Songs Without Notes: A Meandering History of Hymnals and Vocal Music, with Rant — Part 4

CrownHimWithManyCrownsRestoration Movement

The Restoration Movement is the product the merger of two earlier movements, one founded by (among others) Barton W. Stone in Illinois and one founded by Thomas Campbell in western Pennsylvania. Both men were defrocked Presbyterian ministers, expelled from their denomination for treating believers outside their denomination (or sect within Presbyterianism) as brothers in Christ.

Soon many towns had churches of both stripes, and yet they were similar (not identical) in their preaching. By this time also, Alexander Campbell had become the leader of the Campbell-movement (“Reformer”) churches, working among the Baptists to unite across denominational and doctrinal lines based on confession of Jesus as Messiah and submission to baptism — and nothing more.

In 1832, the two congregations in Lexington, Kentucky famously merged at the behest of leaders of both movements — although Alexander Campbell was initially reluctant to bless the merging of the movements. But he quickly came to endorse the idea, and congregations across the American frontier merged.

To encourage the mergers, Campbell asked Stone to consolidate the hymnal his churches were using (and that Stone was publishing) with Campbell’s hymnal, the profits to be dedicated to educating new ministers.

In Campbell’s day (first half of 19th Century) instrumental music was not controversial. The small frontier churches couldn’t have afforded a piano even if they’d wanted one, and nearly every convert was from a Calvinist denomination — either Presbyterian or Baptist.[5] Hence, although Campbell and Stone had rejected the salvation theology (soteriology) of Calvinism, they kept the RPW and so rejected instruments in principle — although neither made the RPW or instruments a fellowship or salvation issue.

Campbell famously said,

So to those who have no real devotion or spirituality in them, and whose animal nature flags under the oppression of church service, I think with Mr. G., that instrumental music would be not only a desideratum [something to be desired], but an essential prerequisite to fire up their souls, to even animal devotion. But I presume, to all spiritually-minded Christians such aids would be as a cow bell in a concert.

Alexander Campbell, “Instrumental Music,” Millennial Harbinger, Fourth Series, Vol. I., No. 10 (October, 1851), pp. 581, 582.

This is well known in Church of Christ circles. Less well known is,

I would prefer to have an organ, or a fashionable choir as a means of my worship than the words of a hymn set to the notes of a tune on which to fix my eyes while engaged in the worship of God.

Alexander Campbell, “The Christian Psalmist,” Millennial Harbinger [March 1847], p. 179 [quotation is thanks to Bobby Valentine].

Campbell’s hymnal had no notes — which was not unheard of in his day, but the practice was already antiquated as church members wanted the notes to help them sing. But Campbell considered the presence of notes in a hymnbook worse than instrumental music!

So the mindset created by the extra-biblical RPW led not only to the rejection of printed prayers and instruments of music, but made the presence of notes in a hymnal worse than a choir or organ.

The peculiarities in the RPW also show up in Campbell’s opposition to singing classes at church. Jim Mankin, “Alexander Campbell’s Contribution to Hymnody,” 49, No. 1, The Hymn [1998], p. 13. Where do we find authority for singing classes in scripture?

After Campbell’s death, whether to include notes in future editions of his hymnal was something of (yet another) controversy. But as we all know, it didn’t take long for publishers to provide not only notes for melodies but also four-part harmonies and shaped notes to facilitate sight singing — meaning that Luther won out even in the Churches of Christ. It just took 500 years.

Before his death, Campbell helped found the American Christian Missionary Society, and it took over publication of the Movement’s hymnals after Campbell’s death. In 1870, a tune book was produced for use with the Society’s hymnbook. The next year, the Society published an alternative volume with both words and music, The Christian Hymnal. So the Churches of Christ have been singing from hymnbooks with notes for only about 145 years. This was obviously an “innovation,” but one we were glad to see happen. It appears that even the Sommerites, who split over instrumental music, missionary societies, bake sales, and located preachers, were pleased to finally get the notes.

Beginning in the late 19th Century, hymnals in the Churches of Christ were produced by private companies. After all, the a cappella churches largely also rejected the missionary society, and so weren’t about to buy their hymnals. Until 1923, the Gospel Advocate published a hymnal produced by members of both instrumental and a cappella churches. Beginning that year, the hymnals were edited exclusively by members of a cappella churches.

Now, I grew up in a small Church of Christ in north Alabama — and we had (and were helped by) singing classes. Our hymnals had four-part harmony notations with shaped notes. And in our part of town, the RPW damned those who used an instrument but approved notes and singing classes — contrary to the teachings of Campbell. And our weddings came straight out of the Book of Common Prayer (the preacher kept a copy in his office for just this purpose) even though a wedding could not have instrumental music because it was too much like a worship service, as weddings involved a church building, preacher, prayer, and suits.

In other words, you could more easily predict whether a practice might violate the RPW with a pair of dice than any amount of Bible study. The results of the RPW were (and are) entirely subjective, driven more by traditionalism and a desire to damn those in other denominations than any truly rigorous principles. After all, the line between an “act of worship,” an “aid,” an “addition,” or an “expedient” is very much in the eye of the beholder.
[5] Baptists were Calvinist before the Civil War, but most Southern Baptists today are not  — except for their insistence on the perseverance of the saints. John Piper is leading a resurgence of Calvinist thought among Baptists, but Calvinism remains a minority position today. It was the majority position in the first half of the 19th Century, as the Baptists took their theology, other than regarding baptism, from the Puritans.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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15 Responses to Songs Without Notes: A Meandering History of Hymnals and Vocal Music, with Rant — Part 4

  1. You never hear our polemicists quoting Campbell on notes. But it is a delightful irony that Uncle Alex would rather have an organ than notes in the text of the hymnal. 🙂 Campbell’s reformed background shapes him considerably on these matters.

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    When I wrote this post in my head, I included a note pointing out that Bobby is the one who pointed out the Campbell quote re notes to me. But the words didn’t get from my head to my fingers. I’ve since corrected the oversight. My apologies for failing to give credit where credit is due.

  3. Not worried about that stuff Jay. 🙂 Blessings

  4. I have seen the shaped notes in song books all my 50+ years, but I have only met one person (my father) who could actually use the shaped notes as they were intended to be used. If a person knows shaped notes, they don’t need the five-lined staff. They only need the shape of the note, which gives the pitch, and the half note, quarter note, etc. which give the timing.

    PS – I find this all fascinating history full of examples of how we twist and turn ourselves into spats. Thank God for overwhelming grace. It’s as if God knew something about human nature ;-).

  5. Charles says:

    As an amateur, not formally trained in music, I find shape notes easier to read.

    This diagram might be helpful to the discussion. (It also inadvertently offers a light-hearted argument against instrumental music.)

  6. Alabama John says:

    I sure like to hear good folks sing the shaped notes. Before they were in the song books that was not possible.

  7. Dwight says:

    I find notes to be a distraction and I can read them and was trained in them at a singing school. Do they make one sing better? Maybe technically, but I have heard many people sing without them just as beautifully and well and they didn’t have their head buried in the song book. I myself knowing most of the songs by hearty sing without a song book 85% of the time. Sure I don’t match the bass and tenor exactly, but I am close. Some of the best experiences I have had is going to a congregation that is largely black as they have notes, but often disregard them and the songs are still full of life.
    Some of my fondest memories is singing in a park in the evening with a few others…no songbook, no notes, just memory. In Jesus time I’m sure this worked the same way.
    One thing people lack is the confidence to sing out despite what they sound like, because they are worried about how they sound on a self-conscience level.
    And who do we think made them self-conscience?
    Now I am not against notes, etc., but they can become a distraction to the point of singing, when we focus on them…as opposed to God from our heart.

  8. Johnny says:

    Dwight said “One thing people lack is the confidence to sing out despite what they sound like, because they are worried about how they sound on a self-conscience level.
    And who do we think made them self-conscience?”

    I can tell you exactly who made me that way. I was 16, in a high school choir when the bass next to me turned and said “my god you are tone deaf”. Never been the same since.

  9. Charles says:

    People don’t have confidence in the music because in our brotherhood we spend almost no time at all teaching music.

    The songs can be done without the music, but in many cases it becomes chaotic, with no one knowing what the timing is, or what part to sing.

    In churches that eschew music, there can be a de facto choir consisting of the people who “know” the songs; other people are left out.

    And then there is the problem of tradition — we always sing it this way, this is how we sang it when I was growing up, or this is how my daddy taught me.

    I think someone has made the point that we would not sit through too many sermons by an untrained, unpracticed, unprepared preacher, but too many folks think that uninspired, unsparing singing is just fine.

  10. Charles says:

    Autocorrect got me! That should be “uninspiring” in the last line.

    And in the third sentence, “music” refers to written music, i.e. the notes, rests, etc. printed on the page.

  11. Dwight says:

    Actually Charles, it is the laymen that provide some of the best lessons that I hear an have heard. It is the preachers in training that suck because they are trying to be what the preacher wants in preacher speak and not just speak as a person.
    And so what if we teach everyone how to sing correctly, this doesn’t mean that everyone is able to or should sing that way. I would gather that they didn’t have singing schools in the first century and they did just fine. Sometimes, at least in the churches I have been to, we spend too much effort on mechanics and not on just singing out. What happens, since not everyone is talented in music in certain ways, is that only the best lead and only the confident participate. True, sitting next to a tonely challenged singer is hard, but not everyone has good tone quality. The command wasn’t to sing well, but to sing.

  12. Charles says:

    Dwight, some of the worst lesson I have heard come from men who are not trained in public speaking, not trained in developing a topic. So our experiences differ.

  13. Larry Cheek says:

    We sure share different experiences. I have been in church singing well over 70 years, lead singing many years even though I cannot tell you what a single note should sound like, and yes I even attended The Singing School at Abilene and I still cannot remember the words of but a few songs and even the ones I think I know by heart I’ll sometimes insert a wrong word (it may fit) but still wrong. It is just a little ironic but if you give me just the words of a song on the power point (without the notes) I’ll struggle to remember the tune, forget leading it without the notes, it won’t work.

  14. Dwight says:

    I know people who have gone through the training courses and still cannot carry a tune or speak well and it all goes to show that some people are more inclined in their talents towards some things over others. Larry proves my case.
    I personally think that “public” speaking assembly is focused on too much as well as the song leader. In the synagogues a person would stand up and read and then sit down. I have been to many round circle singings where a person starts and then everybody sings, there is not leader, just a starter. There is too much pressure put on the speaker, when all they really have to do is read and comment if they want to.
    Larry, I do as well, but mostly we don’t train ourselves to not use the song book or notes. We have become dependent on something that the early church didn’t have and if persecution arose today we might not have again.

  15. JohnF says:

    I recall a group meeting in my some 43 years ago a brother sitting next to me saying, John, I love you like a brother — but I can’t sit next to you and sing.” He had “perfect pitch.” I still sing — the projection screen helps take notice away from the book, which is normally a good thing — and try to follow the leader, who can bring “elements” of expression beyond the basic tune. And yes, sometimes the “leader” can turn the leading into a “my talent” show, which is wrong. Also, it is a pretty narrow mind that can only sing a song one way.

    The primary focus should be on the spiritual message of praise and edification. It is refreshing to see the increasing backlash away from “theatrical worship” where the only difference between “acid rock” and a “praise band” is the lyrics.

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