George Ella on Doctrinal Matters

The History Of Singing Hymns

John Gill And The Cause Of God And Truth, George Ella, Go Publications 1995, Pages 84-90:

Article Xll must come as a major surprise to anyone familiar with the older Baptist creeds, or the creeds of any denominations, for that matter. The article declares: “We also believe that singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, vocally, is an ordinance of the Gospel to be performed by believers; but that as to time, place, and manner, every one ought to be left to their liberty in using it.”

One cannot imagine a modern church meeting deciding to put such a statement into their creed and this entry would appear to tone down the high quality of the declaration, ending it with a remark that is almost amusing in its bathos. The reasons for this statement will become clear when one considers the historical circumstances in church life at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries.[1]

Hymn singing was almost unknown in Baptist church services up to the end of the seventeenth century. The psalms were sung in metrical versions in the Anglican Church but most Dissenting churches had given up this practice in their efforts to rid themselves of all that was attached to Anglicanism. Baptist churches who continued the Anglican practice were looked upon by other ‘purer’ churches as if they had opened the doors to the devil and all his works. Anti-singing Baptists, who were taken by surprise in a meeting where psalms were sung, would immediately put their hats on to indicate that as this was not a display of true worship,[2] they need not doff their caps.

Psalms were sung by some churches to impress the authorities that they were not far removed from the ‘established church’. This ruse sometimes took the oddest forms. During times of persecution, the Baptist preachers would preach behind a curtain, unseen by the congregation. Whenever the approach of government spies was feared, the congregation would start singing a metrical psalm and when the spies arrived they were met with nothing but a crowd of keen ‘Anglicans’ faithfully singing something out of the Prayer Book. All this tended to make singing in the Dissenting churches a mere sham or at best a thing not to be taken seriously.

One of the Baptist pioneers in the field of singing, if not the pioneer, was Benjamin Keach, the former pastor of the Goat Yard congregation. One day he startled his flock with the news that hymns or psalms were to be sung to enhance the worship at the Lord’s Supper. Next, he tried introducing singing on public thanksgiving days. This caused so much opposition that Keach held his peace and did not urge his musical opinions openly on his church, though he obviously campaigned in the background for what his opponents called ‘confused singing’, that is, a mixture of words and artificial music. In 1690, a group of members at Horselydown decided they had had enough of Keach’s ‘musical madness’ and they formed themselves behind Isaac Marlow, a craftsman member of the church, and looked to him to rid their church of their pastor’s new-fangled idea. Marlow rose to the occasion and published a book which he called Discourse Concerning Singing, which was a discourse against singing. Not to be outdone, Keach retaliated with a book entitled Breach Repaired in God’s Worship; or Singing Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, proved to be a holy ordinance of Jesus Christ. Much of his argument would appear rather a weak defence of singing today, as it no doubt did to his church members, some of whom reacted violently against the publication. Keach started by arguing that the angels sung at creation and that the devil hates singing, and developed his argument by declaring that as God has given us a voice to sing it must be our unbounded duty to use that voice in singing his praises in collective worship. He capped his logic by saying that as singing was part of natural religion, it ought to be part of Christian religion too. Soon Keach’s followers were even arguing that it was a ‘public duty’ to sing and if this public duty were not performed in church, there was something wrong with the one who thought he was practising ‘sanctified silence’.

The Goat Yard church now entered a period of strife which was to last well over a decade in which Keach argued that ‘singing in rhyme’ was the ‘public duty’ of all Christians and Marlow argued just as energetically that the New Testament recognized no such duty. Marlow maintained in a work entitled The Truth Soberly Defended that singing was false worship and dangerous to the spiritual well-being of the church. He also argued that it was wrong for a mixed assembly of believers and unbelievers to sing of a salvation which they did not share. Marlow could not understand Keach, who had complained of Anglican ‘vain repetitions’ in worship, introducing such vanities into Baptist services, and moreover, to the tunes of worldly music. Liturgical prayers were bad enough but liturgical prayers set to music beat the band! The strife was so ferocious and widespread that several Particular Baptist pastors, long retired from scenes of controversy, joined in. Ninety-two-year-old Hansard Knollys (1599-1691) used his pen and voice to assist Keach in his praise of musical words and Marlow was duly dubbed by the songsters ‘a person not fit to meddle in divine things, an “ignoramous” in the things of the Lord’. Marlow, however, received the backing of none other than William Kiffin (1616-1701), rightly called the Father of the Particular Baptists, who entered into the fray both orally and in writing to combat what he felt was a false form of worship. The General Baptists sounded the alarm against singing and Dr William Russell, famous for his part in the 1698-99 Portsmouth Debate, entered the contest by saying of Keach’s attempt to make singing in rhyme a duty: ‘This way of singing has a tendency to your ruin, having begun already to diminish your numbers, and for two congregations to unite into one, to keep up their reputation and supply that deficiency which singing in rhyme has made in their numbers. Nay, further, a great part of your members that remain are so dissatisfied, that, as soon as you begin to tune your pipes, they immediately depart like men affrighted.’ Thomas Armitage, who records this quote, adds, ‘Possibly with good reason, too.’[3]

The General Baptists, on the whole, kept aloof from the Particular Baptist novelty well into the next century. They saw what was clearly going on in the churches of their Particular brethren. Numbers were diminishing so singing was introduced to liven up the worship and attract a different spiritual clientele, These came in numbers, mostly from other churches, but when they arrived, they frightened off many of the more ‘concervative’ members in their new congregation. Here a lesson could be learnt by modern churches who are going through the same process. The trouble Keach was having with his old and new members did not, however, cause him to reconsider his views on singing.

On the contrary, to prove his point concerning the utter necessity of singing, Keach introduced what he called ‘the ordinance’ every Sunday as the result of a quickly called church meeting at a time when most of the non-singers had gone home after the service and the singers were left alone to round off the meeting in song. Another similarly called church meeting decided that the members should not read Marlow’s books. Armitage’s judgement was that Keach ‘resolved to introduce singing into his Church, cost what it might’. General Baptist ‘rebels’ now made overtures to Keach and it looked as though the church unity that Keach sought with the Arminians was to be found in a common interest in song. Keach now began to emphasize that singing in church services was not only a Christian duty but a sure mark of true spiritual faith.

Marlow was shocked and baffled at Keach’s naive argument that singing must be allowed dominance in the church as a Christian duty as it is natural to man. ‘Why not laughter, dancing, whistling, shouting and other “natural” human peculiarities, too?’ he asked. The Keach party, however, began to go to extremes — if they had not done so already — and argued that rhyming verse in hymns ought to be used in worship as the Hebrew psalms were also in rhyme. Marlow, who had a better understand- ing of verse-forms than Keach, explained that Hebrew verse was such because of its parallelisms, an observation confirmed by the local Jews.

Marlow found sympathy in the Particular Baptists General Assembly. This was too much for Keach’s followers who adopted the same tactic as they had done in their church meeting. They waited until the last day of the General Assembly when most ‘messengers’ had gone home and pressed for a vote in favour of singing. This time the ruse did not work. The remaining brethren felt they could not take the revolutionary step of ruling that all the Particular Baptist churches should take up singing. Now the assembly began to look down their noses at Keach who, nevertheless, remained pastor of Goat Yard and refused to give up musical worship.

The Keach faction now approached the Jews whom Marlow had consulted and asked them to explain how Hebrew verse was really constructed. The outcome of this discussion was that either the Jews decided to do the singing-party a favour and give them the interpretation they wanted, or the wrong questions were asked them, or Keach and company fully misunderstood their answers. The result was that immediately after consulting the Jews it was announced by the songsters that Hebrew poetry was indeed written in rhyme and thus it must be a Christian’s duty to sing God’s praises in rhyme in public worship.

Of course Hebrew poetry does seem to rhyme on odd occasions but this appears to be purely accidental and due to similar grammatical inflections. It was certainly never aimed at by biblical writers as an essential feature of their poetry.” By no stretch of the imagination can it be claimed that Hebrew poetry has the same numbers, feet, metre and verse-forms as in the poetry of, say, Greek and Latin which has influenced English poetry so much. It would be a brave — or very foolish — Hebraist who even dared to say that he knew how the original line endings of the Davidic Psalms were pronounced, let alone prove that they rhymed![4]

Nevertheless, when Keach broadcast that the Jews were on his side, he was pleased to see support for him grow and Marlow was charged with making false claims. Gradually Marlow saw that he was losing the fight. His last word on the subject was that singing would be the downfall of the church and become the be-all and end-all of its existence. One day, he proclaimed, the true churches would see the folly of their ways and repent. Nowadays when singing and music are the main ingredients in many so-called church services, and Bible schools make musicality a sign of a candidate’s calling to the ministry, perhaps Christians are prepared to re- consider whether Marlow may have been talking sense.

After a decade of banging his head against a brick wall, Marlow decided to leave the church, which he thought had become a mere place for public singing, and founded a church at Maze Pond.[5] Though the General Baptists still banned singing from their churches, Marlow did not ally with them but kept to his doctrines of free grace and the perseverance of the saints.[6]

The church at Maze Pond existed without ‘confused singing’ for another thirty-five years or so but their third pastor, Abraham West, went the way of all flesh, in the opinion of a number of the members, and introduced singing, so causing further disruptions in the church and new reasons for splitting up. On looking back at this sorry state of affairs it must be a sobering thought indeed to find that singing in the Baptist churches was finally introduced through ignorance of Hebrew poetry and a conviction that Jews knew best in determining how Christians should worship.

Keach was not quite satisfied with his victory. In order to impress on his church the great importance of singing, he defined it as ‘a holy ordinance of Jesus Christ’ and as such added it to the church’s declaration of faith along with his somewhat ritualistic views of baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the laying on of hands. Perhaps the coining of the phrase ‘a holy ordinance of Jesus Christ’ is the reason why the Goat Yard church was perpetually debating the difference between ‘ordinances of Christ’ and ‘church ordinances’. To the Goat Yard church, for instance, baptism was an ‘ordinance of Christ’ but it was not an ‘ordinance of the church’.

When Gill took over the Goat Yard church fifty years after the singing controversy had started, he found that the subject was still a matter of debate. Although most, but certainly not all, of the non-singers had gone, those who remained were of highly different opinions concerning what should be sung and when singing should take place. Gill thus had to tread cautiously so as not to upset any of the parties. A number of writers believe that Gill walked fully in Keach’s footsteps. Seymour, for instance, says ‘Gill heartily approved’[7] of singing both Psalms and hymns. Such a statement needs to be qualified strongly. Gill’s position seemed to be that a little singing could be of spiritual help but that this soon could develop into too much singing which could do no one any good. The result was Article XII in his declaration of faith showing that he did not consider singing of acute importance to faith and practice but left the matter open to the whims of the congregation which he knew changed considerably from time to time. The subsequent history of the church reflected these changing whims. The minute book records how church meetings were called on several occasions concerning what should be sung during church services. Some were for singing hymns, others for merely singing the Psalms of David to well-established tunes. Sometimes the psalm faction won, sometimes the hymn singers. The words ‘as to time place and manner, every one ought to be left to their liberty in using it’ were added to the declaration in 1768 showing that the controversy raged all through Gill’s period of ministry.

The following story is typical of the delicate position Gill was in as the pastor of a church which could never make up its mind on the singing topic. One elderly lady visited Gill to complain of the precentor’s weaknesses in leading the singing and protested at a few new tunes that were being used. The church was probably going through a hymn-singing period at this time rather than singing psalms. Gill asked the lady if she knew much about singing to which she replied that she neither understood singing nor could she sing. She gave proof of her statement by saying that she had tried to learn the Old Hundred all her life but had never managed it. Now Gill had to tread carefully so as not to upset the sister who had confessed absolute ignorance on the subject, though she was keen to give advice on how to improve the singing. ‘What kind of tunes would you like us to sing?’ Gill asked. ‘Why, sir, I should very much like David’s tunes,’ said the old lady.

‘Well, if you will get David’s tunes for us, we will try to sing them,’ said Gill. Perhaps there were many in the church of the same opinion as the old lady and this caused the church meeting to revert back to psalm singing rather than hymn singing. Gill always advised prudence in musical matters and never came down firmly on either side.

Modern Baptist writers often presume that the pro-singing faction represented ‘evangelical Calvinists’ and that ‘the warm personal element in Christian experience was kept alive in eighteenth-century dissent by hymns’.[8] On the other hand, Hyper-Calvinists or High-Calvinists, amongst whom Gill is invariably placed, are shown as being against spreading the gospel in song. Raymond Brown states, for instance, that when revival songs were sung in Baptist churches ‘the influence of high Calvinist theology was certain to decline’. Gill, in fact, was instrumental in bringing out a seventh edition of Richard Davis’ hymn-book in 1748 and as early as 1733 he had published a work on singing the Psalms which had caused a Mr Solomon Lowe to prepare a large piece of it for his intended Supplement to Chamber’s Cyclopaidia. Concerning Gill’s endorsement of psalm singing under the right conditions, Mr Lowe says, ‘I find there is no dealing with you, as with the generality of writers. The afore-mentioned piece is all quintessence; so that instead of extracting, I have been obliged to copy the greatest part of it, to do justice to the article of Psalmody, and know not where to find any hints for the improvement of it.’[9]

Gill was known to use hymns in his private devotion and even quoted a verse from Watts, whom he usually thought highly liberal in his theology, on his deathbed. If allowing singing in church services was a sign of ‘evangelical Calvinists’ and not ‘High-Calvinists’ then both Hart’s and Gadsby’s hymns should be looked on as perfectly evangelical (as, of course, they are) though these men, in conjunction with Gill, are also put into the High-Calvinist camp. The fact that Gill allowed hymn singing in his church services, however, only proves how far he went to accommodate himself to the wishes of his brethren in Christ as, left to himself, he would certainly not have used hymns in the worship of the gathered church. Speaking to his young people about singing hymns as opposed to psalms, Gill said: ‘I must confess, that I cannot but judge them, in a good measure, unnecessary, since we are so well provided with a book of psalms and scriptural songs, indited by the Spirit of God, and suitable on all occasions.’[10]

[1] See Louis Benson’s The English Hymn and J. J. Goodbye’s Bye-paths of Baptist History for a full discussion on this topic.
[2] They argued that singing was neither a gospel, nor a church ordinance.
[3] A History of the Baptists, vol. ii, pp. 548-550.
[4] Early adherents of Source Criticism demonstrated their lack of serious scholarship by declaring that the original text of several psalms had been mutilated as it no longer rhymed. They even suggested rhyming endings in order to ‘restore’ the original text. This unscholarly practice was used in leading European universities until way into the 1970s! It was an Evangelical of the Church of England, Bishop Lowth, who first described the Hebrew synonymous, antithetic and synthetic forms of parallelism. See his De sacra poesie Hebrceorum, 1753, or Lectures on The Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (translated by G. Gregory), 1839. It is interesting to note that 1753 was also the year that Jean Astruc published his notorious Conjectures which ushered in destructive biblical criticism and unfounded speculations on the Hebrew O.T. text.
[5] See Lectures on Hebrew Poetry, p. 393 ff. for a refutation of the ‘similarity of terminations’ theory.
[6] Michale Watts in his Dissenters, p. 310, says that the anti-singing faction was excommunicated by Keach, but no sources are given for this information. According to Brown, p. 48, Marlow left London for Leominster.
[7] Many church historians follow Ivimey ( vol. 2, pp. 431-432) in claiming that Maze Pond were guilty of ‘disusing’ singing in their services. This is quite false. They did not ‘disuse’ singing but refused to jump on the new bandwagon and start singing.
[8] John Gilt: Baptist Theologian, p. 266.
[9] The English Baptists ofthe 18th Century, Raymond Brown, Gen. Ed. B. R. White, Tyndale Press, pp. 92-93.
[10] See Rippon, pp. 38-39.

George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.

George Ella on Doctrinal Matters
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