Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The Fruit of Our Lips": A Cappella Praise through the Centuries (Part 3)

In preceding posts in this series we saw that most of the Eastern branches of Christendom retained the a cappella singing of primitive Christianity, and that a cappella singing predominated for many centuries even in the Roman Catholic church. The introduction of instrumental music into Christian worship was controversial from the start; and not surprisingly, it was swiftly rejected again by many of the various groups that emerged in the Reformation. This post looks at the reinstatement of a cappella singing by several of these religious movements, some of which maintain it to this day.

Voices in the Wilderness: The Waldensians

Long before the widespread and lasting breakaway from Roman Catholicism in the Reformation proper, there were several smaller but important movements that attempted to reform Catholic teaching and practice. One of the earliest was the Waldensians (also knowns as Waldenses or Vaudois), originating in southern France and northern Italy during the 12th century. Originally a reform movement within the Roman Catholic church, they eventually rejected the concept of an ongoing authority residing within the present-day church and insisted that Christians should practice only what was taught by Christ and the apostles in Scripture.(Saccho) They suffered terrible persecution at the hands of the Inquisition for this stand.

Among the peculiarities of this group was the practice of a cappella congregational singing.(Blair, 107) Over the centuries many of the Waldensians merged with the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, and some have adopted instrumental music as a part of that association. But as late as the 19th century, Adam Blair could still assert concerning the Waldenses in their ancestral homeland, "no organ is used in the valleys, except in La Torre."(Blair, 550) The video below is the Waldensian Church Choir of Milan, but I am not sure if the song is from the Waldensian tradition; parts of it sound fairly modern, or perhaps like choral music from the Orthodox traditions of Eastern Europe.

Wycliffe and the Lollards: Standing on Scripture

John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384) was an Oxford professor whose evolving beliefs eventually led him to reject the authority of church tradition in favor of sole dependence on the Scriptures. He is best remembered today, of course, for his determination to bring about the first complete translation of the Scriptures into English. His followers were called "Lollards," a term of uncertain origin but definitely pejorative meaning. Unlike the Waldenses, however, the Lollards were for a time protected from persecution by powerful supporters such as John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV). Though the changing tides of politics brought about harsh suppression later, they paved the way for the Reformation in the British Isles.

Wycliffe's disdain for the state of church music was such that he seemed to reject any role for it in the worship of the church at all, or at the least favored a return to the (a cappella) practice of early Gregorian chant. I have not found a passage in which he directly addressed instruments, but in Of the Feigned Contemplative Life (c. 1380) he scathingly criticized the use of professional choirs, secular musical styles, and even polyphony (singing in parts).(Wegman, 21) He could hardly have approved of the organ! He also denounced the use of Old Testament examples as authority for worship practices in the New Testament church:
If these [musicians] excuse themselves because of the song in the Old Law, then you must say to them that Christ, who best kept the Old Law as it should be forever after, did not teach or charge us, or any of his apostles, to sing such carnal song, but rather to maintain devotion in the heart, and a holy life, and true preaching--and that is enough and best. So who could charge us to go beyond the freedom and lightness of Christ's Law?(quoted in Wegman, 22)
And if Wycliffe himself did not address instrumental music in worship directly, the Lollard position was certainly clear in the 1407 Examination of William Thorpe before Archbishop Arundel. Though its authorship is disputed today, it is certainly a thorough account of Lollard thought at the time:
And the archbishop said . . . "David, in his last psalm, teacheth men to have divers instruments of music to praise God therewith." 
I said, "Sir, by the sentence of divers doctors expounding the psalms of David, that music and minstrelsy which David and other saints of the old law spake of, ought now neither to be taken nor used by the letter, but these instruments with their music ought to be interpreted spiritually . . ."   
And the archbishop said to me, "Lewd losel ["worthless person"-DRH], is it not lawful for us to have organs in the church to worship therewithal God?" 
And I said, "Yea, sir, by man's ordinance; but by the ordinance of God, a good sermon, to the people's understanding, were much more pleasant to God."(Writings and Examinations, 77)
In taking this strong stand, however, the Lollards seem to have reacted so vehemently against a contemporary error that they failed to cultivate the Scriptural practice it had displaced. There was no new tradition of English Lollard music, except for hints of the use of a cappella Psalm-singing. It laid the ground-work, however, for the English a cappella Psalmody of the 16th century.

The Hussite Reformation and Revival of Congregational Song

Another reformer of the period before Luther and Calvin was the Czech churchman and philosopher Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415). Like Wycliffe, Hus was connected with a leading university and a powerful political patron, in this case the University of Prague and King Wenceslas (no, not that one). But in this case, the Roman Catholic leadership, increasingly alarmed at the spread of "Wycliffism," responded much more quickly and forcefully. Hus was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1415.(Britannica) Following Hus's death there was a brutal period of warfare as political and religious leaders on all sides fought for power, and many of the Hussites fled to other lands. The best known descendant of this diaspora is the present-day Moravian Church, which flourished especially in England and in the American colonies. Interestingly, a separate but related group, the Unity of the Brethren, was established during the 19th century in central Texas, where their distinctive Czech heritage is still strongly felt.

The Hussites were especially noted for their emphasis on congregational song in the language of the people, and in 1501 published the earliest known Protestant hymnal (unfortunately lost). The Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has digitized several pages from a 1576 edition of this hymnal series. The Hussite tradition would be a direct influence on the development of the Lutheran chorales; in fact, a good many of the chorales in the works of J. S. Bach have Hussite roots. For texts the Hussite Brethren used translations of the Psalms and of some of the Latin liturgy, but also wrote many original lyrics reflecting their beliefs and experiences.(Atwood, 27; 217) They sang the hymns in formal worship, but also in home devotionals and in everday life.(Atwood, 304) The preface of the 1886 Moravian Hymnal extols this quality:
The hymns of the Brethren were a power in the Church and the land. They gave life to public worship; they were familiarly sung in the homes of nobles and of peasants; they set for the pure Gospel in strains that captivated thousands of hearts . . . (Liturgy and Hymns, iii)
In one of the great providential coincidences of history, in 1735 a group of Moravian settlers bound for America booked passage on a ship that also carried John and Charles Wesley, who were heading to the mission field in the Georgia colony. The Moravians welcomed the Wesleys to worship with them, and the brothers were deeply impressed with their heartfelt singing. From that time on the Wesleys were active promoters of congregational song.

In the beginning the followers of Hus, trying as they were to restore music to its Scriptural place in worship, sang a cappella as a group under the leadership of a precentor.(De Schweinitz, 405, note 18) Instruments in worship were not formally allowed until the Synod of 1594,(De Schweinitz, 434) and the Moravian leader John Comenius (1592-1670) was still having to argue the point in the 17th century.(Atwood, 394) Ironically, when the Moravians settled in America in the 18th century, they established the most sophisticated instrumental music tradition (both sacred and secular) in the English colonies!

The hymn in the video below is Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (Ye who are warriors of God), a battle hymn sung by the Hussites during the religious wars of the early 15th century. It seems unfair to represent their hymn tradition with this song, given that most of the groups descended from that movement are now well known as pacifists; but it was an important hymn of its time and is the only good example I can find of the early Hussite music.

Luther and Instrumental Music in Worship

What exactly was Martin Luther's belief about the use of instruments in worship? There is a well-known quote attributed to Luther, to the effect that the organ is an "ensign of Baal." But did Luther really say that? It is so stated in the McClintock & Strong Cyclopedia(VI, 762), without a source; but Girardeau in his Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson, 1888) notes that it is referenced by the 17th-century theologian Heinrich Eckhard. (Thanks to "HistoryGuy" for his comment on this in the One in Jesus blog for pointing me in the right direction.)

Heinrich Eckhard (1580-1624) in his Fasciculus controversiarum theologicarum (Leipzig: Henning Grosse, 1607) states that "Lutherus organa Musica inter Baalis insignia refert."(Eckhard, 639) The term "organa Musica" is not the organ specifically, but "instruments of music" in general. A literal translation of this might be, "Luther places the instruments of music among the ensigns of Baal." This is obviously not a direct quote, and the situation is further complicated in that Eckhard is not himself the original source of the statement.

Eckhard's format is very structured: he sets out an argument, raises his opponents' objections, and answers each objection. Right above this statement regarding Luther, Eckhard carefully states, "Obj. II [Objection no. 2-DRH]. Anhaldini p. 74." This statement about Luther's position is cited from page 74 of a work identified only by "Anhaldini." (See Objection I. on the preceding page, where Eckhard quotes from Theodore Beza, citing his source in the same format.) Eckhard does not list this work, however, in his bibliography at the beginning of the treatise.

My best guess is that "Anhaldini" refers to some work by one of the princes of Anhalt--perhaps George III (1507-1553), who was an associate of Luther and was later ordained a bishop.(Wikipedia) It is worth noting that Eckhard was defending the use of instruments in worship, and is therefore a "hostile witness" to the opinion attributed to Luther, but does not seem to question its authenticity.

So far, unfortunately, I have not nailed down Eckhard's reference. But there is a similar statement in Luther's commentary on Joel 2:15-16. (N.B. This is my own translation from the Erlangen Edition (Exegetica opera latina), which is based on the 1547 Nuremberg publication of Luther's Joel commentary, not the Altenburg version used in the Concordia/Fortress Press edition of Luther's works in English).
Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
Luther then remarks,
Why, therefore, you ask, have you dispensed with the papal ceremonies? For the ensigns of pomp [insignes pompae], with the musical instruments, and festal songs, and whatever was of this kind, was not this whole institution in order to invite the common people to the temple? Why condemn such ceremonies? Indeed, why abolish them? 
I reply: The purposes of the papal ceremonies, and of those which the prophet recounts here, are different. In those of the papacy, in fact, the ministry of teaching completely collapsed. And thus idolatry has prevailed, so that the ministry of the word may no longer be enumerated in the sacred service.(Exegetica opera Latina, v. 25, p. 190)
Here we have a similar phrase--"insignes pompae"--and a reference to idolatry. But reading him carefully, I believe Luther is saying that instrumental music in worship as it had been practiced in Roman Catholicism had become idolatry. The statement recorded by Eckhard could take a similar interpretation: perhaps Luther considered the use of musical instruments, as currently practiced, to have made them into "ensigns of Baal" that detracted from sincere worship. This still left the door open, in his reasoning, for the use of instruments in a lesser role as an aid to worship. In actual practice, Lutheran churches changed the role of instruments in worship, but seldom abandoned them. Luther elsewhere expressed an equivocal opinion on forms of worship, and was willing to tolerate quite a bit of Catholic ceremonialism, though he admitted that "the example of the Ancient Church is also disquieting to me."(Letter to George III of Anhalt, 10 July 1545)

Zwingli and the Anabaptist Tradition

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the great reformer in Zurich, has long been represented as a radical who eliminated all church music. He did, of course, make the following statement in his Auslegen und Gründe der Schlussreden (1523), commenting on Colossians 3:16,
Here Paul teaches us not howling and mumbling in the temple, but he indicates the true song that is pleasing to God, that we sing the praise and glory of God not with the voice, like the Jewish singers, but with the hearts.(Music, 53)
Not only does his reasoning rule out instrumental accompaniment, he seems to argue himself out of singing altogether! But as usual, history is more complicated. Locher notes that Zwingli (like Luther) was reacting against the abuses of his times:
Zwingli's polemic is concerned exclusively with the medieval Latin chanting and not with the hymns of evangelical congregations or choirs. Zwingli freely allowed vernacular psalm or choral singing. In addition, he even seems to have striven for lively, antiphonal unison recitative.(Locher, 61-62)
Locher cites, as one example of this moderation in Zwingli's position, his comment on Psalm 92: "If the hymn of praise on Sunday is sung clearly and for all to understand, it is good and praiseworthy."(Locher, 61)

Though Zwingli's influence was felt in Calvinist circles as well, the religious bodies most closely associated with his teachings are those in the Anabaptist tradition. (A paradoxical name, since they were not "anti" baptism, but instead restored it to its rightful place as the conscious act of an accountable believer.) The descendants of this movement today include the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, Brethren in Christ, the Apostolic Christian Church, the German Brethren, and others. Many of these groups retain the a cappella congregational singing as practiced by their ancestors, or did until relatively recent times.

One of the distinctive features of early Anabaptist hymnody was the composition of hymns commemorating their martyrs. Sad to say, these peace-loving people were often subject to some of the most violent persecution. The video below presents one of these hymns in English translation, attributed to one Leonhart Sommer who died in prison in 1573:

The Old Order Amish are probably the best known of today's Anabaptist groups, at least in the United States, because of their distinctive dress and rejection of modern technology. Most sing in worship from the Ausbund, a German Anabaptist hymnal first published in 1564. The video below is a recording of the "Loblied" or "Praise Song," which is traditionally the second hymn in an Amish worship service. This recording is audio only, out of respect for the Amish aversion to creating images. At the beginning of each line you will hear the leader "lining out" the opening phrase before the congregation begins, a practice common to many older a cappella traditions.

(recording begins with 2nd stanza)

Mennonite groups also sing a cappella (with some modern exceptions), but have been more open to adopting music from the surrounding church music culture. Many Mennonite congregations in the U.S. sing a mainstream gospel style that would be right at home in the Churches of Christ! The video below is from a barn singing in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The hymn is "In the rifted Rock I'm resting," a lovely song from the late 19th century written by Mary D. James, a Wesleyan songwriter.("James")

In the next post we will look at Jean Calvin's views of church music, and the history of the a cappella practice in the Reformed churches on the Continent.


Saccho, Reinarius. "Of the sects of the modern heretics (1254)."  Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University.

Blair, Adam. History of the Waldenses, 2 vols. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1833.

"John Wycliffe and the Lollards." The Geoffrey Chaucer Page. Harvard University.

Wegman, Rob C. The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe, 1470-1530. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2005.

Writings and Examinations of Brute, Thorpe, Cobham, Hilton, Pecock, Bilney, and Others; with The Lantern of Light. London: Religious Tract Society, 1831.

"Jan Hus." Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

Atwood, Craig D. Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius. University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Liturgy and Hymns of the Moravian Church or Unitas Fratrum. New and revised edition. London: Moravian Publication Office, 1908.

De Schweinitz, Edmund. The history of the church known as the Unitas Fratrum. 2nd edition. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Moravian Publication Concern, 1901.

Guin, Jay. "Instrumental Music: Martin Luther and Instrumental Music." (Some of the commenters on this article also provide very useful additional details.)

"Music." McClintock & Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, 12 volumes. New York: Harper Brothers, 1880-189?, volume VI, pp. 751-763.

Girardeau, John L. Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church. Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson, 1888.

"George III, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau." Wikipedia.,_Prince_of_Anhalt-Dessau

Luther, Martin. Joel (III). Exegetica opera Latina, volume 25. Frankfurt am Main: Evangelical Book Society, 1884. Pp. 128-303.

Luther, Martin. Letter to George III, Prince of Anhalt, 10 July 1545. Lutheran Theology Web Site.

Music, David W. Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1996.

Locher, Gottfried Wilhelm. Zwingli's Thought: New Perspectives. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981.

"Mary Dagworthy James." Cyberhymnal.

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