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To harmonize the affections

This entry is part 10 of 16 in the series

"Missions and Music"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

And all would serve, the more speedily and effectually, to change the taste of Indians, and to bring them off from their barbarism and brutality, to a relish for those things, which belong to civilization and refinement.

Another thing, which properly belongs to a Christian education, and which would be unusually popular with them, and which would in several respects have a powerful influence, in promoting the great end in view, of leading them to renounce the coarseness, and filth and degradation, of savage life, for cleanliness, refinement, and good morals, is teaching them to sing. Music, especially sacred music, has a powerful efficacy to soften the heart into tenderness, to harmonize the affections, and to give the mind a relish for objects of a superior character.1

So Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) wrote to Sir William Pepperrell in an extensive letter articulating his philosophy for educating the children of the Stockbridge Indians. It is important to note here that this is not in the context of evangelism per se. Edwards is most concerned with how to teach the Indian children. When he speaks of “affections” in the paragraph above, he does not have in mind what he would call elsewhere “true religious” or “gracious” affections. Edwards affirmed that men could have both natural and gracious affections, and that natural affections, though not saving, were superior and desirable to other movements of the soul.

Edwards recognized that a key to the evangelism of the Indians included a component of education that would civilize the Indians and increase their learning and understanding. Among the other items he proposes, along with music here mentioned (almost as an aside), are individual Bible study, catechism, church history, geography of the Middle East, and Bible history. This education would expose the Indians all the more to the Christian religion. As he says, such training in music “properly belongs to a Christian education.” In other words, while music itself did not win the people to Christ, the proper education of these people included a kind of education that could not be easily separated from the ultimate goal of evangelism.2

My few entries into this attempt to address the problem of music and missions3 have been purposed to explore how former Christians approach this area. My first entry gave some crucial preliminary remarks to my posts. My second post explored Jonathan Edwards’s own approach to cultural questions. While church history is not authoritative for Christian practice, it is certainly beneficial and wise for us to look at the examples of past believers in how they wrestled with similar questions as ours. And so last week I concluded,

. . . while I disagree with Edwards application of this principle, I think that Edwards is correct in his foundational belief (put in modern terms) that some fundamental cultural elements do not fit Christianity well and must be altered in one way or another. This may or may not apply to a indigenous people’s music.

And here again, in the quote I used to introduce this post, we meet Edwards with a whole host of assumptions radically divergent from the morass of evangelical Americans who minister in his wake. What is most striking is that Edwards believes that the Indians themselves will find (pre-Classical era) Western music markedly superior to their own music. They will, he believes, “relish” it.  If music has any evangelistic value for Edwards, it is in the fact that he believes the music to be delightful, something to relish. The most common assumption today is that, in order for the gospel to be culturally acceptable to indigenous peoples, their own music must be implemented in that evangelism in order to draw them to the Savior–they will, without question, find their own music superior. Edwards believes, quite to the contrary, that the Indians will find Christian music more appealing. Especially the sacred music of the Puritans–in its very difference from, not conformity to, the native Americans’ music (or lack thereof)–was seen to be an important tool in drawing the Indians towards “objects of a superior character” and civility.4

It is also interesting that Edwards believed that music was itself a crucial ingredient in ordering the natural affections. This was a belief held by other Puritans. Increase Mather (1639-1723) could write that music had “great efficacy against melancholy discomposures” and that “the sweetness and delightfulness of musick hath a natural power to lenifie melancholy passions.”5 And such a view certainly seems to be a reasonable conclusion from both the Scriptures and the natural world.

Edwards believed that teaching Christian sacred music was an indispensable and unusually delightful part of Christian education.6 He was not embarrassed at the a cappella singing of the Christian churches, but delighted in it.7 He believed that the music of Christians itself8 not only was a “relish” to sing, but pointed those who took the time to learn it toward “objects of a superior character,” “softening the heart,” and setting the natural “affections” aright.
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Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Edwards to Sir William Pepperrell, Stockbridge, September 26, 1751, in Yale-Works 16:411. []
  2. One question in all of this is whether Edwards believed such attempts at making the Indians civil were necessary in order to prepare them for the gospel, or if it would be a natural outgrowth of their acceptance of the gospel. For various reasons, I think Edwards believed that Christian education (of which music was just a part) was an important foundation to evangelism, though perhaps not necessary for it. (For example, see Edwards to Joseph Paice, Stockbridge, February 24, 1752, in Yale-Works 16:442-3.) Edwards did not believe that someone without a clue about God or Jesus Christ could simply accept the gospel on his first hearing, and it does seem important to him that Christian teaching take place to aid the Indians who were “seeking after instruction.” (Ibid., 443). I touched on this a bit in my last post. []
  3. The question of the series, you will remember, is how missionaries, attempting to plant indigenous church, should approach the issue of music in the culture in which they minister. []
  4. If Jonathan Edwards had illusions about who the Indians were, we should quickly admit our comparative ignorance. He worked with them and witnessed them. He did not get his ideas from Gunsmoke, Last of the Mohicans, or Dances with Wolves. []
  5. Remarkable Providences Illustrative of the Earlier Days of American Colonization (London, 1856), 187. Also see Horton Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 143. []
  6. Edwards, as I have documented elsewhere, believed that it was absolutely necessary that Christians also learn to sing. []
  7. There’s a helpful summary of Edwards and music, complete with recommended sources, in a footnote by Doug Sweeney in his Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2009), 109, n. 4. []
  8. The sacred music pointing to “objects of a superior character” mentioned in this post may be contrasted with what Edwards called the “lewd songs” of the tavern-haunting youth. See Jonathan Edwards to Thomas Prince, Northampton, December 12, 1743, in Yale-Works 16:115. []

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