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The Enlightenment and Christian Hymnody

This far in our journey we have witnessed an almost unbroken stream of Judeo-Christian tradition. From King David to Lutheran composer Johann Crüger (1598-1662) we find a slow and steady cultivation of poetic and musical forms. There were certainly bumps in the road and many changes along the way, yet for around 1800 years the quality and character of hymnody remained consistent—word-driven, modest, and distinct from pagan culture.

Yet in the 18th century something changed that would forever alter this path: the people of God were once again exiled; only this time they didn’t recognize it.

The 18th century brought about what has come to be called “The Enlightenment” or “The Age of Reason.” This elevation of reason and science over faith was, in the words of Abraham Kuyper, “the expulsion of God from practical and theoretical life.”1

The position that the Church had enjoyed as the dominant influence over all of culture was over. Reason was now in control.

What this meant for worship forms is that active cultivation virtually stopped. The Church still had the hymns that had been nurtured for thousands of years, but now talented poets and musicians stopped writing for the Church and began writing for money. They continued writing in the noble musical forms that had been handed down to them, but with high culture broken off from any moral direction, it eventually all but died away. Whatever high culture now exists is devoid of any Christian values.

Faulker summarizes Elightenment views of music that are diametrically opposed to the Judeo- Christian tradition and that affected all of Western culture:2

  • The goal of music is to excite human passions rather than to calm them.
  • Music provides entertainment and diversion rather than the shaping of content.
  • The best kind of music is characterized by constant variety rather than order and modesty.
  • Individuality and originality are virtues in musical composition and performance rather than cultivating a noble tradition.
  • The gauge of music’s excellence is popular acclaim rather than its ability to shape content in an appropriate manner.
  • The best kind of music is “natural” and unlearned rather than skilled and ordered.
  • Music is purely scientific without any ethical dimension.
  • Music is unimportant rather than that which orders men’s souls.

Faulkner concludes,

Music (for that matter, all the arts) had become a theological orphan. In fact, no important theological movement, either in the nineteenth or twentieth century, has concerned itself in any profound way with the significance of harmony, order, or beauty in Christian life or [worship]3

With the creation of mass media as a result of the Industrial Revolution, savvy businessmen soon saw the potential of taking advantage of the power of music composed within this new tradition in order to make money. Certain music, for instance, because it created immediate excitement and was intrinsically addictive, provided the perfect medium for making a considerable amount of money. They found that it was not difficult to hook the masses on passionate forms of music. Then, when the masses inevitably desensitized themselves to the immediate affects of such music, the entrepreneurs were always ready with more novelty and more stimulating forms. Such was the birth of pop culture.

Pop culture is essentially a sanitized version of paganism. It is an impostor that borrows liberally from Judeo-Christian tradition, Classical high art, and folk culture to create hybrid forms that slip in the back door and impose pagan values upon the listener without them recognizing them as such.

What was the Church to do with this new tradition? The answer to that question must wait until our next essay.

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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. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), p. 23—24. []
  2. Faulkner, pp. 171ff. []
  3. Ibid., p. 190. []