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
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.