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Immodest hymns

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

About Scott Aniol

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 worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two 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.



Endnotes:

  1. Thomas Hastings, Dissertation on Musical Taste (New York: Mason Brothers, 1853), 28. []
  2. Ibid., 23. []
  3. Ibid., 85. []
  4. John Mark Jordan, “Sacred Praise: Thomas Hastings and the Reform of Sacred Music in the Nineteenth-Century” (Thesis—Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1999), 59-60. []

28 Responses to Immodest hymns

  1. Matt Phenix says:

    Hasting’s comment, that one of the biggest problems with the polyphony in the fuging tunes was that it obscured the text, is a major point to be made. The point of congregational singing is that the congregation sings a text which can be understood. These fuguing tunes could be compared to the sacred non-liturgical songs of the Renaissance. They are sacred in nature, but not appropriate for the worship service.

  2. Debbie Lamb says:

    There are two things that come to mind immediately that are similar concerns today as in Hastings’ day. There are a significant number of popular worship songs that feature lengthy instrumental ‘breaks’ or solos that really do not add to the worship – they just draw attention to the soloist as if it were a concert. It is fun to play stuff like this as a part of a band, but that doesn’t make it worship. The other thing that I see in our churches is a lack of musical knowledge. At my church, we have removed the hymnal and only use screens with words on them. I think there is value to giving people the chance to see – not just hear – the music. Even if they don’t understand all of it, they will learn something just by seeing it. I think that churches should attempt to recover musical literacy.

  3. Janis Felts says:

    I found this quote of Hastings’ interesting, “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 or increase the interest already excited, we shall not raise our voices in vain.” Hastings challenges us to not write insipid music. But he reminds us there is a balance because on the other extreme, we do not want the music to be a distraction. I have been in services where the music was a distaction to the text, and musicians were a distraction to worship itself. Worship leaders have a huge responsibility and an accountability, not to please the people, but to God, who is deserving of the best we can offer. He will not share his glory with another, so if the distraction takes from his glory, is that not a vain offering and a huge offense toward God?

  4. ai-chin says:

    Debbie, I agree with you the lengthy instrumental section is really distracting. If this section is used to read scripture or say some encouraging words, maybe the distraction will be decrease.
    It does not matter if we are singing hymn or popular-style-influenced worship music, we can be distracted by the music. The word distraction is very subjective; and we cannot control people not to be distracted. I believe it is worship leader responsibility to nature congregation the true meaning of worship.

  5. Megan M. says:

    The condition of congregational song in the 19th century is relevant today because it sounds a lot like today’s worship. Hasting’s concerns are relevant because they are concerns we should have. I agree with Debbie: the instrumental solos in worship songs can be distracting. I remember an instance back in my home church where the electric guitarist had one of those solos, and I remember thinking, “Whoa, he’s got some great talent.” At the time, I thought nothing of it, but now I can see how that would be a concern. Watching the electric guitarist in awe as he plays shifts the service from worshipping God to worshipping the band onstage. In our culture today, it’s super easy to make someone in the spotlight an idol. Worship leaders have to be careful to not draw the attention to themselves, but to draw it to God. That’s what we’re there for anyway.
    I’ve also noticed that instrumental solos tend to spurn emotionalism. You sing a great chorus or bridge two or three times, and the band breaks out in an intense instrumental part. Suddenly everyone is washed in a wave of emotion, smiling, laughing, crying, shouting praise to God, hands raised, swaying to the music… thinking that God has come down and revealed Himself to us.

  6. John Gray says:

    Though I agree with Hastings belief that music should “nurture religious devotion,” I would not agree with the way he applied his philosophy. A fuging tune is fine for the worship service, if it contains Biblical truth, spirit (The Holy Spirit leading the inner man), and done in reverence. If music fits this criteria it will lead to nurturing of the churches religious devotion.

  7. John Gray says:

    Megan, some of the acts that you said could be a sign of the Holy Spirits work in a believers life,in response to God’s Word. Personally I raise my hands as a symbol of submission to the Lordship of God in proclamation of the text of the song. It could be a sign of emotionalism, if done just as a response of the passions. It also could be work done because everyone else is doing it. I am not saying that we must have these symbols of worship, but they can be God glorifying.

  8. Brandon H. says:

    I think Hasting’s critique of church music is very helpful in that it gives us specific things to think about when evaluating church music. If there is any music we should take time to evaluate and constantly critique it is that music which is used for worship in the church. I find Hasting’s description of church music being “plain but not insipid, simple yet chaste and beautiful” very insightful. This type of church music is very rare in churches today. Like others have mentioned, there is a lot of music that draws attention to itself rather than enhancing and working with the text. If we were to choose church music with the above mentioned description, our church music would look a lot different today.

  9. Seung Joon Shin says:

    I agree Hastings’ mention: If I read a psalm or sing hymn with impressive manner, I am already excited regardless of its musical style. Sometimes my wife asks me to sing a hymn just before we go to sleep on the bed. I mostly choose old hymns. They make us be peaceful and thankful to God. I do not have to raise my voice in vain at that time. I believe it is the quite time, which we meet God by praising. We often pursue musical attraction for the congregational song, but it sometimes disrupts praising God.

  10. Leyi L. says:

    Think about Hasting’s words that “…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…”, I cannot stop thinking about another question asked by a 20th century Christian composer, who said “why not have atonal music in church? It is fun and also can bring glory to God.” It is true that the 20th century atonal music is very complex and majestic in timbre and rhythm and in many other ways, but as Hasting said, if the music draw too much unnecessary attention to itself, rather than encourage congregation to worship God together, then this music is in Hasting’s words “a vain oblation”. This article brings a very good reminder for a Christian musician today.

  11. Keji L. says:

    Hasting’s criticizes on church music are good reminder for today’s church and christian musicians. His point: “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….It entirely fails as an instrument of Christian edification,” makes me think about if the music attracts people toward itself and draws congregation away from worship God, then that music becomes an idol. It is no more a instrument that for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. (2 Tim 2:21)

  12. Keji L. says:

    Response to the issue Lois brings out, I believe that atonal music is not appropriate for corporate worship in today church (at least not yet). Contemporary composers can write atonal music for the glory of God, it can carries good content and meaning. The atonal works can be an offering for God from contemporary Christian composers. For example, most Stravinsky’s later pieces are based on biblical content, for God’s glory, and they’re serial music. They are real treasures and testimony of Christian music, however, they are not appropriate for coroparte worship service. Congregants are not trained musician, atonal music will attract their attention away from worship God.

  13. Kyu Lee says:

    I totally agree with Debbie. Unfortunately current churches in congregational songs are lack of musicalities and pastors don’t mind that much compare to the sermon. There might be many other reasons why. For as a worship minister, we need to emphasize the important of old hymns into different approach. Not always popular worship songs are good.
    Old hymns are deep and powerful. But sadly, many young people do see that values.

  14. Jiazi Gao says:

    I think Hastings points out an important view that the music shouldn’t be something that would hinder the congregations from worship. The music could brings out the text, but it shouldn’t be over the text in worship. Because just as Hastings’ view here “The exercise of singing becomes in either of these cases, a hindrance to devotion. It entirely fails as an instrument of Christian edification.” I think this is a good reminder for today’s Christian musicians; we truly need to rethink of the role of music in worship.

  15. Sarah Teichler says:

    Debbie, I agree that long instrumental interludes can end up being more like a rock concert than a worship service; that is not appropriate for corporate worship. That being said, (I think) the intended purpose of a musical interlude during a song or other part of the service is to give people time to reflect and process. I’ve been in a church service where there was no down time whatsoever (like a TV show: Camera 2, go!) and it was exhausting and overwhelming.

    I’ve wrestled with this issue of balance (which I guess is really the key here, right?) between using our tremendous talents and skills and being showy. It feels like a fine line sometimes. We musicians bear a weighty responsibility to carefully think through our choices before we bring something to the worship service.

  16. Sarah Teichler says:

    John, I agree that raising hands, smiling, etc., can be acts of worship; however, most often the music is manipulating people to have predictable responses on cue. This is a dangerous thing to indulge in and the congregation doesn’t even realize their passions are being controlled by the musicians.(I just watched some Benny Hinn clips – he & his organization are masters at this.)

    Keji, I love your comment “If the music attracts people toward itself and draws congregation away from worship God, then that music becomes an idol.” This is exactly what music has become to so many of our parishioners. They judge their “worship experience” on whether or not the music moved them or if their favorite songs were sung or how good the band was. So, we musicians and worship leaders, in turn, often feel pressured (or get pressured by the pastors) to cater to the masses so churches can “grow” (numbers), or so that discontent people will stop nagging and complaining. It is so interesting to me that this is no new problem – Hastings wrestled with it as did many before him. Looks like we’re in this battle for the long haul!

  17. ai-chin says:

    “…always made to subserve the great ends of religious edification” This is a great idea. I notice that many times worship leader will lead a song that belongs to personal testimony category in corporate worship. This make no sense at all. Worship is all about Go; it is not about personal. I am not saying that testimony category song is not good, but it is just inappropriate to sing in a corporate worship. This category of song will be very useful if it is used to share the gospel.

  18. Debbie Lamb says:

    I think Brandon is exactly right. If we chose music for worship based on the criteria mentioned in the article, our worship services would look and sound a lot different. My church has been conditioned to expect a contemporary service and it would take a lot of training and teaching to get them to appreciate a more modest and reflective service.

  19. Megan M. says:

    “But while we admit the sacredness of this institution, we too often undervalue it in practice. We are prone… to cherish it chiefly for the purposes of refined gratification or professional display.” This concern of Hastings’ rings very personally to me, because I remember countless times where I was that person who “cherished it chiefly for the purposes of refined gratification or professional display.” I would especially look for it in a youth camp called Super Summer. It’s basically this camp that trains high schoolers to become great spiritual leaders, so the churches that participate only send those who are serious about ministry. (At least, that’s how my church does it. Other churches could have different standards.)
    Anyway, at Super Summer, they would have worship every night. Both years that I went, I was looking for what my church calls a “God high,” something that almost every camper gets when they go to Super Summer. It always only lasts about two weeks, then everyone is back into the way they were before. It’s almost as if they had never gone to Super Summer and promised to get rid of “that one thing” in their life that was keeping them from worshipping God wholeheartedly. The God high never lasts. I never realized at the time, but it was just emotion I was looking for. Honestly, I could care less about what they had to teach me, I just wanted to feel something. I wanted to feel like I grew closer, and I wanted to cling to that feeling for as long as I possibly could. Hastings is right to be concerned about how people can undervalue the sacredness of congregational song. As Keji and Leyi said, the emotions spurned by music or music itself can become an idol, replacing God and becoming worthless.

  20. Brandon H. says:

    I think the hard part about choosing music that is appropriate for worship is finding that balance between what is beautiful and creative, but yet simple and modest. Like my other post mentioned, it is difficult to find that kind of music. As artists, we want to be able to be expressive in our craft and make beautiful music to God. While God does want us to to use our gifts, we still have to be sensitive to what the Bible says about congregational worship and the music that should be used.

  21. Aeil Park says:

    I agree with Debbie’s opinion that the instrumental solos in worship songs can be distracting. During the worship service, if someone who play instruments or singing in the worship time as a solo, my mind and thinking are distracted. We are all instrument of God. He gives us talents to praise Him. We should have a balance between using our talents and being showy like Sara said. Worship service has to be only glorify God.

  22. Leyi L. says:

    I think Megan brought up a good point that the music usually played in youth summer camps is contemporary, in order to reach out the youth. However, it is setting a contemporary worship foundation for youth too. If no one pay attention the music that was chosen for youth, ten years later, those kind of music would become a church’s main worship style. How I wish that all the pastors and youth ministers, would take this course with us and have a serious understanding of congregational songs.

  23. Seung Joon Shin says:

    I agree with Brandon. We should be very careful to choose a music for a congregation. Composing music is a good talent; also, choosing a music is a good talent as well. I don’t think I am a good song maker, but I can improve my sense about choosing appropriate songs and styles that are fit into each situation.

  24. Janis Felts says:

    Hastings challenges us about the extremes in music, the “insipid and the extraneous,” both being a “hindrance to devotion.” I truly believe we all must re-think how we worship. Are we expressing devotion to God in our music, or have we acquieced to the people, thereby giving our devotion to them? I know this class has certainly challenged me. I have in the past made suggestions to a worship leader which he was quick to follow. For instance, like Debbie, when there was an instrumental interlude in a song, it really bothered me. I suggested that Scripture be provided on the screen. He was quick to follow the suggestion. So even as congregants we can have an impact if we are willing to take a step of appeal.

  25. John Gray says:

    Megan, thanks for sharing your camp experience. I have seen many youth get caught up in the emotion of camp. It occurs in many parts of the camp, and not just the music. At the camps and conferences I have worked with one of my prayers is that the Lord would set a blaze a desire to glorify him, and be surrendered totally to him. I also have discussed this with many students at camp, to help them try and keep their motives in check. This being said, I also have seen people get caught up in the emotional (often called spiritual) aspect of classical music. I think it is important for us to keep Augustine’s caution not to worship the creation but the Creator.

  26. Jiazi Gao says:

    I also like Brandon’s point that finding the balance is difficult, but we do need to use our gift, and to be sensitive to what the Bible says about worship. I think as church musicians, we need to use our gift and well equipped with knowledges. Equipped with music knowledge and biblical principles could help us to do better decisions on music using in worship.

  27. Kyu Lee says:

    I believe Hasting’s point that Hymns are very important for our christian life!

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