Women on Fire: the “Hallelujah Lasses” of the Early Salvation Army

Some of my best men are women“, said William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army.  The Army recognised spiritual gifting and cared nothing for gender. The Booths’ own fearsomely talented and God-loving daughters led the way. William himself was known to give over the platform to his teenage daughter Kate, who could often reach people’s hearts better than he could.

Similarly, if the Army was looking to plant a new church (in their jargon, ‘start a corps’), they frequently sent in a team of young, sometimes teen-aged women. And they did the job! Here is one example among many.

The great question in most churches which are at all earnest in their work, is how to reach the masses. Sounds relevant? This isn’t some present-day church growth report; it comes from an English newspaper, the Northern Daily Express, of 4th March 1879, and concerns events in Gateshead.

The journalist comments that the section of the community that lies outside the usual compass of religious life comprised most of the audience. More unusual still, the work which experienced ministers and the ordinary agencies of churches had failed in, has been attempted by a few young women. These were the “Hallelujah Lasses”, the stormtroopers of the early Salvation Army.

Some six or eight weeks ago, about half-a-dozen young women made a raid under the banner of a Gospel mission among the lowest classes in the town, and they have succeeded in the most remarkable manner… They have got such a hold upon the masses as to tame some of the worst of the characters. A thorough transformation has been effected in the lives of some of the most thoughtless, depraved and criminal.

These women, most in their twenties, hired music-halls for their meetings. Despite the sneers from all sides, within a short time these places were filled to overflowing for three hours, and hundreds are unable to gain admission.

In China today, many evangelists are women Image: evangelismnews.net

In China today, with many pastors in prison, leading evangelists are often women Image: evangelismnews.net

What can have enabled these Salvation Army girls to achieve such breakthroughs? Much comes down to the ‘first love’ fire of a new movement in the flower of its vigour. But we must see in action here the twin elements of BLOOD and FIRE that were to become the Army’s motto. A total conviction of the power of Jesus’ redeeming blood to save even the worst, together with the freshness of the Holy Spirit’s filling (for which Salvationists spent whole nights of prayer) kept them pressing into territory where other feared to go, and expecting results.

They also used the power of personal testimony. The journalist tells of the roughest and most criminal of people glorifying God for their soul’s salvation. And the Army used the passion of youth: One youth, who is evidently not more than fourteen, is quite a phenomenon, and certainly has a marvellous utterance for one so young and inexperienced. On Saturday night, we were told, he spoke for twenty minutes, and carried the audience so fully away with him, that in the midst of his address three or four persons went up to the penitent form [benches placed at the front of the hall, where people could come and kneel, pray, repent and receive personal prayer].

A contemporary caricature

The journalist concludes, perceptively, that what is needed in the work now is consolidation – some agency to carry the converts beyond the few simple truths they have got hold of, and to give them an interest in the work when the excitement of the change and the effort has passed away.

For further information about the Hallelujah Lasses, and the example of ‘Happy Eliza’, follow this link to The Victorian Web.

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Prepare to Meet Thy Dome? Some Mediaeval Christian Attitudes to Baldness

A Greek philosopher, 4th century BC

Synesius of Cyrene (died AD 414), was a North African aristocrat and a Neo-Platonist philosopher. He married a Christian woman and embraced her faith, in time becoming bishop of Ptolemais (in modern Libya). He enjoyed debate and, it appears, humour. In the latter vein is his short essay entitled Eulogy of Baldness. Aptly, a eulogy is a speech in praise, typically of one now departed!

He bills it as a riposte to Dio Chrysostom (c. AD 40-115), a Greek orator, philosopher and historian who led a colourful life in the highest circles of Imperial Rome. He had produced an Encomium on Hair. An encomium was a celebratory speech. Here we read: After rising in the morning and praying to the gods, as is my custom, I attended to my hair. I happened to be in poor health at the time, and it had been too long neglected. Most of it had become knotted and entangled, like that which hangs about a sheep’s legs, but much coarser than this, for it is tangled with fine hairs.

What had led Dio to embrace grooming? Consideration of the importance of hair to human beauty and dignity. Homer rarely mentions anyone’s eyes (except Agamemnon’s), he reflects, while Achilles, Odysseus, Menelaus and more are specifically praised for their hair. Dio also considers those around him who love beauty and give their hair great importance, and who not merely give it serious attention but even keep a sort of reed in the hair itself, with which they comb it when they are at leisure… They think much more of keeping their hair clean than of sleeping agreeably. 

A splendidly hirsute Spartan warrior

Synesius admits the Encomium is “so brilliant a work that the bald man, in the face of its arguments, must be covered with shame.” Even so, he jumps to the defence of the follicly challenged. His Eulogy is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. Besides taking issue with Dio’s reading of Homer, Synesius makes points like these:

Wild animals are hairy; bald animals are intelligent
The most intelligent of all people, the philosophers, are all bald
A sphere is a perfect, even divine form
The glimmer of a bald head is a source of light

He includes a riotous account of a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia, where the Persians found they could seize a Greek by his long hair and beard and dispatch him with ease. Alexander was forced to retreat and set the barbers loose on his troops. Thereafter, the Persians, the campaign no longer proceeding according to their hopes, as there was no longer anything to hold on to, were condemned to struggle in armour against much superior adversaries.

A mediaeval tonsured monk

Quite where the tonsure, the shaved bald patch of monks, fitted into this scenario, I have yet to find out. ‘All things to all men’?

Fast forward to the 12th century and we find no less than Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), abbess, writer, composer, philosopher and general polymath, with things to say about baldness. In her On Natural Philosophy and Medicine she sees a link between male head hair and facial hair and male fertility – one of the first to do so. And as for male pattern baldness, she even lists a cure.

Take bear fat, a small quantity of ashes from wheat straw or from winter wheat straw, mix this together and anoint the entire head with it, especially those areas on the head where the hair is beginning to fall out. Afterwards, he should not wash this ointment off for a long while… When these ingredients are mixed as described, they will hold a person’s hair for a long time so that it does not fall out.

No doubt the sheer smell and unpleasantness would also have appealed to the contemporary love of penance and punishing the flesh?

 

From St Basil to Richard Foster: in Praise of Simplicity

 

A ‘minimalist’ living room today                                            Image: design-milk.com

Basil of Caesarea wrote his sermon To the Rich sixteen centuries ago, but the context was strikingly similar to today.  ‘Those who have recently grown rich desire more of the same,’ he writes. ‘They ought to be happy and contented, but immediately they yearn to be equal with the super-rich.’  Meanwhile, the hungry poor huddled in misery in doorways.

A time of crisis had struck in the form of a great famine. Everyone was afraid of what might come. Social structures were under threat, established patterns of life could not be trusted. Not unlike the global threat of terrorism today.

Basil used the opportunity to press for justice, mercy and equality, but above all for simplicity.

“The soul becomes like the things it gives itself to,” he writes in his Homily on Humility, “and takes the character and appearance of what it does. So let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your manner, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.”And let your speech, your singing, the way you relate to your neighbour, be in accord with humility rather than with vanity. In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excess sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing. In everything refrain from seeking to appear important.”

 

Image: latexsens.com

Image: latexsens.com

Most of all, Basil pressed for a voluntary redistribution of wealth and resources, as in the first Church at Jerusalem. As this writer sees it, Basil ‘saw it as a rule of life for all Christians. Moved by the extreme social needs of the population, and enlightened by the Scriptures, Basil insisted that the produce of the earth was intended for all. While God the Creator had indeed distributed it unevenly, he had done this with the intention that the rich should share with the poor.’

To Basil, a refusal to embrace simplicity and sustainability is a crime. “Someone who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them.” (Homily I Will Tear Down My Barns)

Image: iquim.org

Image: iquim.org

Readers today may be more familiar with Richard Foster’s seminal work, Celebration of Discipline, which first appeared in 1978. Here are a few of the practical disciplines for a simpler life that are advocated there. The echoes of Basil sixteen centuries earlier are unmistakable.

* Buy things for their usefulness rather than for status. Basil: ‘When I enter a house and see it shimmering with every kind of crass trinket, I realise that the owner may have given what was soulless a facelift, but he has an unbeautified soul‘.

* Develop a habit of giving things away. Basil attacks the ‘strange madness’ whereby, ‘when wealth overflows, it gets buried in the ground in secret places, “in case they need it one day”.’ And this, while the poor and hungry clamour at their gate.

* Reject anything that will breed oppression of others. Basil castigates the rich: ‘How many people could one of your gold-encrusted fingers release from debt? How many broken-down homes could be rebuilt? You say you are doing no-one an injustice, yet you plunder so much for yourselves!

* Learn to enjoy things without owning them. Basil: ‘The world was created for the common benefit of all. The animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth, and all living creatures permit each other to satisfy their need for food. But we hoard that which is common, and keep for ourselves what belongs to many others.’

A Man Named Christmas: Wales’ One-Eyed Preacher, Christmas Evans

 

Christmas Evans (1766-1838) is remembered in his native Wales as gospel preacher of uncommon eloquence, passion and fruitfulness. Born on 25 December, the son of a poor Cardiganshire shoemaker, he was given the name Christmas. His father died when he was only 9, which awakened him to spiritual issues. This deepened eight years later when a local chapel experienced a move of God; Evans went and found a living faith in Christ.

He taught himself to read, and in time became proficient in Hebrew and Greek, with a good knowledge of Puritan writings. But for him the Bible outranked them all: It is God’s Book that sheds the light of life everlasting on all other books.

A few years later, while working on a farm, he was attacked by a gang, as a result of which he lost an eye. It had the effect of making him more urgent to see lost souls saved and given purpose. A major breakthrough came in 1794, when large crowds had gathered for an open-air preaching. The invited speaker, however, did not show up, and no one else stepped up to the mark. Timothy Thomas, the man who baptised Christmas Evan, was urged to preach, but he too declined saying, ‘Ask that one-eyed lad from the north!’ So, ill clad and very nervous, he spoke – with remarkable effects: many were moved to tears and some cried out, ‘Gogoniant!’ (Glory!) and ‘Bendigedig!’ (Blessed!).

He became an itinerant preacher on the Llyn peninsula on North Wales, then on the island of Anglesey, and finally across Wales, including an unhappy time in Cardiff.  A large-framed man with one eye, he made an instant impression. He was also ‘ordinary’, a man born of poverty not privilege. What he lacked in education he made up by a warm heart and a generous spirit that were felt by all.  Great crowds would gather to hear his vivid, imaginative sermons. His vibrant, warm-hearted preaching (in the poetic Welsh language), allied to his unpretentious godliness, frequently overwhelmed his hearers and ushered in a time of growth in whatever church he had spoken.

A contemporary representation of Evans preaching in a chapel

It was felt by some that his sermons were heavy on imaginative illustration and allegory (he was nicknamed ‘the Bunyan of Wales’) but light on theology. It was even suggested by the foremost Welsh theologian of the day that Evans changed his doctrinal stance nine times in his life, including a time as a Sandemanian that nearly shipwrecked his faith (for more details, see here).

Evans also seems to have lacked maturity in his leadership skills. Tensions in churches arise easily, and he found it easier to leave on further travels than to help a congregation sort its differences and find its way forward.

After a long public ministry, he fell sick and died at Swansea while on a fundraising tour of Wales to pay off debts for various chapels. On his deathbed he urged friends and fellow-ministers: Preach Christ to the people, brethren. Look at me. In myself I am nothing but ruin, but in Christ I am heaven and salvation! His last words were certainly unusual: Goodbye! Drive on! We may assume that he sensed a heavenly chariot come to take him to his eternal reward.

 

‘In My Dead Moments’: George MacDonald’s Reflections on Life, Pain and God

Dead Moments

I have long valued the writings of Victorian clergyman and author George MacDonald (1824-1905). I’m not alone! C S Lewis openly acknowledged: I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. J R R Tolkien cited him as an influence. W H Auden valued him highly and wrote an Afterword to Macdonald’s fantasy novel ‘The Golden Key’.

MacDonald was friend and mentor to the young Lewis Carroll, who tried out sample chapters of Alice on MacDonald’s children. It was largely on the strength of their enthusiastic response that Carroll submitted his manuscript for publication, and the rest is history!

It is chiefly MacDonald’s fantasy novels and fairy tales that are still read today. As Lewis and Tolkien were to do after him, he found that by removing moral and spiritual truths from their usual context and relocating them in a different world altogether, they can be brought to life and shine with fresh revelation. “I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”  This essay by Robert Trexler explores further MacDonald’s use of myth. See also Catherine Barnett’s perceptive piece, ‘Tolkien, MacDonald and the Cauldron of Story’.

But it is a very different work that I want to flag up here. At an uncertain date, following the deaths of two of his adult children, MacDonald produced A Book of Strife, in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul. It is available for download here. So personal is it that he published it privately for his circle of friends, printed only on right-hand pages, so that the reader could make comments or notes on the other. It was made public only after his death.

MacDonald muses and wrestles with God in imagined conversations, set in 7-line stanzas, one for each day of the year. Stripped of easy answers by deep pain, he reflects upon God, crises of faith, the human condition, sickness, suffering and loss.  The whole collection is intensely personal and rooted in the here and now, all myth laid aside.

Can anything go wrong with me?, I ask,

And the same moment, at a sudden pain,

Stand trembling. Up from the great river’s brim

Comes a cold breath; the farther bank is dim;

The heaven is black with clouds and coming rain;

High-soaring faith is grown a heavy task,

And all is wrong with weary heart and brain.  [September 12]

This stands in the tradition of Christian mystical verse, and it is clear that MacDonald was a poet (esteemed, indeed, by Tennyson, Longfellow and Walt Whitman). The mystics sought to raise the profile of intuitionexperience and desire in the process of faith. ‘Consolations’ and ‘desertions’ were their bread and butter. For MacDonald, trust and hope are never far away, however, and end up strengthened.

When I no more can stir my soul to move,

And life is but the ashes of a fire;

When I can but remember that my heart

Once used to live and love, long and aspire;

Oh be Thou then the first, the one Thou art.

Be Thou the calling, before all answering love,

And in me wake hope, fear and boundless desire.   [January 10]

 

 

 

God’s ‘Wise Women’? The Pipe-Smoking Prophetess who Enabled a Revival

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In my reading of Church history, I regularly find colourful characters who didn’t fit the usual pattern but whom God used in surprising ways. Perhaps it was always so? As early as Genesis 20, King Abimelech of Gerar talks with God and behaves uprightly, yet the patriarch Abraham cannot see the possibility of good in anyone in Gerar.

One of these “oddballs” – outsiders who were, in God’s view, very much “in” – was an unnamed woman from Cornwall, England, in the 1850s. We meet her in William Haslam’s autobiographical From Death Into Life (download free here). Haslam was greatly used by God in a revival in Cornwall, with many conversions and amendment of life. Yet it almost never happened, because Haslam nearly died – but for the pipe-smoking prophetess. We read:

[There was] ‘a tall, gaunt, gipsy kind of woman, whom they called “the wise woman.” She had a marvellous gift of healing and other knowledge, which made people quite afraid of her. This woman took a great interest in me and my work, and often came to church and house meetings.

‘One day she visited the parsonage and said “Have you a lemon in the house?” I inquired and found that we had not. “Well then,” she said, “get one, and some honey and vinegar, and mix them all together. You will need it. Mind you do, now.” Then she put the bowl of her pipe into the kitchen fire and, having ignited the tobacco, went away smoking. The servants were much frightened by her manner.’

[Later that day, Haslam was caught in a thunderstorm and held house meetings in wet clothes all evening.]

‘At three o’clock in the morning I awoke, choking with a severe fit of bronchitis. I had to struggle for breath and life. After an hour or more of the most acute suffering, my dear wife remembered the lemon mixture, and called the servant to get up and bring it. It was just in time. I was black in the face with suffocation, but this compound relieved, and, in fact, restored me. I was greatly exhausted with the effort and struggle for life, and after two hours I fell asleep. I was able to rise in the morning, and breathe freely, though my chest was very sore.

prophecy-fire

‘After breakfast, the “wise woman” appeared outside the window of the drawing-room, where I was lying on the sofa. “Ah, my dear,” she said, “you were nearly gone at three o’clock this morning. I had a hard wrestle for you, sure enough. If you had not had that lemon, you know, you would have been a dead man by this time!”

‘That mysterious creature, what with her healing art, together with the prayer of faith and the marvellous foresight she had, was quite a terror to the people. One day she came, and bade me go to a man who was very worldly and careless, and tell him that he would die before Sunday. I said, “You go, if you have received the message.” She looked sternly at me, and said, “You go! That’s the message!” So I went. The man laughed at me, and said, “That old hag ought to be hanged.” I urged him to give his heart to God, and prayed with him, but to no effect. The following Saturday, coming home from market, he was thrown from his cart and killed.

‘She was not always a bird of evil omen, for sometimes she brought me good news as well as bad. One day she said, “There is a clergyman coming to see you, who used to be a great friend of yours, but since your conversion he has been afraid of you. He is coming; you must allow him to preach; he will be converted before long!” Sure enough, my old friend W. B. came as she predicted. He preached, and in due time was converted, and his wife also. Her sayings and doings would fill a book; but who would believe these things?

It should be pointed out that Cornwall has a long tradition of village ‘wise women’, an ancient line of pagan folk medicine and healing in the Celtic tradition. This was usually opposed and denounced as witchcraft by the Church, but it seems from the Haslam episode that some wise women were at home with Christianity – and their spirituality at times welcomed by the converted.

‘The Cry of Slaughtered Millions’: the Head-On Christianity of William and Catherine Booth

Image: inspirationalchristians.org

William Booth preaching
Image: inspirationalchristians.org

William Booth (1829-1912), Founder-General of the Salvation Army, certainly favoured the ‘in your face’ approach. With these words he began the front page article of the first issue of The War Cry, on 27 December 1879: Why a “War Cry?” Because The Salvation Army means more war!”

Today, the Army’s ‘fight’ against poverty and marginalisation takes many forms, from questions in parliament to individuals giving a few pounds to a homeless charity. But Booth’s radical eye saw deeper than mere deprivation and squalor: he saw inner lostness, people without hope because God’s love was not made real to them. Some churches tried, but in the main, Christians ‘walked by on the other side’. Not so the Salvation Army!

The cry of slaughtered millions rises up louder and louder to heaven, crying to our inmost souls, with irresistible violence, to arise and fight more furiously than ever for the salvation of our fellows from the forces of evil which are dragging them drunken, befouled, degraded, wretched down to an eternity of woe.

You can feel the passion, the indignation, Christ’s own love for the poor! Jesus our King, the dying Jesus of Calvary, still looks weeping on doomed cities and multitudes wandering without a shepherd, and begs us to lay down our lives for them as He laid down his life for us.

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If radicality has to do with roots, Booth bores into the very core of them, rebuking Christians for their lethargy, their compromise and their lack of real devotion to the cause of Jesus’ kingdom.

God will have his own people to repent and do their first works. He will have them abandon forever all friendship with the world, and all parley with evil hearts. Let all that name the name of Christ depart from iniquity. No more unbelief; no more pride; no more worldly pleasure or worldly dress or show; no more covetousness or self-seeking!

Armybarmy.com is the web page of a think tank and renewal group within today’s Salvationist ranks. Their wonderfully named Journal of Aggressive Christianity reproduced Booth’s original article as the front page of their own first issue in 1999. You can read the General’s entire broadside here. Prepare to be stirred!

Catherine-B-quote

William’s wife, Catherine (1829-1890), is held by many to have been the ‘power behind the throne’ in the Salvation Army. Her faith was unswerving and she saw the need for Christians – with God’s help – to awaken lost souls from their sleep, by whatever means. In 1880 she published Papers on Aggressive Christianity. You’ll find a free download here. Here is a flavour:

Many do not recognize the fact as they ought, that Satan has got men fast asleep in sin and that it is his great device to keep them so. He does not care what we do if he can do that. We may sing songs about the sweet by and by, preach sermons and say prayers until doomsday, and he will never concern himself about us, if we don’t wake anybody up. But if we awake the sleeping sinner he will gnash on us with his teeth. This is our work – to wake people up!

Oh, people say, you must be very careful. You must not thrust religion down people’s throats. Then, I say, you will never get it down! What! Am I to wait till an unconverted, godless man wants to be saved before I try to save him? He will never want to be saved till the death rattle is in his throat. What! Am I to let my unconverted friends and acquaintances drift down quietly to damnation, and never tell them about their souls, until they say, ‘If you please, I want you to preach to me’? Is this anything like the spirit of early Christianity?

Small wonder, perhaps, that the Army had the impact that it did on the areas of greatest poverty (spiritual and material) on two continents.

Worship and Musical Instruments in the Church: the First Millennium

Eusebius was a 4th century bishop of Caesarea who wrote a history of early Christianity based on a number of sources, some of which no longer exist. He quotes Philo, a 1st century Jewish historian, who made mention of Christian all-night vigils and the hymns which they recite and how, while one man sings in regular rhythm, the others listen and join in the refrain.

The phrase “hymns which they recite” is particularly interesting. The pagan official Pliny (see my last post) uses the same Latin phrase, carmen dicere. Does this suggest that hymns were spoken rather than sung? Philo suggests that singing happened but still uses “recite”. Historian Ralph Martin has studied this phrase in a number of historical contexts and you can find his article here.

We could usefully bring in Augustine of Hippo here, who in the 4th century described church singing in Alexandria as more like speaking than singing. Augustine himself, incidentally, was in favour of liberated praise (without instruments) and accepted dancing, though only “in line” (not free expression). For more on this, see Laura Hellsten’s piece, Dance in the Early Church.

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines Image: artship.org

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines    Image: artship.org

Perhaps there was a specific reason for the general mistrust of musical accompaniment. In those days, pipe, harp and drum were intimately linked to the pagan cults, e.g. of Pan, with their sensuous worship and often shameless revelries. Christians, mindful of the apostolic direction that everything should be done decently and in order [1 Corinthians 14:40], avoided musical instruments. Jerome, also 4th century, wrote that a Christian maiden ought not even to know what a flute is, or what it is used for.

Liturgy (an order of service with fixed elements) came in early to Christian worship. There is possible evidence of a ‘Jerusalem’ liturgy, instituted by the Apostle James, and an ‘Alexandrian’ liturgy attributed by some to Paul’s fellow-labourer John Mark. Singing was a key element, but in the stylised manner of Jewish psalmody and response singing. As John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, put it: David formerly sang in psalms, and we also sing today with him. He had a lyre with lifeless strings; the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, certainly, but with a more seemly piety.

f5112-b-bruggs-d7-99r-kyriepaschale

One of the reasons why music did not take a central place in early Christian worship is that the central element of their meetings was the sharing of the bread and wine, the Communion or Eucharist, whether in the context of a church service or in the agapë, the ‘love meal’ in homes. Ignatius, who was made bishop of Antioch in AD 67, when a number of the Apostles were still alive and active, describes the Christian church as “a Eucharistic community” which realised its true nature when it celebrated Communion.

In turn, this emphasis might be due to the belief among first generation Christians that the sharing of the bread and wine was to be done “until Jesus returns”, which they believed would be soon, perhaps in their own lifetime. When this did not materialise, a Christian liturgy for worship began to develop, described for us by early apologists like Justin Martyr and Hippolytus. It involved greeting, reading from scripture, responsive (antiphonal) singing, baptisms, a sermon, prayers, the offertory, the communion and a blessing. Here is an extract from Justin, c. AD 150:

‘On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.’

The first hymn with actual musical notation which we possess, the “Oxyrhynchus hymn“, is from the 3rd century. At the same point, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the theologian Hippolytus, shows that the singing of psalms with Alleluia as the refrain was a feature of early Christian agape feasts.

It wasn’t until around 375 that antiphonal singing of psalms became popular in the Christian East; in 386, Ambrose of Milan introduced this practice to the West. Around 410, Augustine of Hippo described the responsive singing of a psalm at Mass. Sources are few and inconclusive regarding how Christian chant / song developed, but we do know that by 678, Western (Roman) chant was being taught at York. Distinctive regional traditions of Western plainsong (or plain chant) arose during this period, notably in the British Isles (Celtic chant), Spain (Mozarabic), Gaul (Gallican), and Italy (Old Roman and Ambrosian). It used a musical stave of four lines, not the five used today.

An early medieval organ

We can safely say that by this stage, sung worship was an established part of Christian services, albeit without instruments. William J Stewart (in this link)  assembles an array of patristic statements against instrumental music in the church; for example, Tertullian declares instrumental music to belong only “to the entertainment of heretics.”

There is some debate over a date for the arrival of the earliest church organs. Tradition has it that Pope Vitalian I introduced an organ in the year 666, but there is no supporting evidence, ecclesiastical or secular, for what would have been a monumental event. Primitive organs certainly existed in the 8th century, for Charlemagne was sent one by Caliph and had it installed in the cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. Even so, it is unlikely that the first organs accompanied the singing; rather they had their own bespoke ‘slot’ in the worship service. Scholarly opinion (see the overview by Brooks Cochran here) veers towards the 10th century as the start of organ accompaniment to singing – and it created considerable division between purists and modernisers (see Wayne Wells’ article here). Even in the 13th century, Aquinas declared “Our Church does not use musical instruments.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia concludes: “For almost a thousand years Gregorian chant, without any instrumental or harmonic addition was the only music used in connection with the liturgy. The organ, in its primitive and rude form, was the first, and for a long time the sole, instrument used to accompany the chant.”  [Vol. 10, pg. 657]

Postscript

I ought to mention the following quotation, which appears on many a worship website, always attributed to Augustine of Hippo.

I praise the dance, for it frees people from the heaviness of matter and binds the isolated to community.
I praise the dance, which demands everything: health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul.
Dance is a transformation of space, of time, of people, who are in constant danger of becoming all brain, will, or feeling.
Dancing demands a whole person, one who is firmly anchored in the centre of his life, who is not obsessed by lust for people and things and the demon of isolation in his own ego.
Dancing demands a freed person, one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers.
I praise the dance. O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you.

This discussion at historum.com reveals the true author at Georg Götsch, a German music teacher active in the early 20th century, particularly in the German Youth Movement. He refers the quotation back to Augustine, but without reference. It would be hard to reconcile the sentiments of joy and buoyancy with the bishop Hippo who wrote: “It is better to dig or to plough on the Lord’s day, than to dance. Instead of singing psalms to the lyre or psaltery, as virgins and matrons were wont to do, they now waste their time in dancing, and even employ masters in that art.” (8th sermon)

 

 

Various Sources on Early Christian Singing

The Roman official Pliny the Younger held office as governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor for a period of fifteen months or so in AD 111-112. During that time he corresponded with the emperor Trajan about how to enforce legislation against the Christians. He relates information about Christian practices which he had received from certain Christian renegades.

They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a stated day and singing alternately a hymn to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath…that they would abstain from theft and robbery and adultery, that they would not break their word, and that they would not withhold a deposit when reclaimed. This done, it was their practice, so they said, to separate, and then to meet together again for a meal, which however was of the ordinary kind and quite harmless.

The reference to “singing hymns to Christ” shows that the Christians were singing more than texts from the Psalms. And we have examples. A gospel fragment of uncertain date, known as the Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus 1900, contains this:

Through whom will the last enemy be destroyed?
Through Christ. Amen.
Through whom is the sting of death destroyed?
Through the Only Begotten. Amen.
To whom belongs the rulership?
It belongs to the Son. Amen.
Through whom has everything come into being?
Through the Firstborn. Amen.

Here is the ‘statement and response’ singing familiar from Jewish worship using the Psalms, but now with overtly Christian text.

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

Biblical scholars generally agree that certain passages of the New Testament are likely renditions of early Christian hymns. They cite various textual criteria, for example that the passage exhibits rhythmical patterns and careful structure, contains vocabulary different from the surrounding context, and to some extent interrupts the context. It is common to refer to these passages as Canticles.

The classic examples have all passed into church liturgy: the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), the “Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-75) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (Luke 2:29-32). But there are others, such as Ephesians 5:14, which some hold to have been a credal statement for baptism, and 1 Timothy 3:16:

He was manifest in flesh,
justified in spirit,
visible to angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up into glory.

Poetic refrains and doxologies are another feature inherited by Christian hymnody from Jewish liturgical singing:

For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever (Rom. 11:36),
Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21),
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever (1 Tim. 1:17).

For further examples, see Ruth Ellis Messenger’s Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries (available courtesy of Project Gutenberg).

 

 

Early Christian Hymn Singing – the Jewish Roots

The 1st century traveller and writer, Philo, describes the singing of the Therapeutae, a contemplative sect of the Jewish diaspora based around Alexandria.

“They rise up together and … form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honoured and most musical among them. They sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally.”

Jewish liturgical singing took two forms: antiphonal and responsorial. The first is what Philo is describing: the division of singers into two groups in such a way that they are separated from each other; for example, to the right and left sides of the central aisle in the building. They then sing alternate parts, one side starting, the other responding.

This has continued in Christian worship ever since, not so much in congregational worship, but rather by the choir. Many a well-loved anthem has the two parts marked decani and cantores, indicating that, in the past, a group of church deacons would have sung one part, and a group of chosen cantors (singers) the other.

Responsorial singing is similar, involving the priest or a perhaps a solo cantor singing an opening line and the congregation in unison singing the reply. Anyone who has been to a traditional sung service, for example in the Anglican church, will be familiar with this.

Priest: O Lord, open thou our lips.
Answer: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Priest: O God, make speed to save us.
Answer: O Lord, make haste to help us.
Priest: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
Answer: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

A choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

The Old Testament book of Psalms really came into its own here, as not only did it allow the congregation to take God’s word directly on its lips, but also the very verse form made for successful breaking down into statement and response (as in the above example). Even where it didn’t, a congregational reply of “Alleluia” or “We bless Thy name, O Lord” did just as well. Tertullian, at the end of the 2nd century, refers to response singing of psalms in the church at Rome.

One thing that surprises me with early Christian worship is that singing praises does not appear in the list of things the first believers devoted themselves to in Acts 2:42, namely the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and prayers. The First Apology of Justin Martyr, dated c.155, describes a Christian worship service. The emphasis is on ritual (baptism / ablution and Holy Communion), not singing.

This all seems oddly at variance with the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to address one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord [Ephesians 5:19]. A very musical response indeed! The context is primarily the believer’s personal devotional life. But not exclusively: “addressing one another” can only mean a context of corporate worship.

We know that Jesus and the Twelve, before they went out to the Mount of Olives, sang a hymn [Mark 14:26]. But what, and how? Many Biblical scholars believe it would have been one of the so-called Hallel series in the Book of Psalms, consisting of Psalms 113 – 118. It was common practice among the Jews to chant these holy songs at the Passover table. Did they sing it responsively, their ‘Rabbi’ leading and the disciples responding? We shall never know for sure.

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