Monthly Archives: January 2016

J. M. Barnes on singing and unity

Justus McDuffie Barnes (1836–1913)

Justus McDuffie Barnes (1836–1913)

In July 1896, J. M. Barnes embarked on a month-long preaching tour through the State of Texas, documenting his travels in a series of articles in the Firm Foundation. Barnes was, without question, the leading conservative in Alabama during the years between the close of the Civil War and his own death in the spring of 1913. But he also travelled extensively, and was a regular writer for, among others, the Gospel Advocate and Benjamin Franklin’s American Christian Review.

This is an illuminating series for, among other things, its insights into congregational life in the 1890s. Beginning on the first Sunday in August, Barnes recounts that he preached a ten-days’ meeting at the Pearl and Bryan Streets church in Dallas, “in some respects the most remarkable body in my whole knowledge.”

Barnes is blunt over the course of several articles as he describes the state of Pearl and Bryan’s eldership. These men, he says, are elders, but not bishops in the New Testament sense of the word—and he goes on to say why. Then he comes to the singing. Here is what he says:

After the first discourse I asked, as a special favor, to allow me to lead the singing during my stay. This was granted. I insisted that no people should offer to God a sorry thing. God had shown that he was choice in His sacrifices by refusing to accept of those with blemishes or those deficient in any way. Man had to take trouble in the days of the Aaronic priesthood to find an offering to please God; so they do now. He requires the fruits of our lips. Heb. 13:15. He demands singing, or what is the same, commands it. 1 Cor. 14:26, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16. He wants the very best you can give. I told the brethren at Dallas I would not have their singing, and I was satisfied God would not. I am satisfied that the devil laughs heartily at most of the singing offered to the Lord. God is not going to take your old singing unless it is the best that you can give and the best that you can prepare to give. Theatre people may sing to the devil, but they do it so as to like it themselves and make others do so, too. Not many churches sing, so they like it themselves. It is upon a failure here that organ lovers find their first excuse for the instrument. Dallas had a woman leader. This is common. Why? Because the men are too lazy or too indifferent to study music and learn to lead. This is not always the reason. Sometimes the women just will lead. God has distributed singing talent nearly as promiscuously among the human family as He has the eating talent.

(Excerpted from “In Texas,” Firm Foundation 12.44 [November 3, 1896]: 1.)

Barnes continues in the following week’s issue:

The essentials to good singing in God’s ekklesia are, first, all sing; second, all sit or stand as closely together as possible; third, that there be not the least contrariness among any of the members; fourth, a leader whom all can hear; fifth, a leader who will keep first rate tune; sixth, a leader who will stand where all can see him and the movements of his time hand; seventh, distinct articulation of every word, so they can heard as if read, and well understood … I wish every one could understand that contrariness comes from the devil, and that this old fellow has about as much influence among so-called members of the church as Jesus Christ has. “I can sing here as well as anywhere else.” I have heard this from the “saints” in all times and metres. The user of this expression thinks it original, but he is quoting from many, many forerunners in contrariness and stubbornness. “I can sing here as well as anywhere else,” and he or she fastens self to the back seat in the house. Such a one would rebel against a choir and justly do it, but choirs, like organs, are the fungus growth that springs luxuriantly from sorry congregational singing … Why do the members of a choir sit or stand closely together? Why do concert, theatre, or minstrel singers sit and stand closely together? In order to have good music. Why do members of the church sit or stand as far apart as each can get from the other? In order to show that each individual is an integral whole entirely independent of every other whole, and dependent upon nothing upon the face of the green earth except on ungodly contrariness that is generated in the bad place.

(Excerpted from “In Texas,” Firm Foundation 12.45 [November 10, 1896]: 1.)

We might smile at some of this; Barnes was nothing if not colorful in his writing and speaking. But in his sarcasm in that final line, Barnes makes a very serious point, one that anticipates the insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio and hearkens back over fifteen centuries to similar ideas found in the writings of the Fathers. Calvin Stapert, in A New Song for an Old World, argues that we can see this point as far back as Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Toward the end of his letter, the apostle pronounces this blessing upon the Christians in the imperial capital:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another in accord with Jesus Christ, that together with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 15:5-6)

It is impossible to say whether we have a direct reference to singing in this text. Nevertheless, Stapert observes, “no one can doubt that [Paul’s statement] articulates a principle that the church took very seriously for her singing. The importance of singing ‘with one voice’ was a constant refrain among the early Christian writers” (pg. 25). Here’s St Ambrose, fourth-century bishop of Milan, from his Commentary on Psalm 1:

[A psalm is] a pledge of peace and harmony, which

St Ambrose (ca. 337–397)

St Ambrose (ca. 337–397)

produces one song from various and sundry voices in the manner of a cithara….

A psalm joins those with differences, unites those at odds and reconciles those who have been offended, for who will not concede to him with whom one sings to God in one voice? It is after all a great bond of unity for the full number of people to join in one chorus. The strings of the cithara differ, but create one harmony.

There is nothing in our worship assemblies, apart from the Lord’s Supper, that so effectively demonstrates our unity one with another as the act of singing. Already, though, in the late nineteenth century, the tendency to individualism showed itself in congregational life, as indicated by Barnes’ words.

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“Money given to build houses is not given to the Lord”

In the summer of 1891, a plea for help appeared in one of the papers. Bearing the heading “Left to Die,” the letter writer stated that the cause would die in a particular location if the brethren there did not receive sufficient contributions for a new church building. Reflecting on this assertion, David Lipscomb demurs:

There is not an intimation in the New Testament that the success of the word of God anywhere depended upon a house of worship. A house of worship is not mentioned as being needful or even helpful to the establishment or upbuilding of churches of God. This would seem strange seeing they were entirely without houses and not many great or rich or noble came into the church, but the humble and poor. Yet it seems never to have occurred to them that a house of worship was needful. Now the general plea is that without a comfortable house of worship in a place even before there are members to worship, men can not be made Christians.

I am constrained to believe there is more sinful waste in the building and use of houses in which to worship than in any other thing connected with religion. There are in Nashville one million of dollars invested in meeting houses that stand locked up six days out of seven, 144 hours out of 168. Where is capital invested to lay inactive like this save in religion? And what is true of Nashville is true of all the cities in the land. In the country it is even worse. In the country immense sums of money are put in meeting-houses that are opened one hour per week sometimes one hour in a month. Where save in religion, is there such a piling up of dead capital? What would be said of people that would put money into buildings to so lay idle in any other field than that of religion? There is a superstitious idea that these houses are God’s houses, are sacred, and the superstition is so gross that it would actually exclude God himself from the house save on the set occasions. Were you to ask the owners and guardians of one of these houses the privilege of teaching the Bible in it, in the sensible heaven-approved way in which other things are taught, they would refuse it.

I am not opposing these houses, but the superstitious use or rather disuse of them, and the making the success of the cause of God depend upon having a meeting-house. They are not God’s houses. They are built for the comfort, and to gratify the pride of men and women. And any use of them for teaching the word of God that interferes with the gratification of that pride is refused. God is locked out of them except about three hours a week. Now the point I wish to make, is, why were houses of worship as a factor in the building up the church, wholly ignored in the primitive churches, yet regarded as so necessary now? How would a heading from Paul, “Left to Die” —sound, making the existence and success of the cause of God depend upon raising money to build a meeting-house, to be opened three hours in a week, kept locked against all admission, against God and others at all other time? It would be a discordant note in his writings.

But says one, “It is impossible to build up the church of God without a house in this age and country. Experience shows it.” Why is this? We think there can be but one reason given. The article of religion we are trying to spread at this time is a very inferior one. In the days of the apostles it was of a character that it was spread not only without houses of worship, but frequently the preacher preached from behind prison bars and wearing a chain. They worshiped in upper rooms, in caves of the earth, and at times in the catacombs of the dead. The religion of Christ, as he gave it, could overcome and survive all these difficulties, and run and prosper in spite of them. It must be a degenerate specimen of his religion that dies for the lack of a meeting-house kept locked up seven hours out of eight. And it seems to me a sinful waste of means, when whole states and territories are without the preached gospel, to bury three or four thousand dollars in one house, to be opened three hours in a week. The religion that requires that to keep it alive, is not worth keeping alive. As a comfort to the people needing the house, unable to build it, I have encouraged and helped, usually in building houses. Have spent money against the protest of my conscience, feeling that it had better be spent in preaching, but when it is presented that the cause will die without the house, I feel like saying, let it die, it is not worth preserving.

Money given to build houses is not given to the Lord. He has not asked money for such purposes. He may give us credit for what we thus do as kindness to our brethren.

Excerpted from “What Is Needed to Keep Alive and Spread the Church of God” (Gospel Advocate 33.26 [July 1, 1891]: 404–405).