Historical Perspectives on Change in Worship Music

Lillianne Doukhan

Change will happen anyway, with or without us; it is a fact. Instead of refusing change and thus provoking revolt, we should become a part of it, and make it happen in a responsible manner.

Periodically through history, the church has been confronted with the problem of the introduction of new elements into an existing tradition. In the context of congregational singing, this issue centered around the infiltration of secular elements. The purpose of this study is to present such situations, to show how people dealt with change in their time, and to draw lessons from it for today.

The resurgence of the popular element in church music has been a constant phenomenon throughout history.1The Arian heretics already used the power of popular tunes to spread their false doctrines through singing.2 The fourth-century church father Ephraem Syrus (b.309) from Antioch did not hesitate to pick up these melodies, being aware of their "sweet" effect.3 Nine hundred years later, reacting to the heavy formalism of the church and wanting the hymns to be more Christ-centered, Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) also integrated the contemporary secular melodies and rhythms into his laude.4

Martin Luther (1483-1546), again in reaction to the formalist worship style of the church in his time, used melodies and rhythms familiar to the people for his chorales.5 Contrary to Calvin, Luther did not perceive the church as separate from society; in his philosophy, secular elements could be transformed according to a new understanding.

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Pietists, in reaction against the scholasticism of the Protestant church, rejected the operatic style of art music, and adopted the subjective hymn featuring dance-like rhythms.6 In England, John Wesley (1703-1791) had a burden that the tunes of the hymns be accessible to all, so that all could participate in the singing and thus express their personal acceptance of salvation. Much to the discontent of the church officials, he adapted popular tunes from many sources.7


Closer to our times, hymn singing was a major element during camp meetings and the Great Awakenings. It was intended to be a means to communicate the gospel in a simple and direct language, and an effective manner, to the ordinary man and woman. The melodies of these spirituals or gospel songs were folklike, easy to teach and to catch, mostly adapted from well-known folk melodies. Some of the tunes used at the Moody-Sankey revival meetings (late nineteenth century) were taken over from Stephen Foster.8 William Booth (1829-1912), the founder of the Salvation Army, shared the same philosophy.9

This desire to reintroduce the simplicity of folk music into the worship experience stemmed often from a reaction to the pomp and formality which characterized the official religion. Furthermore, at those moments in history, the congregation was geographically and often physically separated by a screen from the church choir, the part of the church where the office took place.10 The luxurious style of the Byzantine church brought about Ambrose's simple antiphonal hymns; the sumptuousness of the Roman liturgy led to Luther's conviction for the necessity of hymns close to the people. These "reforms" correspond then to a time of renewal and revival, a time when the reformers decided to put music back into the hands of the people.


Official reaction from the church to these innovations most often resulted in partial or total prohibition of congregational participation in the service. Possible motives for such radical decisions could have been fear of syncretism or weakened ecclesiastical powers, suspicion of people's spontaneity which would compromise the transcendental character of the act of adoration, or simply a concern for tradition and continuity.

The Council of Laodicea, called by the church fathers in 367 A.D., decided to prohibit congregational singing in order to avoid the use of secular tunes and to prohibit the use of instruments in church in order to avoid pagan associations. A similar decision was taken on the occasion of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Congregational singing was no longer to be part of the Mass, but was relegated to extra-liturgical moments of popular devotion.11 In addition to eliminating congregational participation from the Mass, the Council also prohibited the use of secular elements (seen as "lascivious and impure."12) as a basis for Mass compositions, a practice that had been widespread for two hundred years.


Resistance to change in church was not, however, the sole domain of the officials of the church. Many protestations to the introduction of "new" elements in church music came from within the congregation itself. It is noteworthy that such reactions did not occur solely when change was concerned with theological truth and moral values. It seems if change per se was the problem the "new" was bad simply because it was new. Some of the arguments advanced at those times carry in fact a very contemporary flavor. In 1712, Thomas Symmes, who encouraged the "new way" of singing (by note) in reaction to the practice of "lining out" (singing by rote)13, relates some of reactions to this innovation:

Tho' in the polite city of Boston this design [the new way] met with general acceptance, in the country, where they have more of the rustic, some numbers of elder and angry people bore zealous testimonies against these wicked innovations, and . . . not only ... call the singing of these Christians a worshipping of the devil, but also they would run out of the meeting house at the beginning of the exercise.14

Among the objections we find the following arguments:

It is a new way, an unknown tongue. It is not so melodious as the usual way ... The practice creates disturbances, and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly ... The names given to the notes [do, re, mi] are bawdy, yea blasphemous. It is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it... They are a company of young upstarts that fall in with this way, and some of them are lewd and loose persons.15

It is a well-known fact that introduction of "new" instruments also created turmoil in the church. Such was the situation in a late eighteenth-century New England church which had been offered an organ in 1713 by the treasurer of Harvard University, but turned it down. The general opinion was that "if organs were permitted, other instruments would soon follow, and then there would come dancing!"16 Finally,

the Brattle Street Church surrendered to the inevitable and decided to have an organ, but even after the order had been sent to England and the instrument was on its way, the congregation was tom with bitter strife. One wealthy member besought with tears that the house of God be not desecrated, promising to refund the entire cost of the organ if the evil thing might be thrown to the bottom of Boston harbor. But gradually opposition subsided.17

In the same way the organ was considered a secular instrument for which there was no place in church, the instruments used by J.S. Bach in his St. Matthew Passion were a stumbling block to the congregation of his times.

When in a large town [Bach's] Passion Music was done for the first time, with 12 violins, many oboes, bassoons, and other instruments, many people were astonished and did

not know what to make of it. In the pew of a noble family in church, many, Ministers and Noble Ladies were present, who sang the firs Passion Chorale out of their books with great devotion. But when this theatrical music began, all these people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment, looked at each other and said: "What will become of this?" An old widow of the nobility said: "God save us, my children! It's just as if one were at an Opera

Comedy!" But everyone was genuinely displeased by it and voiced just complaints against it. There are, it is true, some people who take pleasure in such idle things.18


The foregoing examples demonstrate how change is difficult even when it is for the better. Indeed, change is in itself a painful process, for we like to hold on to the familiar, predictable and comfortable, the non-threatening. Furthermore, the value of the old is associated with "tradition," synonymous with stability and absence of change.19

Tradition is often a matter of feeling at home with what we have grown up with, which then comes to be interpreted as the "truth." Old music carries also the aura of being consecrated by the past. Antiquity becomes a recommendation in itself. Today, the veneration of the past is essentially an outgrowth of Romanticism. It was indeed the Romanticist understanding of the world as an organic unity which aroused interest in the origins of things, and thus led to a consideration of bygone times as valuable and worthy of interest.

Ever since those times, the music of contemporary composers has been overshadowed at concert programs by historical works. Before the nineteenth century, it was not customary to perform works from times gone by, at church as well as at court. It is a well-known fact that J. S. Bach, for instance, was to produce a new cantata every Sunday which, by the way explains the numerous borrowings from his own works as well as from those of earlier composers, a practice that was widespread since the earliest times. These borrowings involved sacred as well as secular sources.


The examples also testify to the problem of borrowing musical elements familiar to the congregation from secular contexts. And yet, this is what great personalities of the church did all along. On closer examination, it seems that the reasons for this tension lie essentially in the conflict between two different ideals for church music. On one hand, we note the concern for a relevant means of congregational participation, a way for the people to join in and sing along without particular musical training (emphasis on the human aspect of religion); on the other hand, we note the concern for the lofty ideal of church music as a transcendental expression of God and the truth, a means to elevate human thoughts toward their Creator.

In fact, both concerns are legitimate and should work hand in hand in a healthy and necessary tension. In order for church music to be an authentic expression of worship, it should undergird both the transcendental and the anthropological aspects. It should be appropriate to the circumstance and hence translate the lofty character of worship; but it should also be relevant and be conveyed in a language that is readily understood for a more spontaneous participation.


The first lesson of history is therefore a lesson of openness and of flexibility. It remains, however, the burning question whether these principles are still applicable today; can history be used as a perfect model for today? In other words, how far can we use secular elements in our congregational singing? To answer this question in an appropriate manner, we should not only consider the parallels with past history described earlier but also be acutely aware of the differences. Indeed, the situation today carries specific new elements that make the process of change much more complex and certainly more delicate. I shall note at least two of them:


In historical times, the introduction of secular music was proposed and monitored by theologians, and realized by professional musicians; many of the reformers speak not only of adoption, but also of adaptation. Many of the church fathers were trained as musicians, and the same was true of Luther. In addition Luther worked closely with such eminent composers as Johann Walter; those composers were active in the fields of both secular and sacred music and knew how to manipulate the musical language for the one or the other.

Today's renewal of church music, initiated by Vatican II, is mostly the result of a grass-roots movement under the motto "by the people and for the people." The initiative for renewal often comes directly from the congregation and is actually realized by the people who form this congregation.

Our culture has developed a strong sense of democracy and, especially since the 1960's, young people have acquired their own voice and participate actively in various societal matters. It would be of no avail to ignore or deny this reality which can be observed in many other aspects of society.

The same phenomenon could not fail to happen in religion. The young people need to express their desire for participation through their own language in music. However, the enthusiasm of conviction, and the stimulation of action should not prevent them from reflecting on the nature of worship and the purpose of church music; they should also be concerned with the nature and the expressive power of music, as well as the need for high musical standards.


The strongest consideration, however, must be the changes which have transformed the modem world in regards to its understanding of the sacred and the secular. Here lies the principal difficulty in adopting secular elements for worship. Today's society is characterized by a great rift between the secular and the sacred.20 Daily life is no longer permeated by the sacred; there are no more laws, no more taboos, no more directions…


Both a memory of history and a lucid observation of our times should inspire our approach to the problem. One may adopt, of course, the traditional attitudes of rejection or prohibition, but history has shown that those are not very effective in the long run.

Change will happen anyway, with or without us; it is a fact. Instead of refusing change and thus provoking revolt, we should become a part of it, and make it happen in a responsible manner.

On the other hand, considering the above mentioned forces which surround us today, change needs to be much more controlled and monitored than it was at the time of Luther or Wesley. Perhaps education is needed more today than it used to be. Yet education should not operate against, but with the people; it implies listening to each other and preparing a ground for common action. Rather than resisting change, musicians should take part in it and help shape it. Isn't this, after all, the challenge of the artist in society?

Lilianne Doukhan is a native of Switzerland. She graduated in piano performance from Strasbourg Conservatory (France) and holds a Ph.D. degree in Musicology. She is currently Associate Professor in Music History and Literature in the department of music at Andrews University and occupies the Oliver Beltz Chair in Worship and Church Music at the SDA Theological Seminary at the university.



1. The application of new texts to already existing popular melodies is known under the technical term of contrafactum.

2. Theodore Gerold, Les peres de 1 eglise et all musique (Strasbourg, Imprimerie Alsacienne, 1931; reprint, Geneva; Minkoff, 1973), 46-47.

3. He criticized the heretics for "offering healthy people bitter poison dissimulated by sweetness" (Ephraem: Syri opera, quoted in Melodies liturgiques syriennes et chaideennes, by Jules Jeannin [Paris: Leroux, 1924],147.

4. Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate! Christian Music in the Evangelical Tradition (Carol Stream, Ill.: Hope Publications, 1981),123. Laude were extra-liturgical devotional songs for the edification of the faithful.

5. Friedrich Blume, Protestant Church Music: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), 29-35. For a list of contrafacta used in the early Lutheran church, see ibid, 32-34.

6. Hustad, 125.

7. Andrew Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black Gospel. An Authoritative, Illustrated Guide to all the Major Traditions of Music for Worship (Oxford: A Lion Book, 1992), 117.

8. Wilson Dickson, 140, "Poor old uncle Ned" ("O what battles I've been in"); "Poor old Joe" ("Gone are the days of wretchedness and sin"). See also Foster's "Old Folks at Home" adapted by Uriah Smith to "Land of Light" (James R. Nix, Advent Singing [Washington, D.C; North-American Division Office of Education, 1988], 88-89).

9. "Not allowed to sing that tune or this tune? Indeed! Secular music, do you say? Belongs to the devil, does it? Well, if it did, I would plunder him of it . . . . Every note and every strain and every harmony is divine and belongs to us." (William B. Booth, quoted in B. Boon, Sing the Happy Song: The History of Salvation Army Vocal Music [London: Salvationist Publishing and Supplies, 1978], 115).

10. James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 100, 102.

11. During the- earlier Middle Ages, the congregation had participated in the Mass by singing the Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei (Wilson-Dickson, 41).

12. See Edith Weber, Le Concile de Trente et la Musique: De la reforme a la contrere-reforme (Paris: Honore Champion, 1982), 65, 87, 196-99, etc.

13. The first Psalters, both in England and in the United States, contained only the text without the music. In addition, most people did not read. A practice of Psalm singing had thus developed where the minister or a deacon would read aloud or sing the first line of the Psalm ("lining out") which was then taken up by the congregation; each successive line of the whole Psalm would be sung in this fashion. One can imagine the results of such a practice: "In singing two or three staves, the congregation falls from a cheerful pitch to downright grumbling, and then some to relieve themselves mount an eighth above the rest, others perhaps a fourth or fifth, by which means the singing appears to be rather a confused noise, made up of reading, squecking and grumbling. ... In many places, one man is upon this note, while another is a note before him, which produces something so hideous and disorderly, as is beyond expression bad ... and besides, no two men in the congregation quaver [decorate the tune] alike, or together, which sounds in the ears of a good judge, like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time" (T. Walter, The Grounds and Rules of Music Explained, Boston 1721, quoted in Wilson-Dickson, 184).

14. K Silverma, Selected Letters of Cotton Mather (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), 376.

15. Quoted in Three Centuries of American Hymnody, by Henry Wilder Foote (Hamden, Conn: Shoe String Press, 1961), 102.

16. Edward S. Ninde, The Story of the American Hymn (New York: Abingdon Press, 1921), 95.

17. Ibid., 96-97.

18. Christian Gerber, 1732, quoted in H. David and A. Mendel, eds. The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, rev. ed (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), 229-30.

19. As early Seventh-day Adventist worship styles reveal, this theory can be very misleading. See Ronald D. Graybill's article "Enthusiasm in Early Adventist Worship," Ministry, October 1991, 10-12.

20. Luther had solved this tension by giving a new meaning to the old tune; the secular language, so to speak, gained sacralization through a new association. Friedrich Blume comments on this: "Protestantism preserved the medieval classification of the world, with secular art subjected to an intellectual discipline characterized by piety and churchliness. Under these conditions the disparity between sacred and secular music could at first hardly become a problem" (Protestant Church Music, 29). Starting with the latter part of the 16th century, this principle became increasingly difficult to realize because of the impact of humanism which would bring about an ever growing gap between the secular and sacred worlds.


This Article was printed in the Spring 1996 issue of Notes, a publication of the International Adventist Musicians Association.