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.
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.
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 intuition, experience 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]
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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)
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.
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).