opposed the practice either refused to join in the singing or else tried to overwhelm the regular singers with the volume of their own singing.30 This must have caused even greater dissonance than the opponents of the Usual Way credited it with and certainly did not contribute to decency and good order in the worship service that day! Nathaniel Chauncy saw order as essential to the achievement of grace. He stated before the General Association at Hartford, Connecticut, in 1727, that it was known that there was a "sure and certain Rule" for singing and further that there were ill effects caused by the neglect of this Rule. These included the neglect of singing psalms in praise of God during worship and at home, which in turn hindered God's message of grace from being spread. Adherence to this rule, on the other hand, encouraged discipline, in addition to respect for God and His institutions.31
As for the Ends for which the Ordinance has been appointed, they are Certain, and there must needs be a Certain Rule to lead to a Certain End. . . . In case there be various Rules, they must lead to differing Ends to be sure, Differing, in proportion to the difference there is in the Rules or Means. And this shews it can't be a matter of indifferency how we Sing: Because that various Rules, or various Means lead to various Ends.3233 If unity was not practiced in the matter of worship, would it prevail in other areas? Had not God created an orderly universe with rules of harmony? And were not Christians required to be at union with each other? "Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."34 It was further argued, in A Pacificatory Letter about Psalmody, that if the congregations practiced Regular Singing, people would be able to participate in this part of the worship services at other churches when they were forced to be away.
It's much to be desired, that generally the same Tunes should be usually sung in all our Congregations; that so when some Persons are providentially from home, and occasionally with other Churches, they may be the better able to join with them in singing of Psalms.35The author further stated that the laws of nature required when a group of people sang together they should "sing the same Tune at the same Time, and to keep Tune as near as they can, to prevent Discord and Confusion."36 The practice of Regular Singing would facilitate this endeavor to harmonious, decent, and orderly worship, for "unless there be only One certain Rule to proceed by, this can't be expected."37 The opponents of reform regarded Regular Singing as a move away from the congregational practice of local autonomy toward the more regularized form of Presbyterianism with its governing synods. They demanded that each church vote on the issue of which style to use, Regular Singing or the Usual Way. Thomas Symmes berated those who demanded a right to vote on the subject. He quoted Chapter 10, Section 5 of the Cambridge Platform to show that although "the Power granted by Christ to the Body of the Church and Brotherhood is a Privilege, which the Church doth Exercise, (1) In choosing their own Officers, whether Elders or Deacons; (2) In admission of Members," nothing was said in regards to doctrine or worship. "Here, the Pastor is Master of the Assembly, and unless he Preach false Doctrine, or introduce any part, or means of Worship,38 not warranted by the Word of God; he's Justifiable before all the World by your own Principles."39 Although Symmes ruled out vote by Church (those who were full members), he did sanction vote by congregation (everyone, whether full members or not, who attended services). He knew of no precept or precedent for such a vote, but neither did he know of one opposed to it. A vote by the Congregation, rather than the Church, seemed more reasonable to him:
For everyone in the Congregation has as much Liberty to Sing, as the Oldest Deacon in the Church, and a good Right to decide this Question. For, there are a many N[on]communicants of you Anti-Regular-Singers, that know ten times as much about Singing, and can Sing ten times as well, as any of those of you that are Communicants. And since you'r as much divided about the Persons, who you suppose have a Right to vote in this Affair, as the Papists, about the Subject of Infallibility; till you'r agreed, who are to decide the matter by a Vote, it must e'n go Undetermined in any such way.40
III. The Benefits, According to the Proponents of ReformThe knowledge of Regular Singing would allow people to sing psalms at home without depending on a precentor to set the tune. This was encouraged by the ministry as a means to strengthen families and to help them experience the uplifting qualities of psalm singing in their daily lives. An additional benefit would be that these families would be regular church attenders and thus come under the influence of the clergy. This in turn would return the ministers to a place of prominence within the community. The vacating of the charter after the Glorious Revolution, and the increasing enforcement of the Act of Toleration (1689), had undermined their influence and threatened the noble experiment, the City on the Hill, which had been the basis for the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In order to provide families with the knowledge necessary to practice Regular Singing, ministers recommended schools to teach its principles. This would also insure that congregations came into conformance with the Scriptural requirement of singing and praising God in a decent manner.41 Thatcher and the Danforths insisted that everyone was able to learn to sing by the Rule, no matter what their age. Their statement indicated a division between the youth and their elders in this matter. Innovations frequently split the generations and this controversy was no exception. These schools provided young people with a healthy outlet for their enthusiasm and provided ministers with an additional forum in which to give guidance. No one was to be restricted from singing or attending the singing schools. Even the unconverted could attend the singing schools; indeed, their participation was encouraged.42 Thomas Walter preached at one such gathering and his sermon was subsequently published so that others might benefit from it.43 In this sermon Walter argued that,
Upon the whole we may conclude that Music is not only a Means provided by the God of Nature and the Author of all Religion, to dispel and drive away the evil influences of Satan, but also to prepare the Soul for the Reception of the Inspiration of the holy Spirit.44The founders of the colony had come to the wilderness to establish church and state according to the word of God. Thomas Symmes, in Utile Dulci, showed the Regular Singing movement to be a part of the reforms necessary to maintain the purity of the church. He gave three instances in the history of Massachusetts to prove his point. The first involved the Cambridge Platform, which included the use of synods.45 The second was the Half-Way Covenant, which kept the children of covenanted members within the sphere of church governance, and against which there had been great outcry from "some Weak People" that it was not valid, as it had not been practiced within their memory.46 His final point involved the protest against the reformation of Psalmody, despite the efforts to show "the Reasonableness, Advantage & Necessity of it."47