Hymn Singing as a Full-body Experience…

Posted on Sep 15, 2014

John Terauds
Hymn Singing as a Full-body Experience…

Until recently, I thought that congregational singing of hymns is as old as Christianity itself, so was surprised to discover that this isn’t true. Yes, chanting has been around for more than a millennium, but it was not traditionally done by a church congregation. Elaborate settings of the Mass and canticles have been sung in regular worship since the late Middle Ages, but also not by the congregation. As it turns out, the practice of hymn singing in common worship is less than 400 years old.

It wasn’t until the late 17th century that a Baptist minister in London began to encourage his congregation to burst into song, something that shocked the Puritan ethos of the day. The minister in question, Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), was publicly denounced for this bold act.

Faced with protests from outside the walls of his church, he responded with a little book: The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship; or Singing of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, proved to be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ. Then, in 1697, as his little vocal revolution caught on, he published a hymnal, as well.

Many Protestants at the time believed that music was one of the Devil’s tools to distract people from the Word of God, but Keach insisted otherwise, quoting passage after passage of Scripture to make his case. In The Breach Repaired, he also wrote, “Men are as apt, by natural instinct, to sing, as they are to speak.”

We only have to look around us for a few minutes to realize that this is as true now as it was in the 17th century. The same could be said for just about every other culture in the world.

Until Keach came out in favor of the corporate singing of hymns in worship, lay devotional music had been confined to people’s homes, where the Psalter and a collection of songs helped pass a long evening. But once it became accepted to sing in church, writers of all denominations were moved to compile an avalanche of the songs we now call hymns.

Rather than quoting passages of scripture, hymns tell the story of our Christian journey through poetry. Open a modern hymnal to any page and, more likely than not, you are faced with an expression of – or desire for – salvation, to live a better life, to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to plead for relief, or to give thanks for God’s Grace and other blessings.

Among the many people inspired by Keach’s brave pioneering was theologian Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the poet behind 17 hymns in our 1982 Hymnal. Many of them continue to rank among our favorites: No. 50 – “This is the day the Lord hath made”, No. 374 – “Come let us join our cheerful songs”, No. 380 – “From all that dwell below the skies”, No. 474 – “When I survey the wondrous Cross”, No. 510 – “Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly dove”, No. 544 –
”Jesus shall reign were’er the sun”, and No. 680 – “O God, our help in ages past”. The text for that Christmas-time staple, “Joy to the World”, emerged from Watts’s quill.

Look at those titles, and you see the full range of spiritual expression, from thankfulness to penitence, embedded in their verses. This is the language of the heart, not just the mind. The form of the poetry may have changed since the 17th century, but the impulse behind it remains as potent today as it was for Keach.

Besides touching our hearts, hymns have also helped Christians to embrace music as participants rather than as observers or listeners. There was a time when priests would take Communion while their congregations looked on. Now we all share in the Body and Blood of Christ.

Common praise through hymns is another form of communing with Christ and each other. In order to sing out, we have to use more of our breath and bodily energy than when speaking. Singing is more of a full-body experience, as is sharing in the Eucharist. It is no coincidence that the first hymns to be sung in Keach’s church came right after everyone had finished taking Communion. John Terauds