The Origins of the Church Choir


The Origins of the Church Choir
in Colonial New England

By Bob Lathrop

During the time of the Reformation (1517-1563) Martin Luther and John Calvin held very different views on the role of music in worship. Martin Luther was a lover of all kinds of music. Though his theological ideas were contrary to those of the Catholic Church, he admitted an admiration for Catholic Church music. After his split with the Catholic Church, Luther tried to preserve much of its musical tradition in his new denomination. To this day, Lutheran churches enjoy the rich heritage handed down to them.

John Calvin (1509-1564) has been labeled the anti-music reformer for his unorthodox ideas about the role of music in the service of worship. Some of the critique is grounded in fact, but the idea that Calvin hated music altogether is exaggeration. His ideas germinated in Geneva, Switzerland but made a considerable impact on Protestant churches all over the world. My interest in Calvin’s opinions stem from their connection with the New England Puritans who in many ways founded this region’s religious musical taste on his teachings.

Calvin’s Doctrine

In 1536, John Calvin was asked by a leader in Geneva, Switzerland to assist him in reforming the city. Geneva had made the decision the previous year “to live according to the Gospel and the Word of God.” In 1537, Calvin laid before the city council his Articles for the reorganization of the church in Geneva. In the Articles, Calvin argued for 1) the discipline of excommunication to be instated 2) the introduction of psalm singing into public worship 3) instructing children in evangelical doctrine in order to maintain its continuity and purity and 4) drafting marriage ordinances. Without these essentials, he believed, the new church could be neither well ordered nor regulated (Garside, 1979). The institutions, he argued, were not of his own design, but were mandated by the ancient church in the Scriptures, and Calvin fully intended to reconstruct the worship and the discipline of the ancient church in the city of Geneva. Because psalm singing was an integral part of ancient worship, it was not open for debate in Calvin’s opinion. This is the origin of his doctrine of music.

Calvin was not against music in worship. He believed music was a divine creation (see Genesis 4:21) with a duty to fulfill as a spiritual power:

“And in truth we know from experience that song has great force and vigor to arouse and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal…there is [also] scarcely anything in the world which is more capable of turning or moving this way and that the morals of men…it has a secret and almost incredible power to arouse hearts in one way or another.” (Garside, 1979)
Furthermore, he was aware of the possibility of human misuse of this power for the purpose of vanity and sensuality.

“This alone, it ought indeed to move us to moderate the use of music, to make it serve everything virtuous, and that it ought not to give occasion for our giving free rein to licentiousness, or for our making ourselves effeminate in disordered delights, and that it ought not to become an instrument of dissipation or of any obscenity.” (Garside, 1979)

From these premises, Calvin made the decision to abolish the use of polyphony (music that simultaneously combines several lines, as distinct from monophony, which consists of a single melody) and instruments in worship, making quite clear his opinion that there is one music for church and another for secular use.

“And thus there is a great difference between the music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and His angels.” (Garside, 1979)

Calvin published collections of psalm-tunes for use in his services. The greatest of these was the Genevan Psalter, completed in 1562. Because of its immediate popularity, new printings followed; within three years of its first publication some 63 editions were published and undoubtedly owned by every Calvinist family. The Genevan Psalter became the undisputed and exclusive songbook in Switzerland.

Calvinist theology swept Europe in the mid sixteenth century. Little did Calvin know that Eighty-four years after writing his Articles outlining his ideas for reform in the church in Geneva, that the pilgrims would land at Plymouth bringing with them an English version of the Psalter, compiled by Henry Ainsworth that would undoubtedly influence the development of church music in New England.

New England Psalmody

The Ainsworth Psalter was used exclusively in Plymouth until 1692, but in other parts of the colonies various sources were used. It wasn’t long before a committee of clergy was assigned to prepare a revision of the metric Psalms. In 1640 a new Psalter was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Stephen Daye called The Bay Psalm Book. It was the first book of any sort to be published in the colonies. The Bay Psalm Book enjoyed much the same popularity in New England as the Genevan Psalter found in Europe. It was edited twenty-seven times in New England before 1762, and about as many times in England during the same years. Unlike the Genevan Psalter, which expanded in terms of the number of tunes it included after each edition, no new tunes were added to The Bay Psalm Book until 1698.

The lack of new music in New England psalm books was due in large part to the pious views held by many congregations. Not only should worship music be limited to psalms, many questioned whether they should be sung to man-made tunes at all. The psalms were held in such high regard that many times practice-verses were substituted while a tune was being learned. Sometimes, the tunes themselves were regarded as Holy.

Men would put off their hats, and put on a great show of devotion and gravity, wherever psalm-tunes were
sung, though there were not one word of a psalm.” (Ellinwood, 1970)

Another factor in the stagnant state of church music was the lack of music education. Psalmody relied on the oral tradition of learning tunes by wrote. The technique employed to teach the congregation a new tune was called “lining out,” or “Deaconing.” The Deacon (or any member of the congregation who could sing on pitch) would sing each line of the psalm followed by the congregation in a call and response manner. The process would continue each week until the parishioners could sing the psalm in its entirety without assistance.

The custom of lining out the psalm probably had its roots in necessity rather than convenience. When reformers first began composing psalm-tunes they wanted them used in subsequent services. Having no time for printing, the only way to teach the congregation the tune was by wrote. After printed manuscripts were made plenty enough for everyone, this technique was abandoned. When the Puritans arrived in Plymouth, it was customary to sing by note (looking at the printed music); but when the Bay Psalm Book was first introduced, a few congregations revived the method of singing line by line in honor of their English brethren. Over the course of thirty or forty years, this custom, originally a means to help those who could not afford printed music, became the accepted norm.

Musical Decline

Because the process of learning by rote was undoubtedly a lengthy one, many congregations found it an unnecessary bother to learn new tunes when the ones they knew served the immediate purpose. Eventually there was no desire or ability to keep up with current musical innovations. The cultivation of new music was neglected to a point that most congregations could rarely sing more than three or four tunes. Because of the convenience of lining out, the ability to read notes was all but forgotten. The few melodies that were sung became so individualized that no two members of a congregation sang them alike.

“Every melody was tortured and twisted as every unskillful throat saw fit, until their psalms were uttered in a medley of confused and disorderly noises…it sounded like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time; and so little attention was paid to time, that they were often one or two words apart, producing noises so hideous and disorderly, as is bad beyond expression.”
(Hood, 1846)

The decline had been so gradual that the discord was not bothersome to most. For some, the sound emanating from a tune sung correctly was more abrasive. It was then that some of the preachers, among them Cotton Mathers, Thomas Symmes, Edward, Dwight, and Thacher realized the need for reform. In 1720, a few preachers published “talks” on the subject. They also used their pulpits as platforms and preached the gospel of change.

The change they sought was the reintroduction of “regular singing” (singing by note) into the worship service.

“There are many persons of credit now living, children and grand-children of the first settlers of New England, who can very well remember that their ancestors sung by note, and they learned to sing of them, and they have more than their bare words to prove that they speak the truth; for many of them can sing tunes exactly by note which they learnt of their fathers…” (Symmes, 1720)

They proposed hiring a singing master who would give instruction in music notation as well as in note singing. Their efforts were not without conscientious objections. Some of the specific objections were 1) that it was not so melodious as the usual way, 2) that there were so many tunes, one could never learn them, 3) that it was pope-ish, 4) that it would pave the way for including instruments in worship, 5) that the names of the notes were bawdy, yea blasphemous, 6) that it is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it, 7) that it is a contrivance to get money, 8) that people spend too much time learning it, they tarry out nights disorderly. Each point was addressed in an essay by the Reverend Thomas Symmes of Bradford, Massachusetts entitled The Reasonableness of Regular Singing: or Singing by Note (1720).

It is uncertain exactly how long the excitement lasted:

“In the year 1720, [the debate] was raging like a fire on the dry prairie; but by whom, or where it was kindled, is not known. It spread, in the fury of its power, over all the New England Colonies, and burnt for at least ten years, but to purify and brighten the churches. In some it was the glorious harbinger of a great and powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” (Hood, 1846)

[It is interesting to note the close proximity in time of the “musical awakening” in New England (1720s) to that of the historical spiritual awakening that swept the colonies approximately 10 years later.]

Singing Schools

Singing societies were social gatherings made up of those interested in experimenting with and discussing regular singing (singing by note). At the meetings, many essays on the topic of music and worship were first introduced. From these societies singing schools developed.

Singing schools were usually organized from within a particular congregation. When the singing became insufferable, the minister, or those interested members, would form a committee to secure funds needed to underwrite the school. Once funds were collected, they proceeded to hire a teacher and determine a meeting place, usually the village tavern. Each student was expected to bring his own candle and a board to support the music book. After a few vocalization exercises, the group would undertake the learning of new tunes. The meetings were held once a week and continued as long as there was monetary support from the rest of the congregation.

The musical text for the meetings could very well have been Reverend John Tufts’ A Very Plain and Easy Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes. Tufts, from Newbury, Massachusetts, published a manual containing twelve pages with twenty-eight tunes in 1721. It was meant as an introduction to regular singing and was commonly found bound with copies of The Bay Psalm Book. The tunes it contained were harmonized in three parts, using letters rather than notes, on a staff with rhythm indicated by dots. Tufts manual was the first book on music instruction published in the colonies.

The First Church Choirs

The origin of church choirs in New England is related directly to the formation of singing schools. Those who had worked together during the week on new tunes gathered again on the Sabbath and either joined the singers who had previously “graduated” from the school, or they formed the nucleus of a new choir where one didn’t exist.

The idea of a choir having assigned seats in the meetinghouse was not a common occurrence until about 1776. There are a few examples, in larger towns and churches, of choirs having assigned seating in the gallery. Where that gallery was specifically is unclear.

“American colonial churches were sometimes built with narrow balconies across the back and extending part-way up either side. Choir
members stood on these balconies when they sang. Rather than a group massed tightly together, an eighteenth-century colonial choir
was more apt to be a line of singers arranged around a rather large, open space. The singers were disadvantaged because they had more
difficulty hearing each other and were surely less precise than if they had drawn more closely together.” (Crawford and McKay, 1973)

1762…”The parish voted, that those who had learned the art of singing may have liberty to sit in the front gallery. They did not take the
liberty…but within five years after this, they had an efficient choir, sitting in the front gallery, the place assigned.” (Hood, 1846)

1773…”The seats for the choir were designated by the First Parish in Ipswich, being two back on each side of the front alley.” (Hood, 1846)

“…Voted, that the singers sit in the front seats in the front gallery, and that those gentlemen who have hitherto, sat in the front seats in
said gallery, have a right to sit in the front, and second seat below, and that said singers have said seats appropriated to said use.
Voted, that said singers be requested to take said seats and carry on the singing in public worship.” (Hood, 1846)

It is possible that choirs first used the front gallery in order that they might be in a position to be models of regular singing for the congregation. It is also likely that the leader of the choir assumed the dual role of leading the congregation in lining out the psalms. After organs were installed in New England churches, sometime around 1745, the rear gallery could have served the dual purpose of housing the console and rack, as well as the choir. This would have been a reasonable placement as the choir could then get its first pitch from the instrument.

Before instruments were allowed in the church, pitches were given to the singers via a pitch-pipe. The 1794 edition of Federal Harmony (a tune book) gives specific directions for the giving of pitches. It indicates that they were given to each part separately and that each singer sang the phrase “Praise ye the Lord” as he took his pitch. The person responsible for giving the pitch was considered the choir’s lead singer. The lead singer was usually chosen on the basis of his strong voice and his ability to sing loud enough so as to evoke an emotional response from the rest of the singers, as well as the congregation. Whereas modern choir directors stand with their backs to the congregation and use their arms to lead, the lead singer in a colonial choir participated as a singer in the ensemble.

Instruments in worship

The early eighteenth century witnessed an increased interest in instrumental music in the colonies. It had no immediate effect on the church, but the continued use of pitch-pipe and bass viol in the singing schools to give pitch and accompany the voices, gradually led to their acceptance in the church. It was a very slow process and, like the practice of regular singing, met with opposition at first. Meetinghouses which used viols to assist the choir, were known as “catgut churches.” Eventually, viols became known as “the Lord’s fiddles” in an effort to distinguish them from the dancing-master’s violins known as “the devil’s fiddles.”

A step back here would help clarify the origin of the Puritans’ disregard for instruments in the church. Because they were Calvinistic in their theology, the Puritans followed Calvin’s lead on this subject as well.

Calvin was fully aware of the use of instruments in the ancient church but dismissed their use as an elementary aid to an immature people

“In the fourth verse, he [the Psalmist] more immediately addresses the Levites, who were appointed to the office of singers, and calls upon them to employ their instruments of music—not as if this were in itself necessary—rather it was useful as an elementary aid to the people of God in these ancient times…now that Christ has appeared, and the Church has reached full age, it [would] only bury the light of the Gospel, should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation…From this, it appears that the Papists, in employing instrument al music, cannot be said so much to imitate the practice of God’s ancient people, as to ape it in a senseless and absurd manner, exhibiting a silly delight in that worship of the Old Testament which was figurative, and terminated with the Gospel.” (Stevenson, 1953)

After banishing instrumental music from worship in his church, Calvin justified himself with Scripture:

“Musical instruments…are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:3, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God and pray to Him only in a known tongue.” (Stevenson, 1953)

Calvin’s interpretation of the scripture implied that because instrumental music makes no use of words, it is not understood by the general congregation, and therefore has no place in worship.

It has been suggested that church choirs in colonial New England were responsible for the gradual acceptance of instrumental music in the church. These same choirs played an important role in the eventual decline in the use of lining out as the primary means of teaching new psalm tunes.

“In their zeal for performing that part of the public service, which they had either voluntarily, or by request taken upon themselves; and perhaps being, as choirs are too apt to be, of a restive disposition, they would either forget, or purposely sing on, without waiting for the deacon to read the line. This would bring down a tempest of indignation expressed, upon the choir, from the clerk and his friends, whose duty had been thus ruthlessly torn from him.

The choir, of course, would be quite as promptly in their seats, and when singing, quite as prompt to “their time,” as though the people had been silent during the week. It would matter but little if the clerk should get the better of the choir, as they sometimes did, and set the tune; the choir could either set another, and in the fury of their strength, lead off in a march so restless, that all, willing or not, would be obliged to follow, or sit silent; or deeming it best to humor the matter, join the clerk, and taking him and his tune on their impetuous current, bear them gallantly on in their own time and manner. An attempt to stop them to read the line, when they had fully determined to go, would be an attempt to stop the whirlwind in its course. Hence a few efforts, and the clerk sat in hopeless despair at their rashnessand impiety.” (Hood, 1846)

Although the practice of regular singing was far from being accepted by every congregation in every town in New England, the idea was accelerated by the zeal of many church choirs [lining out the psalms continued in many places into the nineteenth century ].

Church choirs in colonial New England developed because congregations took on the responsibility of educating and training their members in order to meet a specific need. Later, those choirs became musical models as well as political forces within the body of the church. Despite the innovation that took place through the eighteenth century, church music in New England lagged far behind that of European churches which fostered the talents of composers such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven at roughly the same time. Even more, it lagged behind the other English colonies. John Calvin’s teachings in the middle sixteenth century did a great deal to shape not only the theology supported by Puritan churches, but also contributed by way of its staunch beliefs to the relatively slow maturation of New England church music.

Selected Bibliography

Blume, Friedrich. Protestant Church Music, a History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974.

Crawford, Richard and McKay,
David. The Performance of William Billings’ Music.
The Journal of Research in Music. Vol. 21. 1973.

Ellinwood, Leonard. The History of American Church Music. New York:

Da Capo Press. 1970.

Garside, Charles Jr. The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536-1543. Philadelphia,

Pennsylvania: The American Philosophical Society. 1979.

Hood, G. A History of Music in New England. Boston. 1846.

Lambert, Barbara, ed. Music in Colonial America. Publications of the Colonial Society of

Massachusetts. Vol. 54. 1985.

Routley, Erik. The Church and Music-an inquiry into the history, the nature, and the scope of Christian judgment on music. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. 1950.

Stevenson, Robert. Patterns of Protestant Church Music. England: Cambridge University

Press. 1953.

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