Perhaps the most influential figure to express a reaction against the condition of music in 19th century America—especially church music—was Thomas Hastings (1784-1872). Hastings was a composer, hymn-tune book compiler, hymn writer, and music critic. While he composed almost one thousand sacred compositions and many hymns tunes—some of which are still sung today—his influence extends mostly from his philosophical writings.
In 1822 he published what was the first full-length musical treatise by an American, Dissertation on Musical Taste. In the work he devastatingly criticizes the status quo in American church music:
If when a psalm or hymn has been read to us in an impressive manner, we can sing it in such a style as to preserve and increase the interest already excited, we shall not raise our voices in vain. But if the style of the music is at best insipid; if the performance of a well-selected piece is so deficient as neither to give character to the words sung, nor to make melody or harmony that can be patiently endured; or if, on the other hand, the music is so loaded with extraneous attractions as necessary to draw toward itself that degree of attention which should be devoted to the themes of the song; we need no language of prophecy we are offering a vain oblation. The exercise of singing becomes in either of these cases, a hindrance to devotion. It entirely fails as an instrument of Christian edification.1
In 1823 Hastings began editing the Western Recorder, by which he established a reputation as an advocate for higher standards in church music, and in 1835 he founded and edited a monthly periodical, Musical Magazine. In each of these endeavors, Hastings continued his critique of the current church music condition and offered solutions for improvement:
But while we admit the sacredness of this institution, we too often undervalue it in practice. We are prone, on the one hand, to treat it with comparative neglect; or on the other hand, to cherish it chiefly for the purposes of refined gratification or professional display. But music for this purpose should be adapted to the great ends of religion. It should be such as can be understood and felt. It should be plain but not insipid, simple yet chaste and beautiful; always made to subserve the great ends of religious edification.2
Hastings was concerned most of all that church music serve the function of nurturing religious “devotion.” The music should not attract attention to itself or away from the religious themes, as he suggested the rugged fuging-tunes did, but it should rather “be such as often to remain unnoticed, while it holds us in the attitude of devout contemplation.”3 Jordan explains Hastings’s dissatisfaction with the popular fuging-tunes:
In the eyes of these reformers, the fuging-tune had two major problems: the polyphony, although brief and simple, tended to obscure the words, and the robust, dance-like quality of the music was considered inappropriate for worship. For these reasons, the reformers of the early nineteenth century sought to drive the fuging tune, and indeed most American music, from the repertory of the churches, and by the end of the first decade they had succeeded fairly well in their mission.4
How might the condition of congregational song in the 19th century and Hasting’s concerns be relevant to today’s situation?
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written several books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.