American Hymnody: The Musical Dark Ages

Democratization of American Christianity Around the turn of the 19th century, Christianity (and religion in general) was undergoing a change: it was becoming more and more democratic (a religion of the people, for the people, and by the people).  Not only did this democratization affect doctrine, ecclesiology, and piety, it also affected Christian and religious hymnody.  Here’s how Nathan Hatch explains it:

“What are the dimensions in the early republic of this popular gospel music – the ‘numerous ditties’ that the respected churchman Nathan Bangs claimed had ‘almost deluded’ the Methodist Church, and that Phillip Schaff decried as ‘a rude singing of the most vulgar street songs, so that it must be loathing to an educated man’?”

“A definitive answer is impossible, because this homespun, religious music began as an oral phenomenon, was taken up by scores of rustic and anonymous song-makers, and was only later compiled and printed.  Yet the importance of the process itself has gone largely undetected by historians because its manifestations do not conform to regional or denominational boundaries and fall outside the normal purview of church music history.”

“One historian, in fact, characterized this period as the ‘musical dark ages’ – a time when ‘men of correct taste…let go their hold, and the multitude had the management of it and sung what and when they pleased.’  It is clear that this upsurge in religious folk music is yet another aspect of the democratic impulse in American Christianity.  The same imperative that sent many ordinary folk into preaching and writing compelled some to express themselves in song.  In all the populist religious movements with which this study deals – from Christians to…Mormons – people developed their own traditions of religious folk music.  The public, in turn, seemed to have an insatiable appetite for new strains of spontaneous and lively gospel music” (p. 147).

We’re still dealing with the democratization of Christian music.  Many churches sing what people like and want – hence Christian top-40 songs make it into the pews (even if they don’t have one ounce of clear Christian truth).

However, we must remember that Christianity is not a democratic endeavor.  Choosing songs for worship isn’t a matter of what “we the people” desire.  Rather than ask what we want and like in music, the primary and pressing question is this: what does God want us to sing?  Music in worship has to do with the Regulative Principle of Worship (the RPW).  In the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “The duties required in the second commandment are the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has instituted in his word” (Q/A 108).

Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

shane lems

One Reply to “American Hymnody: The Musical Dark Ages”

  1. Hi Shane,

    This book sounds very interesting! Thanks for letting us know about it!

    I shared this post and (your original) WTS link here.:

    I appreciate your work!


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