The Gospel Song in History

The monthly music of the message column.

By FRANCIS W. AVERY, Instructor in Music, Emmanuel Missionary College

Only  those who have experienced the thrill of genuine conversion can appreciate the ecstasy that must have possessed the Corinthian breth­ren in the early church. The Corinthian church had been recently established. The brethren were rejoicing in their new freedom from pagan dark­ness, and in their "first love." Many spiritual gifts accompanied their baptism of the Holy Spirit, showing God's pleasure over sinners turned to re­pentance. They had not yet acquired a cautious­ness, and as a consequence, Paul felt the need of giving admonition and administering a little restraint upon them. They were acting not alto­gether unlike a group of young people with a new­found freedom—they were abusing it.

On the occasion of one of Paul's meetings with them he said, "How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, bath an interpretation." 1 Cor. 14:26. In the light of the context, and other relevant statements made by Paul, it is evident that on the crest of their spiritual fervor and enthusiasm they were bringing to these meetings many of their own compositions—songs that were composed out of heart experiences.

That many of these songs were unworthy, mu­sically speaking, or even born out of fanaticism, none would try to deny. But that some valuable, worth-while compositions came out of the apos­tolic revival is evident in view of what Paul says in Colossians 3:16 : "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admon­ishing one another in psalms and hymns and spir­itual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."

As time went on and the Corinthians matured, no doubt many if not most of these revival-inspired songs expired. It is not certain that any of those apostolic "spiritual songs" are extant. In the year 1909 Dr. Rendel Harris made an interesting con­tribution to the question by announcing the dis­covery of "an early Christian hymnbook." It is a collection of "private psalms" dated by Dr. Harris as of the last quarter of the first century. W'e stand -on firmer ground, however, in considering the -apostolic background of the spiritual songs by tak­ing what Paul says. Many eminent hymnologists agree that he was quoting from one of these songs in Ephesians 5:14.

"Wherefore it saith [margin], Awake thou that sleepest, And arise from the dead, And Christ shall give thee light."

If such be the case, how appropriate is the ad­monition in the nineteenth verse : "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord."

Would we not be on safe ground, then, to accept the Corinthian experience as a pattern of events connected more or less with every major revival and reformation? And does not history attest that such has been the case ? Look at the number of spiritual songs in the vernacular that came out of the German Reformation ! We know that one of Luther's mighty weapons was his songs that he gave his people to sing. The people grasped these songs, and, like a spreading prairie fire, the message of God was carried to the very gates of the Vatican. The Catholicsfeared Luther's songs almost as much as they feared his theses.

No great spiritual revival has ever left the songs of the church just where it found them. Observe the mighty tide of gospel songs that surged out of the Wesleyan movement or from the Moody-San­key revival. Many of those songs have not stood the test of time, and have been culled out. Com­paratively few remain in hymnbooks today. How­ever, we can see from the apostle Paul's counsel that a definite place is provided in the Christian communion for these spiritual songs. We must keep in mind what Dr. Louis F. Benson says re­garding Paul:

"He is of course not forecasting a service of praise for the stately basilicas of Constantine's time. He is merely exhorting a little company of people gathered in a humble home for mutual edification. And yet the sort of singing here indicated becomes none the less an authorized form of church song: and every theory of hymnody must wrestle with it or give it lodgment."—Hymnody of the Christian Church (New York: Doran 1926), p. 43.

From the passage in Colossians, already quoted, we understand that Paul had in mind the more spontaneous, spiritual songs for another reason.

He speaks of admonition and teaching through the avenues of "psalms and hymns and spiritual odes." The main feature of this mode of Christian singing is its strict individualism. Paul is not forming an ordinance "that resides in the sanctuary, waiting till a congregation gather to exercise it. . . . It is a spiritual gift which each Christian brings to the sanctuary and contributes to a common song of spiritual fellowship."—/bid., p. 44. This is the pe­culiar office of the gospel song.

The great second advent movement is about to launch forth on the greatest evangelistic advance of its history. From the pattern of his­tory thus briefly sketched we can expect spiritual songs paralleling the outpouring of the latter rain. In the glorious return of Christ, these songs will no doubt be swallowed up in praise to our Re­deemer. Until then, they will have their place, and will accomplish their peculiar work. By vir­tue of their very nature it is expected that they will be more or less ephemeral.

Does the gospel song have a place in the work of God today? Our answer depends upon our atti­tude toward evangelism and revivals in particular. Surely the gospel song does not contribute toward a liturgical service. That is why it is not found in the popular churches. By nature it does not contribute toward an aesthetic approach to wor­ship. It deals more with morals, Christian experi­ence, truth, admonition, appeal. The type of music to be used in any given church must be decided upon by the objectives of that church. The objec­tives of our church will determine our music.

It is not the purpose of this article to condemn, but to point out what is, in my belief, the proper sphere of each type of music. Surely there is a place for the psalms and hymns of praise, just as there is a place for the songs of appeal and admoni­tion and testimonial. A flood of songs and choruses are being turned out upon the public today. This calls for discrimination on the part of the song leader. Doubtless the motive behind the writing of many of these is the financial enrichment they will bring rather than the spiritual edification they will give. A little study will reveal that some resemble very closely the style of music used in the dance halls. Surely no sincere gospel worker would stoop to use such productions.

It would seem that the time has come when seri­ous study by those most directly concerned—evan­gelists and musicians—should be given the question of music to be used in our evangelistic efforts, with the thought of setting up wholesome standards. I know from experience that a great many of our ministers actually do not know how to discrimi­nate between an acceptable gospel song and one that is not. But they are anxious to learn. On the other hand, many musicians give no place to the evangelistic or revival message song, and are, without the evangelistic viewpoint. Until the tinle comes when there will be unification, education, and organization, Christian forbearance on the part of both Musicians and ministers will add greatly to the smoothness of the advancement of God's work.

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By FRANCIS W. AVERY, Instructor in Music, Emmanuel Missionary College

July 1946

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