A Vital Faith is a Singing Faith

“A Vital Faith is a Singing Faith” Sermon
October 2nd, 2016

Because, somewhere down the very long road,
Music is stronger than bombs.

Why do we sing in worship? What does the music DO? When you think of your favorite hymn, is it your favorite because of what the words say? Or is it your favorite because the melody is so beautiful and it feels so good to sing it?

To put it another way. Do the songs and hymns we sing represent our beliefs, our theology, our values? Or are they a way of connecting to spirit?

I’m a melody fan. Hymns like “Be Thou My Vision” or “Busca el Amor” touch my heart every single time I hear them.

When I hear the women of our choir sing “One Voice” it moves me more than I can say.

But it is also true that there are some words that are wonderful to sing and some that are very difficult.

You’ve heard the old joke, right? We UUs don’t sing very joyously because we’re too busy looking ahead to see if we agree with the words.

Historians Mark Harris and Andrea Greenwood have a more polite way to say it: “Right from the start Unitarians and Universalists resisted singing what they did not believe.”

Be that as it may, our religious history is a history of our singing. The questions we ask ourselves today, are the questions our religious ancestors wrestled with. And in the case of the Universalists, hymn singing and hymn writing have been a vital way of expressing our faith from the very beginning. Sometimes from the theological-the-right-words-and-the-right-sentiment point of view, and sometimes from the break-your-heart-wide-open-view.

Let’s try something … I’m going to say a line from one of the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. And you’re going to sing it back to me.

First let me start with a line from Psalm 100 in the King James version of the Bible.

Line from Psalm 100:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.

Now, here is how the words were re-arranged to make them easier to sing.

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell
Come ye before him and rejoice

Do these words sound familiar to any of you?

Ok. I’m going to ask Marianne to play the tune and as soon as she finishes, you all need to sing, ok?

Marianne … would you please play the tune?

(Marianne plays the tune for “Old Hundredth”)

Ok… sing!

Do we need to try that again? Ok, I’ll give you more instructions. (offer lining out hint…)


Congregation sings back:

Let me go back to my original question. Is it the message that matters? Or is it the emotional or even spiritual connection that music enables?

The very first European-style book published in the British colonies established in the Americas, was the Bay Psalm Book. It was published in 1640. In its introduction it featured a quote from king James V of Scotland. It would seem that king James is on the side of the emotional connection:

“if any be afflicted, let him pray, and if any be merry let him sing psalms.”

Did you feel merry when we tried our little singing experiment a moment ago?

Well, your religious ancestors did. Even though today most of us don’t immediately think of Puritans as spiritual party animals, the Puritans of Plymouth came to what they called the New World prepared to sing. As they explained in their introduction to their book, to SING the psalms in church was to give glory to God. The Bay Psalm Book was re-printed 27 times before 1762.

As you might imagine, however, their form of singing had its critics. You can see why. By the early 18th century, schools and manuals of musical instruction started to spring up. One of these manuals, from 1721 offered some much needed coaching:

“At the same time we would above all exhort that the main concern of all may be to make it not a meer bodily exercise but sing with grace in their hearts & minds, attentive to the truths in the psalms which they sing, and affected with them, so that in their hearts they may make a melody to the lord.”

In other words, people, pay attention to the way you sing in church. It matters. It makes a difference to the quality of worship. But also, pay attention to what you are singing. That matters too.

Now there is another big reason why folks wanted good singing in their faith homes. There was a religious revolution going on in the British colonies. Called the Great Awakening, it was a sweeping religious revival movement. If you were here yesterday to hear Rev. Peter Morales talk about early Universalism, you heard him read from one of the more famous hell-fire and damnation sermons of the great Jonathan Edwards.

Sober-minded New England clergy thought the Great Awakening was distasteful to say the least. Too much emotion. Too much fainting. Too many instant religious conversions. But for thousands of colonial Christians, the Awakening brought a much-needed revival of their faith. It moved their faith from their heads to their hearts. And they came to believe that their divine source not only loved them but actually forgave them.

Our Universalist ancestors rebelled against the hellfire and damnation message. But they loved the heart-breaking experience of conversion. The great early Universalists, John Murray, George DeBenneville and Elhanan Winchester all described deep conversion experiences. They spoke of knowing their God in their hearts – not in the way that Edwards preached, but in the ways of divine and infinite love.

The Great Awakening also forced everyone to up their hymn-singing game.

You couldn’t compete with revival meetings if all you could offer was tepid music, poorly sung… no matter how juicy (or fascinating) your theology was.

So in the spirit of entrepreneurism, folks who had musical talent and training began to establish singing schools. Churches started hiring expert musicians. These expert musicians started teaching people in churches how to sing.

(Marini – congregational church politics…)

And oh, by the way, beyond church walls, what would come to be called the American Revolution was brewing.

Into all of this chaotic mix, come our Universalist ancestors, with a genuinely revolutionary religious message.

The Universalists during the colonial period generally agreed that a loving God would not condemn any human being to eternal damnation.

This, as you know, did not sit well with the dominant religious thinking of the colonists, which was Calvinist. The first tenet of Calvinist thinking is that we human beings are TOTALLY DEPRAVED.

What the Universalists didn’t agree on were the details. You’ve heard the expression “the devil is in the details” …. Well…. It comes down to the hymns.

Slide 56

John Murray, after whom Murray Grove is named, is known as the father of American Universalism. He brought his own hymnal from England, with hymns composed by the great British universalist John Relly. In Murray’s little church in Gloucester, Massachussetts, folks sang Universalist hymns to the ten tunes Murray’s barrel organ was capable of playing.

As theological arguments between Universalists continued to heat up, Murray added several hymns of his own composition.

I am not a musician, as most of you know. But I understand that there’s a good reason none of Murray’s hymns have survived.

By 1790, when Universalists met in Philadelphia for their first “national” meeting, there was a serious theological difference between the followers of John Murray and the followers of Elhanan Winchester, a universal Baptist.

They tried to mend their differences by creating a common hymn book. Sadly, that effort failed.

But you can see a pattern, can’t you. As these new and rebellious religious movements were trying to figure it out, they turned to their music, to their hymns to make it work.

In the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists produced more than 50 hymn books, far more than any other denomination in the country.

And by the way, it wasn’t until 1867 that a hymn book contained words AND music. And it was made by Unitarians.

Universalist minister Hosea Ballou 2d wrote in 1848 about Universalist hymns that they:

“…have unquestionably assisted in inspiring and warming the heart’s devotion, and in edifying those assemblies where they have been used.”

Only the singing of sacred music could bridge that divide between heart and mind.

To defect for a moment to the 19th century Unitarians, a critic in the denomination wrote about how many folks visit Unitarian churches but don’t come back. He wrote this in 1875. Visitors quickly leave because:

…”they miss the glow of religious emotion excited by the hymns and the social atmosphere of the church.”

In 1831, the year of Nat Turner’s rebellion, abolitionist Eliza Cabot Follen published poems and hymns speaking to the pain of children living in slavery.

“When children pray with fear all day
a blight must be at hand
then joys decay, and birds of prey
are hovering o’er the land”

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, radical leftist Unitarian minister and advocate of homeopathy, helped to publish the first collection of African American Spirituals in 1867. It was entitled Slave Songs of the United States.

What we sing and how we sing it matters.

When the liberal churches expanded westward and became more radical than Boston, they created new hymnbooks for their congregations.

The Western Unitarian conference wrote in the preface to the second edition of its hymnbook in 1911:

“Songs suffused with the thought and feeling, without the name of God will be used increasingly as “hymns” we think. The imagery of Christian hymns has been largely borrowed from a drama of salvation now passing out of credence; its place will be taken by imagery drawn from nature and Life.”

In fact, our music has led the way. Our music has been the first place we have responded to the needs, to the hearts and minds of our congregations. It is the first place where we have tried out new ways of thinking.

The Universalists and the Unitarians merged into one denomination in 1961, although there had been talk of a merger for 100 years or more.

But guess where the first “merger” occurred?

You guessed it, in a hymn book.

(Pull out my copy of Hymns of the Spirit)

This book came out in 1937. Compiled by giants of both denominations it contains Hymns and Services for use in “the churches of the free spirit”

Let me read to you from the introduction:
“All the services are intended to encourage a larger participation by the people than is sometimes to be found in what is called congregational worship.”

In other words people, pay attention to how well you sing!

Amen. Ase. And blessed be.

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