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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?

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).

10 Responses to Wrested . . . from churchly control

  1. Hatch's "Democratization" is a masterpiece, but, oddly, his broader argument seems problematic for what you're taking away from it. Hatch argues for a cyclical pattern of democratic, grassroots insurgencies in America's religious history. In particular, he focuses on the early nineteenth century and various evangelical groups that challenged the established denominations, which had long enjoyed formal state support and even after disestablishment had a kind of religious and cultural hegemony. During the Awakenings, evangelical upstarts rejected the old denominations' assertion of control. The denominational hierarchies attempted to tightly control doctrine (specifically, Calvinist doctrine) and ordination to the ministry.

    The evangelical insurgents were certainly an unruly lot, but they claimed Biblical authority to interpret God's word for themselves. There is a whiff of the spirit of Reformation about these people. Indeed, most modern day evangelicals can trace their heritage right back to these anti-establishmentarians. Of course, just as the Reformation's cracking of the sacred canopy produced some pretty radical and/or unsavory fruit (a la the Zwickau Prophets and Thomas Muntzer), this American Reformation also opened the door to heterodoxy and all kinds of craziness.

    That being said, we should be cautious before lining up on the side of the establishment. The evangelical outsiders championed many of the traits that we hold dear today including congregational autonomy, lay control of churches, and the priesthood of the believer. By sneering at "popular culture" you've come uncomfortably close to imitating the rhetoric of the opponents of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century evangelicalism. That isn't to say that everything evangelicals did at the time is admirable or defensible, but we have a lot more in common with them than with the anti-democratic establishment.

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for taking the time interact.

    I would first note that Hatch really does not deal with the first 'awakening,' though it surely had its issues.

    Even so, there has never been monolithic approaches among evangelicals to the 'awakenings.' For instance, there were (and there remains) plenty of sane and evangelical opponents of elements (if not the entirety) of the second 'great awakening.'

    And, just to be clear, I do believe in the priesthood of the believer and I affirm congregational government.

  3. @Ryan,

    This just comes across as a another hyper-intellectual (i.e. the elitists who sit in their ivory towers and contemplate their excellent, solemn, and complicated worship music) rant against anti-intellectualism (the dull rabble of plain huddled masses who find themselves mindlessly swept away by the profane and simple tunes of the popular era). Somewhere in the middle is where most conservative evangelicals and a decent (and, thankfully, growing) number of fundamentalists find themselves. In my mind, the radical intellectuals in the fundamentalist movement risk endangering worship by removing the emotional aspect of worship (which dominated much of the 19th and 20th century hymnody), and thus depriving us of whole-man (intellect, will, and emotion) worship. There is much to be gained from the intellectual worship of the 1600's and there is much to be gained from the emotional worship of the 1800's. The key is to find balance, not to reject a worthy gift to our King. Surely He is worthy of our emotions as well as the other facets of our being!

  4. Ryan,

    Just started on Hatch's book. Next on the list, _America's_God_ by Mark Noll, then I'm going to probably read _Religious_Affections_. The first two are to counterbalance the early 1980's hagiography I just read on Carl F. H. Henry, the last one is because–well, just because. It's time.

    Incidentally, here's Mark Noll's vision for American Christianity woven through a speech on the place of the Bible in academia. Like I say, it's woven through, rather than propositionally stated.


  5. PhilipT, How could I possibly respond to a statement of how what Hatch records comes across to you? Should I assume the problem is with me or with Hatch or with you?

  6. No doubt the problem is with me. It was more in the way it is presented in a rather one-sided fashion without offering the other side of the equation.

  7. Regarding your calling me (us?) "radical intellectuals in the fundamentalist movement," I'm not sure if I should be flattered or if intellectuals should be offended.

    Sometimes I offer other sides to arguments, sometimes I don't. Given the nature of blog format, and its constraints, I'll be the first to admit that lengthy treatises are difficult to produce, especially those that satisfy full treatment of every possible opposing position. It's kind of like asking a children's book on Augustine (insult to blog form intended) to fully explain Neo-Platonism and Semi-Pelagianism with full scholarly footnotes and nuance.

  8. As I read this (both Hatch’s quote and Ryan’s commentary), there are three issues that come to mind that are worthy of discussion. Prior to laying them out, I would say that Hatch seems to simply be presenting historical facts. The issues at hand all have to do with the interpretation of those facts.

    1. The first issue at hand is naturally whether singing as a medium of worship is something that is to be controlled by the church. Hence, Ryan’s title and the opening sentence of the quoted passage.

    2. The second issue is whether the result of this “wrestling” is a negative one. In other words, is the “spontaneous, moving medium, capable of capturing the identity of plain people” a bad thing or perhaps a good one?

    3.Is such a movement necessarily the enemy of the intellect? In the Schaff quotation, he refers to the movement as “loathing to an educated man.” We all would agree that knowledge puffs up (1 Cor. 8:1), yet Christ commands us to worship in truth as well as spirit. What is the balance between these? There has long been a pendulum swinging from worship in truth without spirit and worship in spirit without truth. How can we find the balancing point?

  9. JohnC:

    1. All things are to be done decently and in order. Who moderates decency and order in worship? Who safeguards the meaning of the words "decency" and "order" so that they continue to reflect what God wants them to reflect? Or, do we continue to update the words "decency" and "order" to reflect the common man's understanding of them?

    2. Spontaneity in worship, in one Scriptural instance, resulted in a golden calf. While this was very likely an accurate portrait of "the identity of plain people," nobody would argue that God was pleased with it. This, I think, is the point not often considered by folks who want to throw the doors wide to forms of expression: sometimes God doesn't like what we like, and we're not all that good at self-critique. For a commendable instance of spontaneous worship, we could look at David's dance, but I would argue that we are a lot more like the Exodus Israelites than we are like King David.

    3. Perhaps we would not all agree that "knowledge puffs up" in the same way, or that worship in the spirit has to look like a certain thing to be genuine. These texts have unfortunately become the very slogans by which their original intent is discredited, much like "judge not, lest ye be judged." I don't think you would argue that "spirit" and "truth" are antithetical, and that true worship has 50% spirit and 50% truth, or that "spirit" is merely a moderated form of "frenzy." Neither would you argue that, for example, Jonathan Edwards was a puffed-up man, or that all of his arrogant detractors were arrogant because they were brilliant.

  10. @Chris

    1. I’m in complete agreement that everything (especially in the corporate worship setting) is to be done decently and in order. That is one of the key principles by which I function as a minister of worship. So we are in complete agreement there.

    However, the original question I posed is as to who is to monitor singing as a tool for worship. Obviously, the church filling that role makes the most sense, and it historically has served that purpose. My pastor and I make these decisions in our church, as I’m sure the leadership does in each and every church. And I would surmise from reading the quote Ryan originally posted, the leadership in each specific church made the decisions there as well.

    However, is there a Biblical mandate for the church serving that role? As I said, I take part in that function in my church, but is it a matter of pragmatism or of biblical principle?

    2. I don’t think the golden calf instance was so much an issue of spontaneity as it was of worshiping God in a manner that He had not prescribed. There are too many cases of spontaneous worship in the Bible (Pentecost, healings, celebrations of victory) for spontaneity to be the root problem.

    I think the issue might lie within our respective understandings of “the identity of plain people.” Would you say is the source of this “identity?” Is it primarily in (a) the image of God in which every man is created, (b) the distortion of that image by our sin, (c) the spirit of God at work (in believers) within us, (d) a combination of the three, or (e) something else entirely?

    3. I agree that “knowledge puffs up” is definitely misused and abused, especially in light of other passages, such as “study to show thyself approved.” As one who is almost through with a doctorate in music, I’m absolutely not against knowledge, tempered with wisdom, of course.

    My question is in response to this observation: it seems that rather than trying to seek a balance between worshiping in Spirit and in Truth, people take sides. On one hand, you have those that get caught up in worshiping in whatever way feels good to them emotionally. This group tends not to worry too much about content (truth), and they tend to caricaturize the more traditional folks as stodgy, old-fashioned, and devoid of the Spirit. On the other hand, you have those who focus primarily on worshiping as biblically and accurately as possible, to the point that they almost view worship as an end unto itself. They would caricaturize the other side as frenzied, overemotional, chaotic, and above all, unbiblical. In our original quotation by Ryan, Schaff would be an example of such a person.

    My very point is what you said, that spirit and truth are not antithetical. But it seems that many have made them so. There has to be a biblical balance that is pleasing to God. Thus, I repeat my original question: How do we find a balancing point?

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