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Wrested . . . from churchly control

Nathan Hatch, in his Democratization of American Christianity, writes concerning the changes in American religion due to the implicit notion of the “Sovereign Audience”:

Popular gospel music became a pervasive reality in Jacksonian culture because people wrested singing from churchly control. The music created a spontaneous, moving medium, capable of capturing the identity of plain people. The result was that official literary hymns had difficulty competing with lively gospel music. An excellent illustration of this point is the invasion of revivalism and its folk music into the world of German-speaking Lutheran and Reformed churches in Pennsylvania. During the second decade of the nineteenth century, young people in these communities tired of the complicated German chorale tradition, with its solemn tunes and baroque wording. They welcomed the rousing songs and vernacular preaching of the revivalists, who came from such Methodist sects as the United Brethren in Christ, founded in 1800 by WIlliam Otterbein, the Evangelical Association, commonly called the Albright Brethren, and the Church of God (Winebrennerian). These groups developed a significant tradition of ‘bush-meeting spirituals,’ which were little more than translations into German of American folk music of the revival. The success of these folk traditions among Pennsylvania Germans raised the ire of the churchman Philip Schaff, who commented in 1849, ‘There is a stamping and bouncing, jumping and falling, crying and howling, groaning and sighing, all praying in confusion, a rude singing of the most vulgar street songs, so that it must be loathing to an educated man, and fill the serious Christian with painful emotions.’ (153-4)

Here we have a good reminder that history often repeats itself. But, more importantly, one wonders how the commitment to popular culture that lies within fundamentalism and evangelicalism can truly prevent this sort of thing from continuing to happen perpetually into the future. The intellectual rubric that facilitated such moves back in the early 19th century is still the groundwork for similar movements in church liturgy today. In other words, can a church “culture” that leans heavy on popular taste to inform its manner of worship possibly prevent further steps in that direction in the future? And, in fact, are we not seeing this cycle act itself out over and over again? And shouldn’t this trouble us? And what could possibly be done to stop it?

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).