Is congregational singing historical?

I read an interesting article yesterday, entitled ‘Is congregational singing dead?‘ In it, the author questioned whether a perceived decline in congregational singing in churches across America signalled the end of this historic aspect of gathered Christian worship. Except, the author pointed out, it wasn’t that historic at all. In fact, Christians gathering to sing together had roots that only stretched back about five hundred years. The author claimed that “like the hymnal, the mainline churches, and Lutherans, congregational singing is a product of the Protestant Reformation.”

I don’t really understand the issue the article (from the Plough magazine) addressed; in my experience of church in the UK congregational singing is alive and well, and often a joy and comfort to be a part of. I’m not American, and haven’t visited the US for some years now, so maybe I am just very out of touch with things that side of the Atlantic. But I was more surprised by the author’s historical stance than with the issue the article spoke to. Whilst I support the author’s rallying call to embrace corporate Christian music-making, I was utterly baffled by the stance – maintained throughout the piece – that congregational singing was a product of the Reformation. Having made this claim, the below screenshot shows the author elaborating on this point.

There’s much to dissect here, and I want to simply offer a historical rebuttal to the wider claim this author made. But behind the inaccuracy over the place of congregational singing in Christian history comes a fallacy that is all too easily embraced in evangelical thinking. So often we view Church history through an incredibly blinkered lens. Evangelicals, and Protestants more broadly, seem to work backwards with the Reformation as the high point. Great preachers of the 19th century are noted, then maybe the Puritans, then back to the Reformation. Continuing backwards, there seems some great dark historical abyss in which figures like Augustine (or maybe just Augustine) shine through, and then you land in the New Testament. Church history, for many Protestant Christians, seems to start in the sixteenth century.

This is of course an oversimplification, but this article betrays this kind of thinking. The lengthy quote offered above speaks vaguely of Christian life before the Reformation, almost presenting the c.1500 years before Luther as an historical amalgamation.

Whilst this way of thinking is a personal frustration to someone who studies the Early Church (my particular research focus is the late second/early third century), such thinking masks historical truth behind an imagined obscurity. And in this area of congregational singing it offers a neat narrative, that Christian music was reinvigorated by the promotion of genuine faith offered by the Reformers, but it fails to account for the historical reality of congregational singing in the Early Church. With that in mind, this post will now offer a brief picture of congregational singing in the first few centuries of Christian history.

The First Churches

The various books of the New Testament offer some fascinating insights into the lives and meetings of the first Christian churches, and we are given glimpses of the place of music in those meetings. Speaking to the small church community in Ephesus (in what is now modern-day Turkey), the apostle Paul charged them to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord.” (Eph 5.19.) The participle λαλοῦντες – ‘speaking’ (from λᾰλέω, to speak) – is elsewhere used in the New Testament to describe various preaching and teaching contexts. In Acts 2 it is used when the crowds question who these men are speaking in their own tongues; in Acts 11 it is used to described Christians fleeing persecution in Jerusalem spreading out, preaching the Word as they go. The verse very clearly commands these Ephesian Christians to make the ‘speaking’ of the Gospel a part of their time together, through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. They are to lift their voices to the Lord together. The command is similarly offered in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae (another town in modern-day Turkey), where they are to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Col 3.16.)

Other such examples are found throughout the New Testament. Though not strictly a church, the Disciples sung a hymn with Jesus before they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matt 26:30), setting a clear example of Christian behaviour. In like manner, Paul and Silas sung hymns together as they awaited deliverance from jail in Macedonia (Acts 16:25.) Equally, James urges the recipients of his letter to sing praise in one another’s company when they are cheerful. The picture of congregational singing in these first Christian communities is evident; this was no invention of the Reformation.

Into the Second Century

There is plenty of evidence of Christians continuing this tradition of congregational singing in the first few centuries of Christian history, but I will focus on just one for the sake of brevity. Famously, the Roman Governor Pliny (then Governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a province in what is now Northern Turkey) wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan around 112 AD, complaining about his dealings with Christians in the region. Detailing his understanding of their actions, Pliny wrote that “on a stated day they had become accustomed to meeting before daybreak, and to recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god…” (Pliny, Ep. 10.96.) Pliny’s shock was that these Christians treated Christ, a man, as though he were a god. But for our interests, it is noteworthy that he comments that their means of doing this were musical. These early Christians gathered together and sung together. Their singing was important enough for Pliny to comment on it, and clearly spoke truths of who they believed Christ to be, directed towards Christ himself. Here we see, in the early second century, congregational singing at the heart of the gathered worship of Christian believers.

The Power of Mass Music-Making…

The importance of singing ought not to be underestimated. In the fourth century, as fierce conflict raged within the church in Alexandria (and ultimately across the Roman world) over the sonship and nature of Christ, various Christian groups used music to instruct and galvanise their followers. Arius, who led a movement teaching that Christ was subordinate to the Father, wrote hymns designed for mass singing; he wrote songs that could be sung in church meetings, but that groups would also take into their workplaces, and onto the streets. This was Christian music written explicitly for congregational singing, instructive and promotional. It was both a reinforcing of teaching to the convert, and an offer of new teaching to the sceptic.

I have written elsewhere about this, and you can read that post for yourself here. But Arius recognised that music had great potential: he bought into a culture of Christian (and secular) music, and presented his new teachings through the medium of mass singing. As conflicting positions were entrenched, music became one of the key means by which dogmas were taught, and those on both sides of the argument sought to encourage their number. Here was congregational singing at the forefront of Christian history, as competing groups sought to argue that their understanding had Scriptural authority.

Conclusion

The examples I’ve offered above show the place of congregational singing in the New Testament, its continued importance into the second century, and the clear roots of the practice by the fourth century.

To say that Christian congregational singing is a produce of the Reformation is simply inaccurate, and whilst the briefest of glances at the New Testament illustrate this, the extra-biblical historical record makes it clear as well. Whilst there may have been periods in church history where such activities diminished or lapsed, the precedent for congregational singing is not the Reformation, but the New Testament itself, and the actions of the Early Church illustrate this was a Christian tradition well before the Reformers advocated for it. As I wrote above, I haven’t seen any evidence of a decline in congregational singing in the UK, though the author of the piece in the Plough is right that as Christians we must recognise the changing attitudes towards music in our culture. With perhaps sporting contexts aside, most people simply do not sing in corporate settings outside of the church. Music is everywhere, yet it is either entertainment or individual for many people. Let us sing on when we meet as believers, and let us do so confident that we are partaking in an ancient, and biblical, practice.


An excellent recent book I read on corporate worship and congregational singing was Matt Merker’s little book: Corporate Worship, How the Church Gathers as God’s People. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

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