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Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture (Public Express Religion America)
Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture (Public Express Religion America)
Stephen A. Marini
University of Illinois Press, 2003
416 pp., $37.00

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by Mark Noll


Singing the Lord's Song

Travels in sacred music, from Eureka Springs to Salt Lake City.

One of the most notable, but least studied, aspects of the 18th-century revivals that led to the rise of modern evangelicalism was the disputed place of hymn-singing. In his very first report on the unusual religious stirrings in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1736, Jonathan Edwards noted that although his congregation had already learned the era's new style of singing—"three parts of music, and the women a part by themselves"—the revival had worked an extraordinary musical effect: "Our public praises were greatly enlivened, and God was served in our psalmody as in the beauties of holiness. There was scarce any part of divine worship wherein God's saints among us had grace so drawn forth and their hearts lifted up, as in singing the praises of God."

Yet soon the fervor of hymn-singing, as well as what the newly revived were singing, came under fire. Not only were critics upset with what Edwards (in a later work defending the revivals) described as "abounding in much singing in religious meetings." Critics were also complaining that the revived congregations were singing "hymns of human composure," that is, hymns newly written by contemporaries rather than hymns paraphrased directly from the Psalms, which was then the only kind of hymnody widely accepted in most English-speaking Protestant churches. Edwards, with many of the early leaders of the evangelical awakenings, had in fact begun to sing the hymns of his older contemporary Isaac Watts ("When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "Join All the Glorious Names of Wisdom, Love, and Power"). And not only Watts, for from the earliest days of the evangelical revival, leaders and participants were writing and singing their own hymns in both Britain, as from Charles Wesley ("Where shall my wond'ring Soul begin? … How shall I equal triumphs raise, / or sing my great Deliverer's Praise!"), and America, as from Samuel Davies ("Who is a pardoning God like Thee? / Or who has grace so rich and free?"). The result from the new intensity ...

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