by Dr. James H. Sightler, MD
Originally titled: “Music in the Bible and in the True Church”
This article contains a lot of interesting history on Psalm singing, both from the Bible, and throughout early American history.

Part I – Music Examined by the Bible

There are three very important questions which we can answer by scripture.

  1. Is music moral? Yes.
  2. Is it a product of man’s behavior and beliefs? Yes.
  3. Can we show from the Bible that music is moral? Yes.

If music were amoral and neutral it would not be used in Heaven as the book of Revelation tells us it will be.

The vast majority of Bible references to the words song, sang, singing, and music are used to describe songs sung in praise to the Lord, in holy and uplifting circumstances, songs offered up to the Lord with heartfelt emotions, songs that are a sweet-smelling savor to God.

Israel made an offering to Joseph, who is a type of Christ in His first advent, in Genesis 43. In this chapter Benjamin, “son of sorrow” and “son of my right hand,” was sent with his brothers to Egypt during the famine. Israel did not know that the man to whom he was making the offering and sending Benjamin was Joseph in Egypt.

Genesis 43
11 And their father Israel said unto them, If it must be so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man [who was Joseph] a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds.

It is an example to us that this offering was made in spite of a famine in the land. The Hebrew word for Israel’s offering, the best fruits, the “song” of the land, is zimrah. This is the first verse of five in which the word is found. It is of special significance then that zimrah also means melody or psalm (a psalm is a melody or song accompanied by a stringed instrument). This is an example of polysemy, that is, the same word having more than one meaning; the meaning depends on the context. Therefore, we read:

Psalms 81
2 Take a psalm (zimrah), and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery.

Psalms 98
5 Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm (zimrah).

Isaiah has a passage concerning the redemption of Israel:

Isaiah 51
3 For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody (zimrah).

God in anger, lamenting and warning through His prophet Amos that Israel is worshiping idols in unrighteousness, says:

Amos 5
23 Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody (zimrah) of thy viols.

A root word related to zimrah is zamar, which may mean either to prune a vine or to strum a musical instrument with the fingers. This word is found 45 times in 39 verses. It is another example of polysemy in Hebrew.

Polysemy is also seen often in English and other languages. For example the word case may mean a matter needing study, a person being treated by a physician, or an instance or occurrence, as in case of bad weather. When we say plain we may mean uncomplicated and simple, open to clear view, unadorned and not beautiful, or a vast open space of ground, also relatively unadorned.

So we see that polysemic words are identical in spelling and pronunciation and often also have more or less related meanings.

When David spoke his last words in 2 Samuel 23:1, he was called the sweet psalmist of Israel. The Hebrew word for sweet psalmist is zamiyr, which is related to zimrah and zamar and means metrical singing accompanied by stringed instruments.

It is a wonderful thought that the word zimrah in all five verses where it occurs is used in reference to offering, praise, thanksgiving, and the melody of a psalm. There are parallels in meaning in these different uses. Offering and sacrifice are parallel to melody or psalms because both are worship.

The relationship between pruning and psalm singing, zamar and zimrah, is this: pruning creates order, beauty, and more fruit in an orchard, just as Biblical music and worship produces order, beauty, and fruit in our hearts. The order and beauty are inseparable; each follows from the other and fruitfulness is a product of them. Israel pruned off the best fruits, the song of the land, as a gift to Joseph, a type of Christ.

Our songs to the Lord should have Biblical words, Biblical thoughts and understanding, Biblical instruments and harmony. They should be joyful noise giving beauty and orderly meaning to our hearts, which will bring the hand of the Lord upon us just as the minstrel in 2 Kings brought the hand of the Lord upon Elisha.

Since music is truly a part of worship, it must be done in righteousness, separate from the world and the world’s idolatrous gods, to be acceptable to Jehovah.

There are references in the Bible to song that make it clear that there is both good music and bad music. We see a negative song in Job’s answer to Bildad, who had asked, like modern day mockers:

Job 4 [RSV]
17 Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?

Job said,

Job 30
8 …they were children of fools, yes, children of base men: they were viler than the earth.
9 And now am I their song, yea, I am their byword.
10 They abhor me, they flee far from me, and spare not to spit in my face.

God gives the definitive answer to Bildad in the New Testament: man can be justified by grace through faith.

Psalm 69 is a Messianic passage which speaks of the sufferings of Christ and verse 12 shows that drunkards reproached the Lord with song when he was crucified. That song had to be an evil one. Verses 7-12 read:

Psalm 69
7 Because for thy sake I have borne reproach; shame hath covered my face.
8 I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children.
9 For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.
10 When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.
11 I made sackcloth also my garment; and I became a proverb to them.
12 They that sit in the gate speak against me; and I was the song of the drunkards.

Ecclesiastes speaks of a song sung by fools:

Ecclesiastes 7
5 It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.

Daniel speaks of music used in the profane worship of Nebuchadnezzar:

Daniel 3
7 Therefore at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of music, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshiped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.

So we see that the Bible marks men by their music, not only by the type of music but by the attitude and direction of the heart. It must always have great spiritual significance and must affect its hearers.

In 2 Kings it affected Elisha who said:

2 Kings 3
15 But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him.
16 And he said, Thus says the Lord, Make this valley full of ditches.

Through the music of the minstrel, which is a type of communication in itself, Elisha was enabled by God to do good for the sake of Jehoshaphat, King of Judah.

Both music and language were given to man by God. Music itself is a language, a special form of communication. The word muse, from which it is derived, speaks of language and thinking. Scripture was meant to be read and thought about and sung as well. The Hebrew Bible is song. It was inspired by the Holy Ghost with universal principles of music composition as well as metrical structure in the words He gave. It was meant to be sung aloud to plucked-string accompaniment. Not only the Psalms and songs of the Hebrew Bible are to be sung but the entire Old Testament.

The idea that music is neutral and amoral began in Christian churches in the late 1960’s and in the early 1970’s during a period that gave our country a tremendous, decadent uproar from the Woodstock generation and its music and sinful behavior. Contemporary music, both secular contemporary and so called contemporary Christian, also began at that time. And it was related to and parallel to the great increase in ungodliness.

In recent years even some fundamentalists have said the church needs to sing the world’s contemporary songs to attract crowds, to be more like the world just to present the gospel.

But that idea raises a second question. What is music for in the church? It is directed to God above for His praise and glory; it is not meant to reach out to the world, although the world does have the opportunity to respond to the music, good or bad, that it hears from churches.

The world also has attempted to put its own music in churches. We have already seen, at the beginning of our study that in Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, and Amos gifts or offerings to the Lord, the best fruits, and melody are closely related. That means that music is for worship by believers.

What does the New Testament say about the use of music?

Ephesians 5
19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.

That means we speak to ourselves, fellow believers, in song, but to the world we preach the Gospel. Preaching the word, not singing, is God’s plan for salvation of sinners and evangelism.

This verse also speaks to the church:

Colossians 3
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Hebrews 2
12 Saying, I will declare your name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto you.

The believer’s music is for worship of God. These verses are not about evangelism but about the edification and strengthening of the church, and separating it from the world. They do not admonish us to join with the world’s habits.

In fact, the one place where God’s people cannot sing is in Babylon, in the world.

Psalm 137
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange, contemporary land which requires of us a song and mirth for “experience” and entertainment? There is a distinct difference between Babylon and the Church. Sinful Babylon can not worship God with voice or instruments.

Another important reason for music in worship, and this also is for believers, is to memorize the word of God, to hide it in our hearts for spiritual warfare. In Deuteronomy the Lord commanded Moses to write a song, the Lord’s song, for the children of Israel, not for their pagan neighbors:

Deuteronomy 31
19 Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel.
21 And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are befallen them, that this song shall testify against them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: for I know their imagination which they go about, even now, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.
22 Moses therefore wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel.

God could have given Moses only words or poetry, but instead gave him a song to teach as well as to write. If music is neutral God would not have used it here; God is not neutral about His own teaching which was given in song.

The language of song or poetry is more easily remembered than prose. You know that all children sing the alphabet before they say it, and it is the singing of the simple song with 7 syllables per line which makes that possible.

Another instance of songs being used for memorization of God’s word is seen when David said:

Psalm 119
54 Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.
Memorization is seen in the next verse:
55 I have remembered your name, O Lord, in the night, and have kept your law.

There is only one New Testament reference to salvation in close temporal relation to singing. Paul and Silas sang and prayed at midnight, and I believe that their songs and prayer, unlike contemporary music, contained plenty of the Gospel and a prayer for the salvation of the jailer and the inmates.

The singing of Psalms is mentioned in Acts, and they may well have sung Psalms, but their purpose in singing and praying was not to get the jailer to join in with them in singing Psalms. Nor was it to sing the songs the jailer would have sung. Rather it was the miracle of an earthquake and the escape of the prisoners and Holy Ghost conviction in the jailer which made him ask “What must I do to be saved?” They then preached to him:

Acts 16
31 Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.

The third question is whether we may accompany song with musical instruments. Again we turn to what the Bible has to say.

The New Testament has some important references to instruments. The Old Testament has many, and the entire Bible speaks of and points to Jesus Christ. There are many Messianic passages in the Psalms and in the rest or the Old Testament, which were meant to be sung and were often accompanied by harps, horns, and tabrets. The very word psalm means a sacred poem accompanied by the voice or instrument.

Psalms 6
To the chief Musician on Neginoth upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David.
1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, neither chasten me in your hot displeasure.

Neginoth means a poem set to music and played on a stringed instrument. Sheminith means an 8-stringed harp.

Psalm 22, written to the chief musician, is clearly Messianic and speaks of the Lord Jesus:

Psalm 22
1 My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?…
16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.

In 1 Chronicles we read of horns, harps, cymbals, psalteries used for services in the house of the Lord:

1 Chronicles 25
6 All these were under the hands of their father for song in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, psalteries, and harps, for the service of the house of God, according to the king’s order to Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman.

In 2 Chronicles 7 the Temple had just been completed and fire had fallen and consumed the burn offering and sacrifices and the glory of the Lord had filled the temple so that the priests could not enter. In verse 6 we read:

2 Chronicles 7
6 And the priests waited on their offices: the Levites also with instruments of music of the Lord, which David the king had made to praise the Lord, because his mercy endures for ever, when David praised by their ministry; and the priests sounded trumpets before them, and all Israel stood.

The instruments of music are said here to be “of the Lord.”

Musical instruments used before preaching are detailed here:

1 Samuel 10
5 After that you shall come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines: and it shall come to pass, when you are come there to the city, that you shall meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy [that is, they shall preach].

In the New Testament we read:

Ephesians 5
19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.

The Greek psalmos again means a sacred poem accompanied with the voice or instrument as it did in the Old Testament. Making melody in Greek is psallo which means, to pluck, pull, cause to vibrate by touching, to twang the strings of a musical instrument so that they vibrate, to play a stringed instrument, to play the harp.

Some say that making melody in your heart means to do it silently in your mind. Nonsense! If that is so then singing must also be in your heart and silent.

Paul gave the church in 1 Corinthians 14 specific directions for worship, what is allowed for edification of believers and what is not.

1 Corinthians 14
6 Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?
7 And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?
8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
9 So likewise, except you utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for you shall speak into the air.

There is an unmistakable connection between music and language and understanding:

15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
26 How is it then, brethren? When you come together, every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

So we see from this passage and from Ephesians 5:19, which speaks of making melody, that instruments, stringed instruments, were used in the church in Paul’s day.

The last book of the New Testament is the Revelation of Jesus Christ and is certainly written to the church, both on earth and in eternity. It is not symbolic, but is to be taken literally, just as is the rest of the Bible. It mentions the use of the harp three times. The four and twenty elders of Revelation represent both Old and New Testament saints, and they used harps when they sang the new song before the Lamb. The 144,000 redeemed from the earth also played the harp before the angels and elders.

Revelation 2
5 And one of the elders said unto me, “Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.
6 And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.
7 And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.
8 And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints.
9 And they sung a new song, saying, You are worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for you were slain, and have redeemed us to God by your blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;

Revelation 14
1 And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him a hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads.
2 And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps:
3 And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.

Revelation 15
2 And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.
3 And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvelous are your works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are your ways, you King of saints.

This could be the song God gave to Moses in Deuteronomy 31:19.

If the use of instruments is worldly, God would not speak of them as being used by His saints in Heaven to sing a new song. They would not be called “of God.” God does not approve the appearance of evil on earth and will not allow evil in Heaven. His will is done in Heaven. Clearly the Bible allows use of instruments in the church.

Some Types of Instruments

Davidic harps were small and portable and were often held on the shoulder with a leather strap, plucked with a pick like a guitar. Some of these harps had a soundboard of leather and were therefore ancestors of the banjo.

The Celtic lap harp is a small, portable harp of the type used in the middle ages. It has a hollow box with soundboard and sound holes. The vibration of the strings is amplified by the soundboard just as with the Davidic harp. It is a forerunner of the modern pedal harp.

The Psaltery is mentioned here:

Psalm 33
1 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous: for praise is comely for the upright.
2 Praise the Lord with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings.
3 Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.

The more recent Autoharp is very much like the Psaltery.

With the modern Acoustic Guitar, sound is produced by vibration of strings attached to a spruce soundboard and amplified by the soundboard. The same is true of the Harp of David, the Psaltery, the Celtic harp, the Autoharp, and the modern Pedal Harp.

The modern Pedal Harp, is a latecomer, invented in 1810. It also depends on strings attached to a hollow body with a soundboard, just like all the other stringed instruments. The pedals change the pitch of the strings in the same way that a capo changes keys on a Guitar, a metal slide changes pitch on a Dobro, or a pedal changes keys on a Pedal Steel Guitar.

The Harpsichord grew out of the Psaltery and was invented about 1400. It reached its fullest development between 1600 and 1700.

The Pianoforte, or loud piano, was invented in 1709, but it did not become the modern piano until 1823.

The Organ is mentioned 3 times in the Old Testament in Genesis and Job, but it was almost certainly a system of pipes through which air was pumped by bellows, much like the Bagpipe. Organs of this type were known in Europe about 800 A.D. They were small and portable. The modern organ with keyboard, pedal and pipes with stops (the stops made it possible to selectively keep some pipes from sounding) did not come into being until about 1500.

If anyone ever tells you that the music of the church must be classical and that the Piano and Organ are superior to the Guitar and Banjo and Dobro, remind them of how much closer the Guitar is in construction, volume, tone, expression, and feeling to the Davidic harp than the Piano and Organ can ever be. After all, the Davidic harp was played with a pick with the right hand while the left damped those strings which were not to be heard at a particular time, very much as a Guitar is played.

The KJV translators, completely faithful to the texts they translated, were familiar with the Davidic and Celtic harps, the Guitar, the Psaltery, Harpsichord, and small Pipe Organs. But they never heard a modern Pedal Harp or Piano. They never heard Handel’s Messiah, which was written in 1742.

If anyone tries to tell you that the Guitar or Banjo is associated with honky-tonk music, let them know that the Piano was used in houses of ill repute in Memphis in the 1920’s at the beginning of the jazz age.

Silent Night was written in 1818 by Franz Gruber on a Guitar and in a church, more than 100 years before the music of Jimmie Rodgers and 130 years before Hank Williams.

Part II – Early Music in the Roman Church

Pope Gregory I introduced the Gregorian chant to the Catholic Church about 600 A.D. Gregorian chant in Catholic liturgy has:

  1. No melody and a very restricted range of notes, less than an octave;
  2. No rhythm or poetic form;
  3. Is usually sung in minor keys;
  4. Is sung by the priests or monks only, in the mass, and lay participation was not expected.

Catholics often used hidden choirs in a balcony behind the congregation to produce a mysterious or numinous effect, a form of religion lacking the power thereof.

Part III – Music Among the Baptists

Baptists in the Middle ages often had to worship in secret in houses, and I believe they sang in secret as well. We do know that the followers of John Hus took communion in both bread and wine in secret at Chalice Rocks near Prague. That practice would have been punished by death if the Roman Church, which used only the wafer of bread, had known of it.

Open singing in Baptist churches began in 1673 in London at the church pastored by Benjamin Keach and was done only at the Lord’s Supper. Elias Keach, his son, came to Philadelphia in 1686, preached many revivals, and pastored Pennepeck Baptist Church. He may have brought singing with him.

Benjamin Keach’s church in London was at first divided over whether to allow singing or not. The first question was whether to sing at all, and the second question was whether to sing by rule or note or to sing “in the spirit” without any rules or notes.

In New England from the 1720’s on, the debate was settled for singing-by-note; a Baptist preacher in Groton, Connecticut, Valentine Wightman, who was a father of the Separate Baptist movement, and Joseph Dwight sided with note-guided singing.

From 1720-1780 psalms predominated in singing and were at first sung in unison without parts or harmony after the fashion of a decree given by John Calvin. Calvin got this idea from Augustine. It was another carry over, along with infant baptism, from the Catholic Church. Many at the Council of Trent in the counter-reformation had opposed harmony in singing in the Mass.

In Massachusetts, Cotton Mather, John Cotton, and many other Puritan theologians followed Calvin’s practices in the early Psalm tunebooks. Gradually, however, people in the congregation began to add grace note ornamentation to the Psalm singing.

Eventually New England composers, such as William Billings, introduced counterpoint to their compositions. In counterpoint several independent melodies sung by different persons are interwoven in such a way as to produce the overall effect of harmony, but a distinctive American harmony with some few dissonances was the result.

Because of the scarcity and cost of books in the early days, only the song leader had one, and he “lined out” the song for the congregation by singing the first line after which the congregation repeated it.

But there was too much freedom for improvisation and unauthorized notes sung by various people in the crowd. So the question became which rule would be sung by, what notes and what harmony? How could the members find a note easily and sing it properly with the least training, so that all could participate in the songs?

Active participation in worship is a Baptist distinctive. Shaped notes were invented for the purpose of making it possible for large numbers of people to be quickly taught to sing correctly in parts for harmony, to the edification of all. Each note had a different shape and the proper tone or pitch could be recognized by the shape of the note rather than by its position on the lines and spaces.

From the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, about 1600, a primitive shape-note scale of 8 notes was adopted: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, ut.

A very similar system was standardized in 1879 by Joseph Aitkin of Philadelphia as: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.

But for a long time between 1600 and 1879 a simplified system of four shaped notes was used for the 8 note scale: fa, sol, la, fa, sol la, mi, fa.

John Tufts in 1721 began using letters written above the notes as substitutes for the shaped notes for singing psalm tunes. The letter of each note was the first letter of the note such as m for mi.

The ninth edition of the Bay Psalm Book had the initials of the four note symbol printed under the staff.

Thomas Walter in 1721 wrote a book, Grounds and Rule of Musick, which made the symbol for fa a right triangle, for sol a circle, for mi a diamond, and for la a rectangle. These same symbols are used today for those notes in our songbook.

Shape notes cannot be pentecostal since they were in use 300 years before Pentecostalism existed.

Around the year 1725 singing schools began to be held in communities and churches in New England and the movement here reached its peak about 1775.

In 1798 William Little in New York and William Smith in Philadelphia wrote a singing school instruction book, The Easy Instructor, using the four note fa, sol, la, mi system.

Many of the shape note songs from the earliest times were fuging tunes. In a fugue a subject is announced in one voice or part and then developed musically in strict order by the other voices.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat, as commonly sung in elementary school and known as a round, is actually a fuging tune. These songs have parts which enter one after the other in a regular fashion in the verse or chorus.

Fuging is imitative counterpoint. One of the greatest fuging tunes, Northfield, is a round. This song came from a poem of 1701 by Isaac Watts. It was in common meter, which we will shortly define and illustrate. The tune was written by Jeremiah Ingalls of Boston in 1800. The subtitle to Northfield, which speaks of the second coming of the Lord, came from a portion of John 1:51 “I say unto you, hereafter you shall see heaven open.”

How long, dear Saviour, O how long
    Shall this bright hour delay?
Fly swift around, ye wheels of time,
    And bring the promised day.

From the third heaven, where God resides,
    That holy, happy place,
The new Jerusalem comes down,
    Adorned with shining grace.

The God of glory down to men
    Removes his blest abode;
Men, the dear object of his grace,
    And He the living God.

The first distinctively American psalmodist and hymn writer was William Billings. Born in Boston in 1746, he was a tanner by trade and a friend of Paul Revere and John Adams. In 1778 he published a compilation of about 120 of his own hymns as The New-England Psalm-Singer. Paul Revere engraved the frontispiece to this book, and it showed a leader and a group of six men sitting around a table singing from tunebooks. On the title page appeared the words “never before published.” Several of the songs were fuging tunes. His most famous hymns were Chester, David’s Lamentation, and When Jesus Wept. Billings strongly defended the fuging tune and made it an American music form.

After the Revolutionary war singing schools spread to the South via the Shenandoah Valley and the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road and took permanent root here from Southern Ohio and Kentucky to Florida and the deep South. These schools quickly produced a population of people capable of singing parts or harmony by reading shaped notes with very little instruction and this greatly improved the beauty of congregational singing.

Men sang the tune and the bass; women sang harmony. Remember that many of the churches were in remote wilderness areas, had no organ or piano, and so had to rely on the human voice for harmony. Usually there was no choir, and everyone joined in the singing.

The melodies of many of the old hymn tunes were pentatonic, that is they used only five notes out of a possible 8: do, re, mi, sol, and la. Amazing Grace is like this; many bluegrass songs are also pentatonic. The use of the pentatonic scale is of Celtic or Scottish origin.

The singing schools became social as well as religious gatherings. They were predominantly, but not exclusively, Baptist.

About 1800, John Hubbard, professor at Dartmouth College, and Joshua Cushing in Salem, Massachusetts began to favor the European “art songs” of Handel and Bach. Their musical heroes were European and Handel was foremost. Hubbard founded the Handel Society at Dartmouth. They advocated that Billings and his fuging tunes be forgotten. They favored a more “scientific” European harmony which had fewer dissonant notes but was much less vigorous and ingenious than early American counterpoint. Hubbard’s grandson, John S. Hubbard, was a Unitarian.

In the 1830’s in Boston two brothers, Lowell and Timothy Mason, began to oppose the use of shaped notes and advocated round notes. Here the pitch of tone of the note in the scale was found from knowledge of and inspection of the line or space on which the round note appeared. Prolonged musical training was needed to do this. Shaped notes were put down and called dunce notes. Fuging tunes were despised.

Lowell Mason had been trained as an organist in an Episcopalian church in Savannah, Georgia. He favored the German art song which used all 8 notes of the scale, was classical in feeling, and had women sing the tune and men the harmony. Timothy Mason traveled to Cincinnati about 1836 and there also began to oppose the use of shaped notes.

These men were New School Presbyterians, liberal in doctrine compared to the Baptists. For example, they favored the moral influence theory of the atonement over the orthodox satisfaction theory.

A Presbyterian newspaper, The Cincinnati Journal, helped their opposition. The campaign against shape notes was an integral part of the unfortunate triumph of 19th century New England culture, favored by missionaries and “intellectuals” who were influenced by Unitarian Transcendentalism, a culture with beliefs very different from those of 17th and 18th century New England.

The success of round notes in Ohio and the Western Reserve in Northeast Ohio was a triumph over a Western frontier culture regarded as inferior by the New Englanders. But the South clung to its old familiar shape notes and fuging tunes for another 150 years.

The most widely used shape note books in the South before the war between the States were the Southern Harmony by William Walker, which came out in 1835 and sold 600,000 copies by 1860, and the Sacred Harp by B. F. White, published in 1844. These men were Baptists, both grew up in Fairforest Baptist Church near Union, SC, and were brothers-in-law.

The singers who sang this music, both then and now, did not use the “trained voice” techniques of European opera. Instead they sang simply and without vibrato and strove to avoid calling attention to themselves by vocal techniques.

The words to Amazing Grace or New Britain were written as a poem by John Newton in the 1700’s, but it was not a song until about 1831. It was then universally called New Britain, which was the name of the Scottish pentatonic fiddle tune to which it was set. It first appeared in a book called the Virginia Harmony, published in 1831 in Harrisonburg, VA, by James Carrell of Winchester, VA. But many people give credit to William Walker for setting it to music, and it was included in the first edition of the Southern Harmony. Amazing Grace did not appear in any Methodist hymnal until 1940 and was not in any Episcopalian hymnal until 1960. These folks did not want to call themselves “wretches”, as John Newton, the repentant slave trader who wrote the words, was willing to call himself (“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me”).

Many of the songs in the Southern Harmony and Sacred Harp were songs of Isaac Watts and were found in Jesse Mercer’s book, Mercer’s Cluster of Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Mercer was a convert of Abraham Marshall, son of the Separate Baptist, Daniel Marshall, who had come to the Carolina’s from Connecticut and who knew Valentine Wightman. Many of the songs used in the camp meetings of the early 1800’s were from the Southern Harmony or Sacred Harp. Several of William Billings’ famous tunes were included in these books as well as fuging tunes such as Northfield, Montgomery, Sherburne, and Edom.

The line of descent of these shape note song books down to our day can easily be traced. Henry Funck, a Mennonite bishop, came to Pennsylvania from Switzerland in 1719 to escape religious persecution. The spread of the Mennonites and shape note singing took the same path as the Separate Baptists down the Philadelphia Wagon Road in the Shennandoah Valley to the Carolina’s, Tennessee, and Georgia, so it is not surprising that the two most popular shape note books came from men who had both grown up in a Separate Baptist Church at Union, SC, Fairforest Baptist Church, William Walker and B. F. White.

  1. Joseph Funk of Singer’s Glen near Harrisonburg in the Valley of Virginia wrote 1815-1850. He was the son of Henry Funk and Barbara Showalter, who in turn was an ancestor of A. J. Showalter. His grandfather was Bishop Henry Funck. In 1847 Joseph Funk established a hand printing press in his log springhouse at Singers Glen which was the first Mennonite printing house in the United States. Funk had great success collecting songbooks, revising sacred melodies, and conducting singing schools. He and his sons started many singing schools in at least eleven counties in Virginia. He compiled a hymnbook which after several editions became the Harmonia Sacra about 1840.
  2. Annanias Davison, Harrisonburg, 1815-1850.
  3. William Walker and B. F. White, Baptists at Union, SC, who were mentioned above, wrote 1835 to about 1860. William Walker became songleader at the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, SC.
  4. Aldine S. Kieffer, grandson of Funk, was a p-o-w in Union prison camps, and in the 1860’s wrote many songs with a colleague named Ephraim Ruebush, who had married Joseph Funk’s granddaughter. They established the Virginia Normal Music School.
  5. B. C. Unseld of Shennandoah College in Dayton, VA wrote in the 1880’s. Kieffer and Unseld wrote the beautiful Twilight is Falling.
  6. A. J. Showalter published shape note songs in Dalton, GA in the 1890’s. He wrote the beloved song, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.
  7. James D. Vaughn published many small paper back shape note books from 1900 to 1925. He was trained at the Ruebush-Kieffer Normal School and his style resembled that of Showalter. Vaughan had traveling quartets on the road as early as 1910 to help sell his books, and also put his quartets on radio before 1920. He started the Vaughan School of music in 1911 in Lawrenceburg, TN. In 1921 he started the first Southern based Record Company, Vaughan Phonograph Records. Vaughan established the first radio station in the state of Tennessee, WOAN, in 1922, also in Lawrenceburg, to broadcast gospel music. This station was later sold to a Chicago insurance company and became WSM. Country music came along about 1922-25 with Jimmie Rogers and also the Carter family. But the Carter family sang as much gospel as it did the decent, old-time country music. The Grand Ole Opry began in 1927, broadcast over WSM. Country music has been changed over the last 40 years by the same contemporary trends which have infiltrated Southern Gospel music.
  8. Adger M. Pace, born in Pelzer, SC, was taught by Vaughn and A. J. Showalter and became an editor and writer for Vaughan.
  9. Virgil O. Stamps and J. R. Baxter were taught by Vaughn, and Stamps worked for Vaughan until he formed the Stamps-Baxter publishing company and Stamps-Baxter quartet so familiar to us.

There is also a direct line of descent of shaped note fuging tunes. All use the fugue or imitative counterpoint in stanza or chorus or both. We can easily give a long, but still partial, list of them in chronological order from 1790 to 1940:

  • Justin Morgan’s Montgomery, 1790 (words by Isaac Watts)
  • Jeremiah Ingalls’ Northfield, Boston, 1800
  • William Billings’ Bear Creek, 1778, Rose of Sharon, 1780, David’s Lamentation, 1800
  • Stephen Jenks’ Evening Shade, 1805, words written by the Baptist preacher John Leland
  • Colton’s Ninety-Fifth, written 1813 with Isaac Watts’ words “When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies”
  • Jesse Mercer’s Lord In The Morning of 1823, from Mercer’s Cluster
  • William Walker’s Jerusalem of 1832 with Johns Cennick’s words “Jesus my all to heav’n is gone, He whom I fix my hopes upon”, and Alabama from the Southern Harmony of 1835
  • John Masengale’s Mount Zion of 1844, in Georgia, with words from Charles Wesley’s “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”
  • E. J. King’s Gospel Trumpet of 1844, from Mercer’s Cluster
  • B. F. White’s The Enquirer of 1844 with Isaac Watts’ words “I’m not ashamed to own my Lord, Or to defend his cause”
  • J. T. White’s Edgefield of 1844 with John Newton’s words “How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours”
  • J. H. Hall’s In The Sweet By and By, 1850
  • P. P. Bliss’s It Is Well With My Soul, 1876
  • J. E. Rankin’s God Be With You Till We Meet Again, 1880
  • Tillit Teddlie’s Heaven Holds All To Me, 1885, which Preacher Buck Huntley from Middle Fork in NC loved to sing in our day at Tabernacle Baptist Church
  • A. J. Showalter’s Leaning On The Everlasting Arms, 1887
  • D. S. Warner’s I Know My Name Is There, 1893
  • James H. Fillmore’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth of 1893, with words from Job 19:25
  • Johnson Oatman and Edwin O Excell’s Count Your Blessings, 1897
  • Franklin L. Eilans’s Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand, 1898
  • W. H. Doane’s Take the Name of Jesus With You, 1899
  • John T. Cook’s Whispering Hope, 1900
  • James D. Vaughan’s I Feel Like Traveling On, 1900
  • C. P. Jones’ Deeper, Deeper In The Love Of Jesus, 1900
  • J. E. Thomas’ We Shall Rise, 1904
  • C. Austin Miles’ (author of In The Garden) A New Name In Glory, 1905 and If Jesus Goes With Me I’ll Go, 1908
  • James D. Acuff’s Just Over In The Glory Land, 1906
  • Charles P. Jones’ Come Unto Me, 1910
  • Rev. George Bennard’s The Old Rugged Cross, 1913
  • Charles H. Gabriel’s Since Jesus Came Into My Heart, 1914
  • Charles M. Alexander’s Wonderful Grace of Jesus, 1918
  • Will Ramsey’s He Whispers Sweet Peace To Me, 1932 and The Land Of Perfect Day, 1935
  • Albert E. Brumley’s I’ll Fly Away, 1932, Jesus Hold My Hand, 1933, and I’ll Meet You In The Morning, 1936
  • Adger M. Pace (born in Pelzer, SC) He’s My King, 1936, I Can Tell You The Time, 1939, and Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, 1940.

Looking for a City, I’m Free Again, and He’s My King are all examples of Southern Gospel fuging tunes between 1930 and 1950, the “golden age” of Southern Gospel music. My Dad first heard Looking for a City at Brightwood Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC in 1949 and immediately introduced it to his own church, Pelham Baptist Church.

Part IV – The Biblical Necessity of Poetry in Church Music

The present chapter divisions in our New Testament were invented in 1205 by Stephen Langton. Chapter divisions of the Old Testament were made by Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher in 1244. These chapter divisions were first used by the Jews in 1330 in a manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament and for a printed edition in 1516.

This system of chapter divisions likewise came into the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the 1400s.

Robert Stephanus versified the text of the Hebrew Bible about 1560 based on the soph pasuq (:) or colon that still appears in the Hebrew text to indicate the end of a verse. He assigned numbers to them within the chapter divisions already established. His versification of the Old Testament found its way into a Hebrew Bible printed in 1571.

Then Theodore Beza’s use of Stephanus’ verse and chapter divisions in his edition of the textus receptus of the New Testament (1565) assured them the permanence that they enjoy in our Bibles today. Remember that the modern versions of the Bible have divided it into paragraphs and submerged the verse numbers within them.

The first element of good poetry is versification, that is, division into stanzas, often with a refrain following the stanza. The hymns of Isaac Watts were versified. Watts wrote his hymns about a hundred years after the KJV appeared in 1611.

I believe that versification in his songs exists because the Bible was versified. Out of respect to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament our song also should be versified. This structure makes both the Bible and hymns easier to memorize.

The second element of poetic structure is found in the system of accents on the syllables in a line. Combination of two or three syllables in the proper way makes a poetic foot.

  • Trochaic poetry has the accent on the first of two syllables, two syllables constitute one foot.
  • Iambic poetry has the accent on the second of two syllables in a foot.
  • Anapestic poetry has feet of three syllables with the accent on the third syllable of the three.
  • Dactylic poetry has feet of three syllables with the accent on the first syllable.

The third element of good poetry is the combination of poetic feet we have just discussed to give meter, or rhythm, to a line of poetry.

These three elements distinguish poetry from prose. Because the Hebrew Bible is metrical, we also should honor it by using metrical structure in our songs. Several types of meter are commonly used.

  • Common meter, CM, is used in a majority of hymns and is iambic with 8 syllables in first line, or 4 feet, 6 in the second, or 3 feet, 8 again in the third, 6 in the fourth and last line of the stanza, and so on. The best known example is Amazing Grace. For our purposes we may simply underline the accented syllable.

    A- maz / ing grace / how sweet / the sound (8)
    That saved / a wretch / like me (6)
    I once / was lost / but now / I’m found (8)
    Was blind / but now / I see (6)

    I Am Bound for the Promised Land, All Hail the power of Jesus’ Name, When I Can Read My Title Clear to Mansions in the Skies (95th Psalm), How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear are also in common meter. The author of I Am Bound for the Promised Land was Samuel Stennett, an English Baptist, 1728-1795. His father was also a Baptist, Joseph Stennett, 1692-1758. Both pastored the same church. I Am Bound for the Promised Land is in common meter in the stanzas, but the chorus is anapestic with 3 syllables per foot and the accent on the third.

  • Long meter, LM, is also composed of iambic feet. All 4 lines of each stanza have 8 syllables. Examples are the Doxology and Old Hundred.

    Praise God / from whom / all bless / ings flow (8)
    Praise Him / all crea / tures here / be-low (8)
    Praise Him / a-bove / ye heav’n / ly host (8)
    Praise Fa / ther, Son / and Ho / ly Ghost (8)

  • Short meter, SM, is also iambic with 6 syllables in the first and second lines, 8 in the third, and 6 again in the fourth line. Weeping Savior and the 93rd Psalm are examples.

    Did Christ / o’er sin /ners weep (6)
    And shall / our cheeks / be dry (6)
    Let floods / of pen / i-tent / ial grief (8)
    Burst forth / from ev’ / ry eye (6)

  • 8-7 meter is always trochaic; that is, it has the accent on the first syllable of two. There are 8 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, 8 in the third, 7 in the fourth and so on. Examples are Holy Manna ( Breth-ren We Have Met to Wor-ship) and Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy, Weak and Wounded, Sick and Sore, and Dr. Isaac Watts’ Cradle Hymn.

    Hush my / child lie / still and / slum-ber, (8)
    Ho-ly / an-gels / guard thy / bed, (7)
    Heav’n-ly / bless-ings / with-out / num-ber, (8)
    Gent-ly / steal-ing / round thy / head (7)
    How much better art thou attended (8)
    Than the Son of God could be (7)
    When from heaven he descended (8)
    And became a child like thee (7)
    Soft and easy is thy cradle, (8)
    Coarse and hard the Savior lay, (7)
    When his birthplace was a stable, (8)
    And his softest bed was hay (7)

In William Billings’ New-England Psalm-Singer, 44 Psalm tunes were Common Meter, 37 Long Meter, and 24 Short Meter.

Carefully written songs are always truly poetic, good poetry always requires the use of regular versification and meter and rhyme in order to be easily memorized.

Infants use rhyme and meter in speech to learn to talk and always respond well to singing. All children learn to sing the alphabet to the tune Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, 7 syllables in every line, at about 4 years of age; they do not say the alphabet until about age 6.

Adults also respond to rhyme and meter in music or poetry, and this makes it easier for us to remember the words of the poem or song and sing it at home or work, to hide it in our hearts. God made us that way.

We all remember how Dr. B. R. Lakin told of his mother sitting on the porch churning and singing How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours When Jesus no Longer I See. And Preacher Buck Huntley from the North Carolina mountains at Middle Fork would always, during his sermons, sing the old songs his mother sang.

In the inspired KJV there are many places where poetic rhythms are seen. For God / so loved / the world is an iambic phrase with three feet, iambic trimeter. The iambic meter is changed in the next line but soon reappears:

For God / sent not / his son / in-to / the world is a line of iambic pentameter with five feet.
But that / the world / through him / might be / sav-ed is another line of iambic pentameter.

Shakespeare and many classical English poets used iambic pentameter, line with 5 feet or pairs of syllables, 10 syllables in each line, with the accent on the second syllable, because it is the most easily remembered form of poetry and the most beautiful. A great example of iambic pentameter is Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard from the 18th century. The first two stanzas or verses, four lines per stanza, each line iambic pentameter, read:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness and to me
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight
And all the world a solemn stillness holds
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds

It takes real thought and craftsmanship and just plain work to write good poetry such as this, but this kind of effort is not seen in contemporary poetry and music.

Good poetry and good music, the song of the land from Genesis 43:11, both are like the house in Ephesians 2:21 “In whom all the building fitly framed together grows unto a holy temple in the Lord.” A house will have foundation, walls, windows, several rooms suited for different purposes, and a roof. If one of these is missing or weak or if one part overpowers another, then the house is not fitly framed together.

So it is with music. There must be a balance of rhythm or meter, melody, harmony, theological content, and proper volume, each element appropriate to the others. There must be structure and poetry in the music; it must be easy to remember; it must be edifying to believers; the volume must not overpower the voice of the singers or the ears of the hearers.

In addition the singers must sing to God’s glory and avoid calling attention to themselves by overuse of spectacular vocal techniques or pretense of any kind. Most importantly the music must be capable of being remembered and sung by both choir and congregation at any time and not just in church.

Part V – Present Day Trends

Many years ago my Dad, the late Dr. Harold B. Sightler, wrote a booklet entitled The Phenomena of the Independent Baptist Movement. On the last page he said this of independent Baptist music:

I appreciate the music program of our church (Tabernacle Baptist) and of the average independent Baptist church. It is lively. It is spiritual. It is informal. I go into some churches where I think the music program is at a low tide. But the average independent church is blessed with talent at the instruments. And the singing is a blessing.

I was in a service not too long ago where they had a group of singers from a college. I had not heard a single one of the songs they sang! Several of the songs were Negro spirituals, and I have no objection to that. One or two were semi-classical, and I don’t necessarily object to that. But why didn’t they sing Amazing Grace?

I’m glad to be a part of a church that will sing Amazing Grace. I’m glad to be a part of a movement that sings Mansion Over the Hilltop. I am glad we are a part of a movement that is not ashamed to sing Give Me That Old Time Religion.

Our song service is informal, as are those in 95% of the independent Baptist churches. A few have robed choirs and anthems. But 95% of the independent Baptist churches have down-to-earth singing. That is a phenomenon.

Numerous small country churches in the South still use the old shape note songbooks we grew up with that are friendly to “old time religion.” But the phenomenon of contemporary Christian music has changed things in our ranks since my Dad passed away in September 1995. The extent of the changes none of us could foresee at that time.

Contemporary Christian music, if it can be called Christian, lacks meter and rhyme and structure and usually lacks theological content. It emerged in the 1970’s. It is based on what might be called free verse without traditional metrical structure. It lacks stanzas and is instead through composed as a single unit from beginning to end. It also often uses what Jesus called vain repetition, that is, one or two lines repeated over and over again throughout the song. Some have rightly called it “7-11 music”: 7 words repeated 11 times. If you notice that the words of a song do not properly fit the music it is contemporary. Contemporary music cannot be nearly as easily memorized and sung at home.

My Dad would certainly be surprised and disappointed to hear present day contemporary praise-worship music with its multiplicity of loud instruments and drums, dominating the voices, and its lack of poetry and meter and good theology.

I believe he would condemn the use of recorded soundtrack accompaniment to singing, the so-called “canned music.” God grant us the spiritual discernment, courage, and determination to resist these things and get back to the old time singing our Baptist forebears did.

James H. Sightler, M.D.
Sightler Publications
May 15, 2004


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