Protestant Views On Music In Worship

Modern Protestant worship makes extensive use of music, especially hymns, choruses, and worship songs. Indeed, Protestants have become so used to singing hymns as part of their worship that many have no idea that this practice was late to develop and was accompanied by much controversy. In this section, we explore how the place of hymns in worship was significantly affected by characteristically Protestant debates about how to understand and apply the Bible.

Luther saw no difficulty with using music in the public worship of the church.29 "Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise," he wrote. "I do not believe that all the arts should be removed or forbidden on account of the Gospel, as some fanatics suggest. On the contrary, I would gladly see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him Who has given and created them." Himself a skilled musician, Luther urged others within the reforming movement to write hymns based upon the Psalms in order that the whole of Christendom might be enlightened and inspired.30 Luther's best-known hymn is a paraphrase of Psalm 46, which opens with the words "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." Luther's work, set to a tune of his own composing, became a landmark in Christian hymnody: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."31

This work is important in another respect: it represents an example of Luther's most significant liturgical innovation—the "chorale." This was a piece of German-language verse written in stanza form, generally set to music similar to popular German secular songs of the period, and sung by the whole congregation during church services. The first such collection appeared in 1524 as the Little Book of Spiritual Songs, which includes "A Mighty Fortress." Like John Wesley after him, Luther had no difficulty with appropriating well-known songs and changing the words to suit his religious needs. Thus, the popular ballad "I Must Leave You, Innsbruck" became "I Must Leave You, O World." The chorale tradition was raised to new heights in later Lutheranism by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Whereas Lutheranism developed a rich tradition of vernacular hymns in the sixteenth century—some written by Luther himself—the emerging Anglican and Reformed traditions took the view that God had provided his people with a perfectly adequate set of inspired hymns in the Bible, especially in the Psalms.32 English Protestantism, following the Reformed rather than Lutheran model, dismissed the idea of worship hymns as implying that God's work was incomplete or inadequate. Worship might therefore include a psalmody, but not a hymnody. Furthermore, early English psalmody was almost exclusively vocal. Most Reformed clergy believed that instruments were appropriate only for secular music, not for public worship. The Psalms were therefore sung without accompaniment—not unlike the plainchant of medieval monasteries.33

Wherever possible, the Church of England directed that the words of the Psalms would be chanted, not paraphrased, despite the metrical difficulties thus created for singing. This nonmetrical approach preserved the integrity of the actual words of scripture and required no alteration of the biblical text—always a theologically sensitive issue in the Reformed tradition. In the forms of Anglican chant that developed to meet this theological sensitivity, the first portion of a line was sung on a sustained pitch with harmonic support, with the final syllables resolving in a short series of chords. This form of chant had the advantage of preserving the Hebrew parallelism of the psalms, but was clearly better suited for choirs than for congregational singing.34

Nevertheless, the fundamental Protestant desire to involve all believers in the worship of the church soon led to the development of paraphrased Psalms that could be sung by congregations to easily learned tunes.35 The Psalm text was now retranslated, not in order to achieve total verbal accuracy but to render it in a poetic meter so that it could be sung to tunes. The simplicity of these metered tunes made it easier to sing and remember the Psalms—one of the key goals of Protestants.

In his draft ecclesiastical ordinances of 1537, John Calvin proposed that the liturgy could be appropriately enriched by the congregational singing of Psalms. During his period in Strasbourg (1538-41), Calvin managed to find about a dozen Psalms translated into French and versified by Clément Marot. These "metrical Psalms" rapidly became the norm for Reformed Protestantism. The Geneva Psalter (1542) included thirty metrical Psalms by Marot, with accompanying musical settings by Louis Bourgeois.36 Because each Psalm had its own distinct melody, a close correlation could be established between each text and its corresponding tune, which was composed with the specific structure of that Psalm in mind. The Psalter was gradually expanded as additional metrical Psalms were added after Marot's death in 1544, by which time he had managed to versify only fifty-two of the Psalms. The remainder of the work was completed by Theodore Beza between 1551 and 1562.

In England, John Day produced a Book of Psalms (1562), based on Psalm texts translated by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others, with tunes drawn from both the Geneva Psalter and familiar English sources, including popular ballads.37 Day's Psalms remained in general use for more than 250 years and is thought to have gone through more than five hundred editions. It later came to be known as the Old Version when Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady brought out their New Version of the Psalms (1696). Such was its influence that three of its most common settings—common meter (, short meter ( and long meter (—became standard, exercising a significant influence on the development of later English hymnody.

Some of these paraphrases became landmarks in their own right. William Kethe (died 1594) wrote a paraphrase of Psalm 100 that was included in Day's Psalms and remains widely sung in Christian churches throughout the world:

All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with cheerful voice: Him serve with fear, his praise forth tell, come ye before him and rejoice.

Yet perhaps the most famous paraphrase of all is found in the Scottish Psalter of 1650, authorized for general use by the Church of Scotland. This collection of paraphrases of all 150 Psalms includes the familiar version of Psalm 23.

The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want. He makes me down to lie In pastures green: he leadeth me the quiet waters by.

This paraphrase is often sung to the tune "Crimond," which was composed around 1870 by Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836-87). Happily, the editors' introduction to the Psalm, which somewhat cryptically invites congregations to "be as a daughter of the horse-leech" in their devotion to God, has long since been forgotten.

The work of Isaac Watts (1674-1748) marks a watershed in the development of English worship.38 Watts, a Congregationalist divine, believed that contemporary worship was in serious need of enrichment.

"The singing of God's praise is the part of worship most clearly related to heaven," he remarked, "but its performance among us is the worst on earth." The problem was not entirely difficult to locate: the Anglican and Reformed use of paraphrases was, in his view, excessively restricted and ill suited to congregational singing. In his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719), Watts broke with the longstanding tradition of "close-fitting" paraphrases and produced hymns that were still paraphrases of the biblical Psalms, but much more attuned to the poetic possibilities of the English language. Watts also had theological difficulties with the prevailing approach to the Psalms, which he believed did not do justice to the New Testament theme of Christ as the fulfillment of Israel's hopes. For Watts, it was both necessary and appropriate to incorporate elements of the Christian gospel into his Psalm paraphrases.

Watts's genius is best appreciated by comparing his rendering of Psalm 90 with that of the prevailing "gold standard"—the Scottish Psalter (1650):

Scottish Psalter

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place, in generations all.

Before thou ever hadst brought forth, the mountains great or small.


O God, our help in ages past,

Our hope in years to come.

Our shelter from the stormy blast,

And our eternal home.

Yet Watts was not content merely to paraphrase the Psalms. In a marked break with the English Protestant tradition of his day, he composed hymns that focused on great theological themes, including the death of Christ. Though saturated in the ideas and phraseology of the Bible, the hymns were not literally biblical, nor could they be described as mere paraphrases.They were independent compositions, written in order to be sung, to be memorable, and above all to be spiritually effective.

Watts's breakthrough was generally ignored by Anglicans and Presbyterians, though taken up with increasing enthusiasm by Congrega-tionalists. Yet his greatest achievement was arguably to lay the groundwork for perhaps the most significant development in English hymnody—the work of John and Charles Wesley, who recognized the role that hymns could play in fostering personal devotion and theological understanding. The evangelical revival of the eighteenth century saw the hymn transformed into an engine of devotion, renewal, and understanding, appealing to the heart and the mind.

John Wesley (1703-91) had no hesitation in using secular models for his hymns; these models, he believed, enabled his hymns to relate better to his audience. An excellent example can be found in his hymnodic parody of the "Song of Venus," one of the great odes from John Dryden's patriotic drama King Arthur (1691):

Fairest Isle, all isles excelling, Seat of pleasures, and of loves; Venus here will choose her dwelling, And forsake her Cyprian groves.

Exploiting the powerful language and imagery of the ode, Wesley converted it into one of his best-known hymns:

Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down, fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown!

Yet one of Wesley's most significant achievements was to make the hymn an instrument of theological education. Recognizing that a good hymn was memorable as well as inspirational, he developed their potential as catechetical aids, combining finely polished phrases with highly accessible theology. His brother Charles Wesley (1707-88) produced a collection of "Hymns on the Lord's Supper" that served as both devotional aids and theological explanations of their themes.

The success of the Wesleys was such that the potential of the hymn could no longer be ignored. From the end of the eighteenth century onward, hymnody became widely accepted in Anglican and Presbyterian circles, as both an enrichment to worship and an aid to Christian education. A series of landmark publications ensured that Christian worship would be provided with a rich range of resources. The most famous of these in its time was Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), the result of a conversation between two clergymen during a journey on the old Great Western Railway.

In Germany, theological divisions within Protestantism over the role of church music caused no small problems for professional musicians, not least of whom was Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). As Bach's career led him throughout Germany, the musical implications of German confessionalization became increasingly clear. Cuius regio, eius religio—and confessional differences entailed radically different attitudes toward music. Himself a devout Lutheran, Bach saw his task as setting the Bible to music in such a way that its meaning and power might be fully appreciated by congregations.39

By this time, Lutheranism had developed a rich musical tradition, which Bach augmented, particularly through his cantatas and passions. Bach's last and greatest appointment was as organist and choirmaster at the Lutheran Thomaskirche in Leipzig. His major works that date from this period include the Magnificat in D, the St. John Passion, the St. Matthew Passion, the B-Minor Mass, and the Christmas Oratorio. But not all of Bach's appointments were in Lutheran contexts.

From 1717 to 1723, Bach served at the Reformed court of AnhaltKothen. Though the court was strongly supportive of music, their Reformed outlook was inconsistent with the use of music in public worship. Bach thus found himself focusing on secular works during this period and was unable to express his musical talents liturgically. Undeterred, Bach wrote the six Brandenburg Concertos for the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg and the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It proved to be an enormously productive period of his life, even if he was not able to exercise his art in his own favored context—congregational worship.

A more complex situation had arisen earlier, when Bach was appointed organist at Muhlhausen in 1707. Here religious tensions were seething between orthodox Lutheranism and Pietism. Pietism emphasized musical simplicity and had no place for anything other than unadorned motets and musically simple hymns—the musical equivalent of the "plain style" of preaching so favored by English Puritanism. In particular, Pietists were implacably opposed to the cantata, which they regarded as modeled on opera, the most secular of all secular models. For the Pietists, the cantata represented the secularization, even desecration, of sacred music. Unsurprisingly, Bach stayed a mere nine months in Mühlhausen before moving on to more congenial surroundings.

Since then, church music has become increasingly important throughout Protestantism. Its origins have come to mean less than how it enhances worship or reaches out to society at large. The increased acceptance of pipe organs in church enhanced the musical quality of congregational worship, until such forms of worship were regarded as the norm by the beginning of the twentieth century. Once more, this was not without controversy. The installation of an organ in 1828 at Brunswick Methodist Chapel in Leeds caused significant division within the denomination. The fact that the inaugural recital was given by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, one of the most renowned organists of the day and the grandson of Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, did nothing to abate the storm that ensued.

American Protestantism was slower than its English counterpart to realize the importance of hymnody.40 Early American Puritan efforts at biblical paraphrasing, though suitable for congregational singing, were not entirely felicitous. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), who was involved in the infamous Salem witch trials, attempted to paraphrase the Psalmist's urging of all creatures of the seas to praise their creator in a hopelessly pedestrian way that nowadays evokes more amusement than reverence:

Ye monsters of the bubbling deep, Your Maker's praises spout; Up from the sands ye codlings peep, And wag your tails about.

It certainly rhymes. But it's not exactly inspirational. Nevertheless, by the nineteenth century American Protestantism had caught up with its European counterparts and had managed to better them at points. The famous Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was penned in

1868 by Phillips Brooks (1835-1903), an Episcopalian rector in Philadelphia, following a visit to the Holy Land.

American Protestantism produced new genres of religious music for use in worship that were without real parallel in Europe. One of the most remarkable of these was the African American tradition of hym-nody, which brought a new dimension to worship.41 Music now addressed the suffering, deprivation, and hopelessness of life, offering solace. Words and music stressed the consolation brought by the gospel to the marginalized and oppressed:

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

The African American "spiritual" came into its own after the Civil War, when it began to attract wider attention within the Protestant community.

Equally significantly, the revivalist tradition within American Protestantism realized the importance of hymnody in worship as a means of reaching out beyond the Christian community. Revivalist services used the congregational singing of hymns, psalms, and spirituals to create an awareness of the presence of God and the potential of transformation through the gospel. Dwight L. Moody and Ira David Sankey pioneered the "gospel song"—which could be sung to or sung by the congregation—as a means of teaching and evangelism. Perhaps the most famous of these gospel songs was penned by Robert Lowry (182699) in 1864, while he was a pastor in Brooklyn, New York.

Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel-feet have trod, With its crystal tide forever Flowing by the throne of God?


Yes, we'll gather at the river, The beautiful, the beautiful river;

Gather with the saints at the river

That flows by the throne of God.

Gospel songs were more accessible than the more theologically and musically sophisticated hymns then being written within mainline Protestantism. Revivalism recognized that popular hymnody had the potential to connect with a wide audience, both churched and unchurched.42 The use of the chorus came to be excoriated as excessively popularist by the more sophisticated within Protestant communities. Yet the chorus proved to be a powerful way of affirming the involvement of everyone in worship, reasserting the principle of the "priesthood of all believers," and, perhaps most importantly, proclaiming the availability of the gospel to all.

This kind of accessible worship song became more and more popular during the twentieth century as the great hymns of the Victorian era began to appear tired and dated. Writers such as Graham Kendrick (born 1950) have pioneered new styles of worship songs that appeal directly to the emotions and imagination and are well adapted to the cultural changes of the age. The rise of the charismatic movement has been accompanied by an intuitive—if not necessarily theologically reflective—awareness of the power of music to assist both worship and devotion, and worship songs have been written for this form of worship.43 These often lack the theological depth and verbal richness of the hymns of a writer such as John Wesley; nevertheless, they are widely experienced as heightening the congregation's awareness of God in their midst.44

The essential point is that Protestantism came into being with a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward music but would later come to embrace it wholeheartedly. The two most significant strands of Protestantism in the 1540s—Lutheranism and the Reformed tradition—had quite different attitudes to the place of music in worship, but as time passed, and the merits of music became increasingly clear, Protestantism as a whole moved decisively and, it seems, irreversibly toward uses of music that some of its sixteenth-century forebears would have regarded as little more than paganism.

This change in attitude toward music is a classic example of the malleability of Protestantism. Where multiple interpretations or applica tions of the Bible are possible, the outcomes are often determined mainly by pragmatic considerations. The sheer utility of hymns, gospel songs, and other forms of music in worship swamped the remaining theological anxieties. Although it is still possible to encounter small traditionalist congregations that tenaciously and defiantly hold fast to early seventeenth-century Puritan forms of worship, these are now rare. The entrepreneurial activities of innovators such as Isaac Watts, John Wesley, and their modern successors have transformed Protestant worship and will continue to do so in the future. Given the nature of Protestantism, it seems certain that its forms of worship will continue to adapt to both the tastes of the moment and the needs of the church.

Was this article helpful?

+2 -1


  • lorenzo buccho
    What parts of protestant worship are towards god?
    1 year ago
  • Swen
    How protestants worship by clapping singing?
    9 months ago
  • helena
    What did protestants believe about worship music?
    7 months ago
  • Peter Ayer
    Do protestants sing contemporary worship music?
    6 months ago
  • amaranth grubb
    How singing and music are used in protestant churches?
    2 months ago

Post a comment