In many churches today you will find styles of music that appeal to today’s generation in a way that they sing the words as they go about their everyday lives and are a means of godly transformation; this was exactly the strategy of the Church Fathers, Ephraim and Hilary, and of Luther, and those that followed him centuries later. Certainly there are contemporary hymn writers such as Stuart Townend who put biblical words to contemporary tunes with great effect. Others, such as Hillsong and Matt Redman, seek to communicate biblical truths with popular tunes and styles, and they have had a huge influence on the generation that does not usually go to church. In all generations, of course, there is the chaff amongst the wheat and we should test all things and hold on to that which is good.
At the same time we have almost seen psalm singing become obsolete, save in the Free Church of Scotland and some of the older denominations. It would be wonderful to see the psalms come back again. We can still hear John Chrysostom’s plea from the fourth century:
Today, your children learn satanic songs and dances in fashion… but no one knows a Psalm. It is as if they are ashamed (to know a Psalm), they laugh at it and ridicule it.
(Homily on Colossians, 9:2)
Furthermore, there are many Christian bands seeking to reach today’s generation through every style available to them from rock to soul, to reggae, rap, folk and blues. As with generations before us some in the church oppose them, just as they did with Luther, Wesley, and the others. To study this particular subject in depth I would recommend Steve Miller’s book, The Contemporary Christian Music Debate: Worldy Compromise or Agent of Renewal? (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois, 1993).
When considering music and the church today it would be good to look at the example of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. King Nebuchadnezzar had a huge idol of himself built so that at certain times of the day people would worship him through his statue. All sorts of instruments were used for this purpose. Daniel lists horns, flutes, harps, lyres and psalteries in symphony with all kinds of music (Daniel 3:5,7,15). Was it the musical instruments that were evil? Or the different styles of music? Or was it that God did not like symphonies? Surely not! It was the object of worship, Nebuchadnezzar’s idol that was the cause of God’s anger, not the music. So it is today for God’s people when he tells us to flee from sin and idolatry. Let us finish with a scripture from Paul:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.
The eighteenth century revival
In this period there was a great turning back to God in our nation as multitudes responded to the preaching of people like John Wesley and George Whitefield, and they had a big impact on Edinburgh. It was found that the old style of music in the church did not relate to the people of those times, so some Christian composers began to write wonderful hymns expressing biblical truths in a contemporary style. Today such giants as Isaac Watts, who wrote the beautiful hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, and Charles Wesley, who wrote Hark the Herald Angels Sing! and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, were at the forefront of this movement. And yet again many church leaders opposed such ‘worldly’ hymns and music and refused to sing them. Today in Edinburgh and Scotland Amazing Grace is a national treasure, even if it was written by an Englishman.
The nineteenth century revival
The Great Awakening of the nineteenth century brought millions to Christ and triggered off global mission to impact the lives of countless more millions for Christ. As with Luther, Watts, Newton and Wesley, before them, the hymn writers of this period sought to reach the masses with biblical words to popular tunes. The evangelists at the forefront of this movement, such as Charles Finney (1792-1875), D.L. Moody (1837-1899), and William Booth (1829-1912), the founder of the Salvation Army, had hymn writers working with them in producing scriptural words with contemporary tunes. Moody stated:
If you have singing that reaches the heart, it will fill the church every time… Music and song have not only accompanied all scriptural revivals, but are essential in deepening the spiritual life. Singing does at least as much as preaching to impress the Word of God upon people’s minds. Ever since God first called me, the importance of praise expressed in song has grown on me.
Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers, T.H. Hall, pp 198-199, New York: AMS Press, 1971
Rev Horatius Bonar, a minister in the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, became well-known as a hymn writer and yet the church elders rejected his hymns as worldly, preferring instead the tradition of psalm singing only. As Rev Henry Davenport Northrop wrote in 1899:
The introduction of hymns into Scottish worship was fought, tooth and nail, as if they were productions of the devil and would overthrow all evangelical religion.
Life and Labors of Dwight L. Moody, Henry Davenport Northrop, p. 94, Philadelphia, National, 1899
William Booth’s Salvation Army work saw a great breakthrough amongst the working classes who never went to church, and who could not relate to the worship style there. Booth wrote:
Music has a divine effect upon divinely influenced and directed souls. Music is to the soul what wind is to the ship, blowing her onwards in the direction in which she is steered… 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, for he has no right to a single note of the whole gamut. He’s a thief!… Every note and every strain and every harmony is divine, and belongs to us… So now and for all time consecrate your voices and your instruments. Bring out your harps and organs and flutes and violins and pianos and drums and everything else that can make melody! Offer them to God and use them to make all hearts about you merry before the Lord!
The History of the Salvation Army, Robert Sandall, vol. II, p.112, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1950
The explosion of musical compositions in Europe in the eighteenth century also impacted Edinburgh. Hired rooms and private homes of the wealthy became the meeting places for fellow musicians who wanted to perform classical works. In 1728 the Edinburgh Musical Society was founded and in 1763 one of Europe’s oldest musical halls (St Cecilia’s) was built in Niddry St, just off the Royal Mile.
In 1753 the Edinburgh Musical Society communicated with the famous Christian composer, Handel, requesting that they might perform some of his oratorios and choral works here. Later George Thomson from the same society had a stroke of genius and asked the Roman Catholic composers Haydn and Beethoven to compose music for some of the Scottish folk poetry he had collected. Although there was a short blossoming of local compositions in this period from the Earl of Kellie, Schetky, Oswald, McGibbon and others, most works were inspired by romance or from pagan themes, except for several biblical pieces by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik.
In 1829 the Jewish Christian, Felix Mendelssohn, visited the ruins of Holyrood Abbey on the Royal Mile before his trip to the Hebrides. He sent these words in a letter to his family in Germany:
I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scotch symphony.
The Presbyterian Church in Scotland however, had banned music with the Reformation, and for a long while only twelve tunes could be sung to Psalms. Even the biblical encouragement to ‘sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ was rejected. Musical instruments were only reintroduced to the Church of Scotland in 1875. The result was that, unlike the German Protestant leaders who supported music and saw an extraordinary movement that impacted the world, the Scottish leaders rejected it and the Freemasons developed it instead. The extraordinary point about this is that Columba, the Apostle to Scotland, had backed music in the early days of missionary work here.
Luther is regarded as the Father of the Reformation and although he preached on the necessity of returning to a biblical Christian faith he also supported music. He himself played the lute and flute. He wrote in a letter of 1530:
I really believe, nor am I ashamed to assert, that next to theology there is no art equal to music.
The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, Preserved Smith, pp 346-347, New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc. 1911, 1968
He saw the importance of music in education and ministry so much that he also said:
A schoolmaster must be able to sing, or I will not look at him; nor should one admit young men to the ministry unless they have practiced and studied music at school.
Luther and Music, Paul Nettl, translated by Frida Best and Ralph Wood, p. 34, Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1948
Luther trained up missionaries to use their musical gift for spreading the gospel through contemporary tunes of his day. Many church leaders of his time saw the value of this, and in Bohemia some of the brethren there wrote a letter to Frederick III of Saxony in 1574, saying:
Our melodies have been adapted from secular songs, and foreigners have at times objected. But our singers have taken into consideration the fact that the people are more easily persuaded to accept truth by songs whose melodies are well known to them.
Luther and Music, Nettl, p. 29
Not surprisingly this angered many in the Roman Catholic Church of that time who saw this as worldliness invading the church. For example the great scholar, Erasmus, was disturbed about the large numbers of people flocking to church because they wanted to be entertained rather than to follow after Christ:
We have brought into our churches certain operose and theatrical music; such a confused, disorderly chattering of some words, as I hardly think was ever heard in any of the Grecian or Roman theatres. The church rings with the noise of trumpets, pipes and dulcimers; and human voices strive to bear their part with them… Men run to church as to a theatre, to have the ears tickled.
(C. Kurtees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, p.190, 1911; 1950 reprint)
It must be remembered however, that Luther was only doing what the Church Fathers had done before when Ephraim, the great leader of Syria (AD 303-373), copied the musical structure for church hymns from the Gnostics whose musical style had such an impact on the general population, or Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300-368), who wrote Christian hymns in the style of the Arians in order to spread the gospel.
The foundation of Luther in the German Reformation was vital for the encouragement of the great Protestant composers like Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn and Brahms in the centuries to come. In Germany and Austria the Roman Catholic Church also got behind composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. Such a flowering of beautiful music came with the support of both denominations and became a blessing to the world.
In AD 670 Pope Vitalian introduced the first organ in church history at the cathedral in Rome, but organs were not widely played in churches until the eighteenth century. In fact often they were met with great suspicion and even anger. The organ gradually made its way into general usage in the Catholic Church by the thirteenth century but some of the Reformers, particularly John Calvin (1509-1564), considered it an instrument of the world and the devil. John Knox in Scotland was the leader of the Reformation, and being influenced by Calvin, he set about removing the offending instrument. By 1727 only one organ could be found in all of the churches in Scotland. Today, of course, in many Protestant and Catholic denominations the organ is regarded as being an old-fashioned instrument.
Earlier in this article it was mentioned that Clement of Alexandria was supportive of the harp and lyre amongst Christians in second/third century Egypt. Scholars have noticed that the Celtic monks of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France have a direct influence from the desert Fathers like Anthony of Egypt (AD 251-356), the Father of Monasticism. It is possible that the Egyptian monks may have used the harp in their worship sometimes, and that this custom was transferred to the Celtic monks.
The Celtic monks celebrated the Creator with music, poetry and beautiful artwork. In about AD 570 there was a council at Drumcett in Ireland. The main reason for this was to try and resolve the war between Ireland and Scotland over the land of Dalriada. Columba, the Apostle to Scotland, was called in, as he was of aristocratic background. One smaller aspect of the council was to debate whether or not to ban the bardic music of the druids. (Amrue Coluimb Chille, preface, AD 1007, ref from Life of St Columba, Adomnan of Iona, translated by Richard Sharp, pp 312-314, section 204, Penguin Classics ©1995)
Columba (AD 531-597), who had been taught bardic music for voice and harp by his teacher Gemman at Leinster in Ireland, persuaded the leaders to adopt the music and communicate the Christian faith through it, and allow the druids to continue their music and poetry.2 After this the Celtic monks often spread their message through their singing and music. Usually they sang psalms unaccompanied in a chanting fashion, but they also spread their message through poetic hymns and harp music. Many harps on carved stone Celtic crosses have been found in Ireland and they have been dated to the ninth and tenth centuries.
Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (AD 730) about the custom of the monks to compose sacred songs and accompany them with the harp at Streonaeshalch, which is now known as Whitby Abbey. One of these was Caedmon and Bede tells us that he was unable to sing inspirational sacred songs so he left the group early. That night he had an angelic visitation in a dream and was given the sacred gift of God to write songs. His gift was so special that he became known as the Father of English sacred song and he is usually depicted holding a harp. Bede says:
There was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.
(Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book IV, chapter 24)
Scholars have dated Caedmon’s ministry at Whitby from between AD 657 and 680. St Hilda was the abbess there and her order came from the Columba foundation of the sixth century.
After this period the Celtic monks became the leading figures in Europe for education, scholarship and music. Dungal, an Irish monk, was asked to be principal of the University of Pavia, and music was part of the curriculum there. In the Ancient Historical Documents of Ireland, edited by O’Curry, we discover that during the invasion of Ireland by the Normans in 1172, the knights were amazed to find that all the Irish abbots and bishops could sing and play the harp. This skill in music passed from Ireland to Scotland, as Gerald of Wales wrote in the 1170s:
In the opinion, however, of many, Scotland has by now not only caught up on Ireland, her instructor, but already far outdistances and excels her in musical skill. Therefore people now look to that country as to the fountain of the art.
Scotland’s Music, John Purser, p.53, Mainstream Publishing Co., Edinburgh, 2007
The Welsh Celtic monks had a long custom of harp playing and St David (c. AD 500-589, although some say earlier) is often depicted with a harp and was a disciple of Illtyd (died in about AD 550) who founded the monastery of Llanilltud Fawr, and was himself a disciple of Germanus of Auxerre in Gaul (AD 378-448).
Before Glastonbury Abbey had been converted into an order of the Benedictines in AD 673, it had been an ancient Celtic church that claimed ancestry right back to some of the apostles who established the congregation there in the first century; it is also claimed that the relics of St Patrick lie in this ancient place (he had visited there in AD 443). When Dunstan (AD 909-988) was made the abbot of Glastonbury Abbey he studied under the Celtic monks who still worshipped God in the ruins of the former building. It was from them that he eagerly learnt the harp and became very skilful at playing this instrument. His love for godly music developed so much that when he restored the abbey he also presented some churches with organs.
Likewise, the Christian king, Alfred the Great, promoted the harp, having been influenced by the Celtic Christians:
Like the royal Psalmist, he was himself a considerable proficient on the harp, and so eager was he to rest his improvements upon a sure basis, that he is said to have founded a professorship of the science at Oxford.
The Music of the Church considered in its various branches, Congregational and Choral, p.49, John Antes La Trobe, printed for R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1837
Gerald of Wales (AD 1170s) tells us of the Welsh musical skills:
When they [the Welsh] play their instruments they charm and delight the ear with the sweetness of their music. They play quickly and in subtle harmony. Their fingering is so rapid that they produce this harmony out of discord… in every Welsh court or family the menfolk consider playing on the harp to be the greatest of all achievements.
The Journey Through Wales/The Description of Wales, Gerald of Wales, p. 239, 236, Penguin Classics, translated by Lewis Thorpe, ©1978
It must be said, however, that the use of musical instruments in worship was unusual, and most churches in the world at that time condemned it. Thomas Aquinas, a leading Roman Catholic scholar from the thirteenth century is typical. He says:
Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that we may not seem to Judaize.
Bringham’s Antiquities, Vol. II, p-483, London Edition, quoted by C. Kurtees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, 1911; 1950 reprint, p.176
It is not until the sixth century that musical instruments start to be used more openly. Boethius (AD c. 480-525) was a Christian scholar from Rome who wrote De Institutione Musica based on the Greek notation before his time. In one of the sections called Musica Instrumentalis, he outlines the use of voice and musical instruments. Scholars consider his work to be foundational for the rise of music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and subsequently this led to the birth of classical music.
The majority of Church Fathers between AD 100 and 500 did not accept the use of musical instruments in church and the Christians worshipped God with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in a chanting fashion. The Orthodox Church today would claim to follow this pattern based on the New Testament and early church tradition. Apart from the rejection of musical accompaniment during worship because they regarded it as being from the Old Covenant, they were also defensive about the possible influences of pagan music creeping into the Church and leading it astray.
In the pagan Roman Empire there were four styles of music: the magical use of flutes and drums to produce good omens (euphemia); the banging of gongs and drums to drive away evil spirits (apotropaic); music used to summon the pagan gods (epiclesis), and general entertainment at feasts and weddings which often led to drunkenness and licentious revelry. It was so bad at weddings that even Emperor Julian the Apostate (AD 331-363), who supported paganism, told his pagan clergy to leave before the musicians arrived. Not surprisingly church leaders gave the same advice to their congregations. Clement of Alexandria (AD 165-215) expressed this concern:
[Christians] having paid reverence to the discussion about God, they leave within [the church] what they have heard, and outside they foolishly amuse themselves with impious playing, and amatory quavering, occupied with flute-playing, and dancing, and intoxication, and all kinds of trash.
Even pagan Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who had a huge influence on the Roman Empire, were against certain kinds of music. According to Plato, Socrates said:
[Where there were] men of worth and culture, you will find no girls piping or dancing or harping.
Aristotle (384 -322 BC) was against flute-playing and wrote that the flute was:
Not an instrument that has a good moral effect… the ancients therefore were right in forbidding the flute to youths and freemen.
Some of the Church Fathers, like Basil the Great, thought that cithara (like a guitar) players should be excommunicated from the church, and Ambrose was concerned that if Christians turned from psalm singing to playing instruments they might lose their salvation, such was their anxiety of pagan influences. Basil wrote:
Of useless arts there is harp playing, dancing, flute playing, of which, when the operation ceases, the result disappears with it. And, indeed, according to the word of the apostle, the result of these is destruction.’
(Commentary on Isaiah 5)
Some of the Church Fathers tended to allegorise the use of musical instruments from the Old Testament, such as the following:
The musical instruments of the Old Testament are not unsuitable for us if understood spiritually.
(Pseudo-Origen, Selection of Psalms 32)
Clement of Alexandria goes to great lengths to spiritualise musical instruments:
The Spirit, distinguishing from such revelry the divine service, sings, Praise Him with the sound of trumpet; for with sound of trumpet He shall raise the dead. Praise Him on the psaltery; for the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord. And praise Him on the lyre. By the lyre is meant the mouth struck by the Spirit, as it were by a plectrum. Praise with the timbrel and the dance, refers to the Church meditating on the resurrection of the dead in the resounding skin. Praise Him on the chords and organ. Our body He calls an organ, and its nerves are the strings, by which it has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the Spirit, it gives forth human voices. Praise Him on the clashing cymbals. He calls the tongue the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips.
Some of the Christians became so ascetic in their approach to music that they even refused to sing out loud and believed that the purest form of worship was only in the heart – this was the allegorical interpretation from the Alexandrian School at its worst. Nicetas of Remesiana, mentioned before in his On the Benefit of Psalmody, goes to great lengths to persuade his readers that verbal singing is biblical. When the Council of Laodicea met in AD 363-4 the leaders there decided to even ban congregational singing, which meant that the gap between the priests and church members became increasingly wide, and the congregations became onlookers, rather than participators.
Were musical instruments completely banned from the Early Church?
It would seem at this point in my article that music had been removed from the church and that we are only left with singing. However, it was not so straightforward. Even Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), whom I have just quoted, saw that godly music had a place with God’s people:
And even if you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blame. You shall imitate the righteous Hebrew king in his thanksgiving to God.
Other Church Fathers also accepted music in a broader way. Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300-368) in his commentary on the Psalms distinguishes between four different techniques of music in worship, including instrumental playing and antiphony, but such references are very few. He called the psaltery (a harp-like instrument)
‘the most upright of all musical instruments.’
The early church was Jewish and so their musical influence came from the Old Testament. At the time of King David music as part of worship was rich and sometimes extravagant as the people sought to worship God with their best skills. In the temple we read that there were 4,000 Levites appointed to praise God with instruments (1 Chronicles 23:5) and 288 trained singers to praise God with their voices (1 Chronicles 25:7). It must have been some spectacle.
The Jewish people worshipped God with harps (Revelation 5:8), stringed instruments (Habakkuk 3:19), horns, trumpets, loud-sounding cymbals, lyres (1 Chronicles 15: 28-29), timbrels and tambourines (Exodus 15:20), gittith (a stringed instrument) (Psalm 8), instruments of ten strings (Psalm 92:3), pipes (Psalm 150:4), and resounding cymbals(Psalm 150:5).
Certainly music was a vital part of biblical life, as David expresses so well in Psalm 150:
Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD.