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Three Cultural Streams in 19th-Century American Church Music

The development of American church music during the nineteenth century has important implications for the philosophy and practice of church music in the twentieth century and beyond. Indeed, “it would be difficult to overstate the impact that antebellum sacred music reforms had on subsequent musical developments in America, and many scholars identify this period as a decisive moment in the country’s musical history.”1  In particular, those most influential in the church music of this period skillfully navigated the new streams of musical tradition that had just begun to emerge in American culture.

Cultural Context

The nineteenth century in America was a critical time in its cultural, political, and religious development. Much of what occurred during this period made America what it is today—the nation was still reeling from its Revolution near the end of the previous century, and it experienced five long years of civil turmoil halfway through the current century. The new government was expanding the political system, and the citizens were getting their first tastes of democratic freedom. Each of these contributed to the religious and cultural climate of the time.

Political Climate

Democratic liberty in particular significantly shaped both the religious dynamic and—very much related—the musical tides of the United States. Both Nathan O. Hatch2 and Mark A. Noll3 have shown how America’s democracy altered Christianity considerably, and this is perhaps no more evident than in its music. Americans became known for a kind of “rugged individualism” and distrust of systems of authority or anything that resembled class distinctions. Individuals expected to have a say in how they lived and what they believed, and these sentiments contributed to musical production as well, especially in the church.

Religious Sentiment

Religion, too, experienced changes concurrent with, and likely influenced by, the emerging democratic ideas. Religious life became more personal and individualistic, free to all and less dependent upon any sovereign act of God. This shift is evident in the stark contrasts between the First Great Awakening of the eighteenth century—led by strong Calvinists such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield—and the Second Great Awakening of the of the early nineteenth century, whose primary figure was Charles G. Finney, an outspoken Arminian who believed that conversion was not a supernatural work of a sovereign God, but an individual decision by anyone who decided to chose God.4 This democratic revivalism had considerable impact upon the religion of nineteenth century America and certainly its musical forms.

Musical Atmosphere

The condition of church music at the turn of the century was characterized mostly by the work of William Billings (1746-1800), whom many scholars consider to be America’s first composer.5 Billings and his contemporaries departed from the traditional Puritan practice of singing simple Psalm tunes in favor of what came to be known as “fuging-tunes.” Nathaniel D. Gould, a nineteenth-century music historian who was not sympathetic to Billings’s style, explains Billings’s influence:

The tunes afore-mentioned were lively and spirited airs, calculated to excite the feelings, whether for good or evil, and gave Billings a cue to his style of music. Previous to this time, church music, if it could be called music, was learned by rote, and performed as a sacred employment, or from duty; but from this time onward, for thirty or forty years, we have reason to fear that much of the spirit of amusement was mixed with it, and its former solemnity lost.6

Fuging-tunes were characterized by rough, angular melodies, open harmonies, and lively polyphony. In many ways they captured this spirit of American individualism that was changing the character of American Christianity.

“WASHINGTON” by William Billings, from The Singing Master’s Assistant (Boston: Drafer and Folsom, 1978), 80.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Steven Baur, “Music, Morals, and Social Management: Mendelssohn in Post-Civil War America,” American Music 19, no. 1 (2001): 82. []
  2. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). []
  3. Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). []
  4. “A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means” (Revivals of Religion (CBN University Press, 1978), 4). []
  5. Gould observes, “Until about the year 1770, no native American had attempted to compose and publish a single tune, that we can ascertain. This distinction was reserved for William Billings, a poor boy, by occupation a tanner; born in Boston, October 7, 1747; died September 26, 1800” (Nathaniel D. Gould, Church Music in America Comprising Its History and Its Peculiarities at Different Periods, with Cursory Remarks on Its Legitimate Use and Its Abuse; with Notices of the Schools, Composers, Teachers, and Societies (Boston: A.N. Johnson, 1853), 41). []
  6. Ibid., 41. []