Music Is for the Heart

THE DIALOG over appropriate music for use in religious services and in the home on Sabbath will probably never end this side of eternity. Two principal views persist: the view of the trained musician, versus the untrained. Both of these are familiar to me, as a minister and the son of a minister, as well as a product of Seventh-day Adventist schools, from church school through seminary. As a nonprofessional musician, I would like to submit several personal observations for careful consideration. . .

-has served as pastor, teacher, and departmental secretary.

THE DIALOG over appropriate music for use in religious services and in the home on Sabbath will probably never end this side of eternity. Two principal views persist: the view of the trained musician, versus the untrained. Both of these are familiar to me, as a minister and the son of a minister, as well as a product of Seventh-day Adventist schools, from church school through seminary. As a nonprofessional musician, I would like to submit several personal observations for careful consideration:

  • Acculturation, training, and exposure to good music will govern one's music appreciation. Hence, at no time will everyone think alike.
  • Rapid church growth is increasing the impossibility that the professional musicians will succeed in training the masses to like what they call good, worshipful music.
  • A century of Adventist musical tradition has already cast the musical die.
  • The musical taste of the church as a whole both governs and is governed by the hymnals and songbooks it uses.
  • The music a given congregation will use is mainly determined by the skill of its available musicians. Most of the hymn-tunes of the Adventist Church belong to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.
  • All gospel music should convey a simple, clear, and appropriate message to the audience. The appeal of the word takes precedence over the appeal of the tune.

Regardless of people's varying backgrounds, certain principles must be applied. Although revelation has not codified these principles, God does not leave men to make their choices blindly. We are not left to human interpretations of what is acceptable to God.

There seems to be a rising percentage of those who find spiritual appeal in a lighter type of gospel music. People who prefer more sedate music should realize that no amount of education in music appreciation is likely ever to change this picture. If one is right and the other is wrong, only conversion by the Holy Spirit will effect the change.

Adventist Heritage of Music

A type of music appreciation has already been going on in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for generations. W. A. Spicer tells how he as a boy saw James White enter the Battle Creek church and mount the rostrum, "beating time on his Bible, and singing 'When I can read my title clear To mansions in the skies, I'll bid farewell to ev'ry fear, And wipe my weeping eyes.' " 1 (It was probably T. C. O'Kane's arrangement of the Freedman's tune found in Hymns and Tunes #1232 or the Christ in Song #927 which he used, rather than the tune Pisgah, ascribed to J. C. Lowry, which is currently popular.) James White's father was a vocal teacher, and he himself came from a gifted musical family, Elder Spicer says. 2

On one occasion in his early ministry, James White tells of nearly a thousand persons remaining in almost breathless silence during one of his songs, and immediately he adds: " 'But it is a fact that there was in those days a power in what was called "Advent singing" such as was felt in no other.' " 3

James and Ellen White used to sing duets together. F. E. Belden, Ellen White's nephew, wrote many songs and was the compiler and publisher of Christ in Song. Other Adventist composers and poets added their music and lyrics to the collection of tunes and words familiar to the Adventist ear.

Two Elements Incorporated

All hymnals and songbooks contain two elements: songs considered desirable by the editors and those already familiar to most of the people who will use the book. Because people generally sing the songs that are placed before them, the selective use of appropriate worshipful music will, in time, produce familiarity with, and to a degree, popularity of the more desirable songs. On the other hand, a book containing only unfamiliar melodies would not be accept able to the average audience, however much the editors may dislike including lighter tunes. Therefore, there must be an interaction between the philosophy of the musical editors of the hymnbook and the desires of the congregation that sings from it.

The abilities of available church musicians will, of course, limit the changing taste of a given congregation. The availability of pianists and organists in institutional churches and denominational centers permits a wider choice of music. But in many small churches, it is not at all uncommon for the limited musical skill of available talent to restrict severely the selection of hymns or songs that can be used.

In bygone eras, because of the scarcity of instruments and instrumentalists, most hymnbooks were printed without music, with only the tune name or the meter given above the words. Some times even these were missing. The familiar forms of meter, C.M. (common meter---, S.M. (short meter---, and L.M. (long meter---, allowed the song leader considerable freedom in the choice of tune in which a song might be sung.

One of the reasons that Christ in Song has oblong pages, according to its compiler, is that it "permits the use of four to eight tunes of the same meter side by side . . . , so that all classes may choose which tune to sing to any one of the four or more hymns under the eye at the same time." 4

The theory of hymnody taught an educated few in Adventist schools becomes impractical in a situation where what is usable is determined by the difficulty of the musical passage and the skill of the musician to render it.

Most acceptable hymn-tunes being used today are culturally of a late date. In a few cases the tune predates the words by a century or more, but more often the lyrics considerably predate the tune. Later generations seem to express those earlier lyrics in the musical idiom of their own time, regard less of the tune previously associated with those words. (In a few cases, owing to the suitability of both, a tune from some previous art music adapted to some poem has survived from generation to generation.) But even where words and music are from the same time period, they usually represent the last half of the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. 5

Therefore, the issue is not really classical music versus modern, but difficult tunes and complex chord structures versus simple ones that are easily played by even an unskilled pianist.

While much of current church hymnody dates from only the past century, or even the early part of this one, where are the contemporary Adventist poets and com posers who can give us music that is easy to sing, suitable for worship, and acceptable to today's generation?

Convey Appropriate Message

All gospel music should convey an appropriate message to the audience. This includes both the music and the musician(s). Unfortunately, many musicians, though technically perfect in their renditions, do not convey a saving message to their listeners. They may be converted Christians them selves, but being more concerned with the music than with the mes sage, they make little, if any, heart-warming or soul-stirring contribution to the program. It is exceedingly difficult for unconverted performers, no matter how flawless their musical presentation, to make a positive, spiritual impact on the audience.

Several years ago some non- Adventist friends invited my wife and me to join them at an inter denominational retreat. The music chairman in these meetings was a skilled musician and faculty member of a well-known and highly respected Christian college. For all special selections in the meetings proper, whether instrumental or vocal, the music chosen was from the Center's hymnal. The number was announced, so that those who wished could follow the words of the music, understand its message, and find in it that which satisfied their own experiences. However, for the benefit of those who wanted and appreciated more difficult music, he arranged a special concert each day at which the music played or sung satisfied the ear of those who enjoyed rich harmonies. Thus the tastes of all were adequately met.

Melody Enhances Message

The words of a song give meaning to its melody. A tune is to its words like a frame is to a picture. To use another figure, a tune is the vehicle by which the words are carried to the memory.

For example, take the song "Lily of the Valley." On hearing its Old English melody, many churchgoers today think only of its religious words. But others may be reminded by the same tune of "The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train" or "Little Old Sod Shanty on the Plain." Again, the Punjabi of Northern India and Pakistan sings Psalm 150 in church on Sabbath without any knowledge that he is using the tune to "Clementine." This forcibly illustrates the need to study the past history of a tune before coupling it with religious words.

If the nature of the music itself arouses the lower emotions the earnest Christian will spurn it and replace it with something more desirable.

Personally, I like both heavy and lighter types of gospel music. Having been a member of school bands, orchestras, and choirs, as well as of later musical organizations, and having studied piano and voice for a number of years, I learned to appreciate the rich harmonies of the musical master pieces and the skilled performances of the artists.

Several years ago, however, when I lay in the hospital, battling for my life, as much as I enjoyed listening to the recordings of great orchestras, that which brought me comfort was the memory of the lyrics that gospel tunes called to mind. Whenever the young people of the singing bands came to sing to me, I enjoyed hearing the sacred tunes, but I often wondered whether those who were singing the words really understood the meaning of what they were singing.

When the chips are down, how ever much one enjoys art music at other times, only that music in which the words reach the heart is meaningful. At such times, even such masterpieces of gospel music as James Russel Lowell's "Once to Every Man and Nation" set to T. J. Williams' tune, Ton-y-botel, or Sidney Lanier's "Into the Woods My Master Went" to the tune composed by Peter C. Lutkin, do not satisfy the heart like "Sweet Hour of Prayer," "The Old Rugged Cross," or "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." And what is true then is also true at other times.

Musical tastes will differ according to one's environment, education and training, culture, the circumstances that affect one, and even the individual's own personality preferences. But three sentences from Evangelism, page 512, sum up the criteria by which the Adventist Christian should choose his music: "Music is acceptable to God only when the heart is sanctified and made soft and holy by its facilities. But many who delight in music know nothing of making melody in their hearts to the Lord. Their heart is gone 'after their idols.' "


1. Pioneer Days of the Advent Movement, pp. 146,147.

2. Ibid., p. 146.

3. James White, Life Incidents, pp. 94, 95.

4. F. E. Belden, comp. and pub., Christ in Song, D. 11.

5. Cf. Jonathan Butler, "Seventh-day Adventism's Legacy of Modern Revivalism," Spectrum, Number One, 1973, pp. 94, 95.

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-has served as pastor, teacher, and departmental secretary.

April 1975

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