Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Prayer Meeting Singing

While working on my dissertation (which, by the way, is why you don't see many posts at kirchenlieder these days), I've come across this statement about music. Read it, and I'll put some comments afterward.

'"How sweetly the name of Jesus sounds in a believer's ear!"
In a prayer meeting not long since, a great longing came over my old-fashioned heart to hear one of these familiar strains of the first days when I began to walk in God's ways.

"Behold a stranger at the door!
He gently knocks, has knocked before."
"Amazing grace! how sweet the sound."
"Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly dove."

Oh, those precious old hymns, so full of penitence, of devotion and consecration how the memory of them flits across the mind like a vision of the past, stirring within again the holy fire that many of our modern [songs] have almost been the means of extinguishing.

But, say our leaders in music, we need this jingle and this tingle to keep up the spirits of the young people to hold them to the prayer meetings. In school education, to promote the progress of the young scholar it is not thought best to bring ideas in words just adapted to their present comprehension, the aim is to lead the child on to grasp thoughts clothed in language of advanced style, thus preparing the mind gradually to assimilate in word and thought with the best literature of the day. Are the children of this world wiser in their generation than the children of light? Why not avail ourselves of this rule in the education of the young people of our churches, drawing them up from a baby hymnology into the grand and sublime strains of sacred poetry that strengthened the piety of the fathers and mothers of a generation back, and quickened their children to cry, "Show pity, Lord, oh Lord, forgive!"

Dr. Vincent, in a recent lecture alluding to this subject, said these popular hymns were created for a purpose, for general gatherings of all denominations in Christian mass meetings.... At such times some of them are admirable, bringing out one great volume of feeling and sound, thrilling beyond expression in its effect. But individual churches, he remarked, should return to the standard hymns, thus in their services making use of this means to elevate the tone of piety and cultivate a higher degree of spirituality than that which characterizes many of the Christians of this period.

The depressing influence of these [songs] in the church prayer meetings has long been felt and acknowledged by older Christians, and yet even many of our ministers help along the present weakness by keeping them on milk who need strong meat in this service. Instead of an assembly of devout men and women at the close of a prayer meeting singing at the top of their voices,

"Only an armor-bearer, proudly I stand,
Waiting to follow at the King's command.
Marching if 'onward' shall the order be,
Standing by my Captain, serving faithfully."

let us have

"Am I a soldier of the Cross,
A follower of the Lamb!
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?"

Such sentiments, when fairly imbibed, might not only encourage many to earnest, active service outside of the church walls, but also serve to embolden hitherto silent ones to speak a word for Jesus in the prayer meeting.

Many of us are very much of the opinion of our correspondent on this subject. We are, oh, so weary of the tin-tin-nabulation, the little jigging refrains, and the frivolous repetitions of much of the hymnology which has lately been popular. We long for noble hymns set to noble music, and these are provided in our church psalmody. In the practice of our children at home on piano or violin, there is a constant tendency at present towards what is severe and classic, but the same children in the Sunday school and prayer meeting sing only the light melodies, wedded to bits of doggerel verse, which the desire for novelty appears to induce. They are sentimental rather than thoughtful or emotional, and while some of them have their place, and they might be sparingly used with good effect, it is a great pity to see them swamping the prayer meeting with their flood of froth and foam...

After all, what prayer meetings need and what we want is a spirit of fervent praise, and that vehicle which best conveys our gratitude to God for his favors, and best awakens in us a mood of devotion, is the best for our use.'

Now, if you're thinking that this was written in 1995 as "praise and worship" music had taken over most churches, you're wrong. Hopefully the flowery style of writing clued you in anyway, but it was written in 1883 in the Christian Intelligencer, denouncing the Sunday school hymns such as those of William Howard Doane, Fanny Crosby, Ira Sankey (click that for a recording of Sankey), etc.

The same arguments are made as have been made more recently, though—the older hymns are better for penitence and devotion. The older hymns are better musically. It's the music directors who are making us do them to try to draw in the young people. Of course, there are some good ones, but they are mostly drivel. They express very simple things, when the older hymns express deeper theological themes. They have too much meaningless repetition, and the music is too lively for appropriate use in worship.

This is one thing I love about studying history—seeing how it so often it repeats itself. As you consider the gospel hymns that remain in common usage, most of them came and went, as do examples of all styles of music. It remains to be seen what will do the same from today.

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