This article originally appeared in the November 23, 1984, issue of Christianity Today.
"We feel overawed by the constellation of mysterious motives prompting Providence to send to our shores, out of all the millions who inhabited Europe, just those few thousand beings who had no music in their souls."
Common misconceptions of the Pilgrims' attitude toward music and toward life in general — such as the one above, made in 1907 by Oscar Sonneck, then music director of the Library of Congress — impoverish our appreciation for their musical legacy. We owe an incalculable debt to these early Americans for their priority on worship in music, their emphasis on music in the home, their integration of secular music as part of a balanced Christian life, and their inauguration of music education in America.
We think of the Pilgrims primarily in relation to the Puritan work ethic, Plymouth Rock, and the first Thanksgiving. However, not only should we thank them for the Thanksgiving delicacies we enjoy so much (including fruit pies and popcorn!), but also for their love of music, which is an increasingly dynamic force in our contemporary society.
The Puritans "had a granite heart and a suspicious eye for music," wrote Rupert Hughes in 1900. But there is no evidence that the Pilgrims and the Puritans hated music. True, they sang only the Psalms in church, rejecting the hymns of the German Reformation. But the Puritans actually enjoyed all kinds of fine music, giving a breadth of musical culture to early northeastern America. Gilbert Chase considers their Ainsworth Psalter "a document fully worthy to be the cornerstone of America's music" (America's Music; McGraw-Hill, 1966).
Music in worship
Identical in theology, essentially two kinds of Puritans could be distinguished by their relationship to the Anglican church. The Congregational Puritans wanted to "purify" the church and grant autonomy to each congregation. The Separatists, or Pilgrims — they called themselves "Saints" — broke cleanly with the established church (the term Pilgrim was not applied to them until the 1840s).
When James I ascended to the English throne in 1603, the Puritans petitioned him to make certain changes in the church, including "church songs and music moderated to better edification." Fed up with years of Presbyterian opposition in Scotland, King James responded by persecuting the Separatists. They fled to Holland in 1607 and 1608, where in Amsterdam they established the "First English Church of the Separation."
The Ainsworth Psalter. In 1612, the Reverend Henry Ainsworth, who had escaped to Holland in 1593, published a 342-page Psalter with the Psalms set in both poetry and prose. A graduate of Cambridge — as were many of the early Puritan leaders — he was a Hebrew scholar, a musician, and the teacher of the Amsterdam Separatists.
Ainsworth's Psalter had 39 tunes of international origin: English, French, and Dutch, including some we still sing — the familiar "Old Hundredth Psalm Tune," for example ("The Doxology" or "All People That on Earth Do Dwell"). Louis Bourgeois, music editor of John Calvin's Geneva Psalters, had written the tune for the 134th Psalm; the Puritans adopted it for the 100th. Originally much more syncopated than the way we sing it today, it was considered a "lively and jocund tune." In fact, many of the Puritan psalm tunes were so rhythmically alive and danceable that they were derisively referred to as "Geneva jigs" — even by Queen Elizabeth.
Longfellow mentions Ainsworth's Psalter when he describes Priscilla Mullins singing "Old Hundredth" in "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (angular notes refers to their diamond shape):
Open wide in her lap lay the well-worn psalm-book of Ainsworth,
Printed in Amsterdam, the words and music together,
Rough-hewn, angular notes, like stones in the wall of a churchyard,
Darkened and overhung by the running vine of the verses.
A raging debate of the time was the "Controversie of Singing." A minority argued that singing and making melody "with the heart" meant that one was not to sing aloud. Besides, they argued, if everyone sings, there is no one to listen, hence no one is edified. The Reverend John Cotton defended vocal singing: "That singing of Psalms with a lively voice is an holy Duty of God's worship now in the days of the New Testament. … As we are to make melody in our hearts, so in our voices also." But some Puritans went so far as to stuff cotton in their ears so they could not hear the congregation!
Eventually, the controversy was settled, but as is so often the case, the damage already had been done. Much of the joy and enthusiasm in psalm singing had been effectively and permanently killed.
How the Pilgrims performed the Psalms depended on whether they were sung in church or at home. At church, they prohibited singing antiphonally ("We allow … not of tossing the psalm from one side to the other"), in harmony, or, eventually, with accompaniment (they derisively called the organ the "Devil's bagpipes"). They considered these practices too reminiscent of popery, and merely ceremonial.
The Bay Psalm Book. When the Congregational Puritans settled at Massachusetts Bay in 1630 (now Boston), they brought the 1562 Psalter of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, and the 1621 Psalter of Thomas Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft's work contains settings in four-part harmony by some of the finest classical musicians of the day (Thomas Tallis, John Dowland, and Thomas Morley, for example), and the tune "Dundee," to which we sing "God Moves in a Mysterious Way."
Determining that they needed a more faithful translation from the Hebrew, in 1640, 30 "pious and learned ministers" produced the first book printed in the English North American colonies: The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated into English Metre, popularly known as the Bay Psalm Book.
Although its translators were more accurate theologically, they were "long on piety and short on poetry." And whereas Ainsworth had used 15 meters in his Psalter, the Bay Psalm Book had only six. In fact, three-fourths of the Psalms were in Common Meter, the simplest rhythmic pattern. Since the book included no music (they had no facilities to engrave plates), the translators recommended the use of tunes from Ravenscroft's Psalter. It was not until the ninth edition of 1698 that a few tunes were finally included.
Although the first Puritan colonists read music skillfully, their descendents increasingly did not. As congregations knew fewer and fewer tunes and only a few simple meters, they adopted the English practice of "lining out." Having no accompaniment, they began to depend upon rudimentary choirs to help them respond to the leader. The results could be hilarious. In one recorded incident, possibly apocryphal, a deacon began to lead an unusually responsive choir. Discovering his eyesight to be failing, he apologized, saying, "My eyes, indeed, are very blind." As this was in the requisite eight syllables of the first line of a common-meter hymn, the choir repeated the phrase.
The deacon elaborated, "I cannot see at all," which fit the six syllables for the second line, and which the choir also repeated.
When the frustrated deacon exclaimed, "I really believe you are bewitched," that, too, was dutifully repeated by the choir.
"The mischief's in you all," he concluded, and sat down to the accompaniment of the choir completing his impromptu "hymn."
Some folk believed it was more spiritual not to read music. John Smyth, a General Baptist, said, "It is unlawful to have the book before the eye in time of singing a psalm." A certain Pastor Walker described the effect of the resulting individual extemporization: "Like five hundred tunes roared out at the same time," with people one and even two words apart, producing noises "so hideous and disorderly, as is beyond expression bad." Such practices so destroyed the heretofore lively, fast nature of the Pilgrims' singing that he said, "I myself have twice in one note paused to take breath."
Music in the home
Music for the Puritans was a family affair. Robert Browne, an early leader, was an exceptionally good lute player, and he taught his children to be performers. On Sundays "he made his son Timothy bring his viol to church and play the bass to the Psalms that were sung."
At home, the Psalms were sung in harmony and with accompaniment, for the Puritans loved instrumental music. Famous Puritan music lovers included John Milton, who was an amateur organist; Oliver Cromwell, who had his own organ and hired a 48-piece orchestra for his daughter's wedding; and John Bunyan, who owned several string instruments, and who reportedly made a flute from a leg of his chair while in prison. Included in the library of Elder William Brewster (300 books; in number and cost they would equal over 30,000 volumes today) was a collection of psalms with parts for instrumental accompaniment. Contrary to a fabrication originating in 1781, which scholars consider malicious, the Pilgrims never passed any laws prohibiting instruments — a fact confirmed by John Cotton, who wrote in 1647 that "the private use of any Instrument of Musick" was not forbidden (Singing of Psalms a Gospel Ordinance).
Secular as well as sacred
Psalm singing was part of the total life of the Pilgrims. They sang psalms in the streets, at dinners, and at other social events. They used the Psalms very personally, feeling there was a psalm appropriate to any condition or situation, and they sang them so constantly that many who came after 1621 "disliked the Pilgrims' endless Psalm singing."
They sang the Psalms primarily for two reasons: (1) It was spiritually edifying; and (2) it was enjoyable. So lustily did they sing — and apparently through their noses — that a playwright satirized them with a character who "makes alum and sells it to the Puritans that have sore throats with overstraining."
When the Puritan movement began, at the height of Elizabethan culture, an English gentleman was presumed to be able to sing his own part in a madrigal, which was often part of the after-dinner entertainment. The Puritans extended this ability from the gentility to the rest of their society. "It was the Puritans' love of the Psalms and the desire to sing them worthily that first spread widely in the middle and lower (non-madrigal) classes the knowledge of musical notation and sight singing." Singing tunes in consort, or in ensemble, was "the early New England variety of barbershop harmony."
"The Puritans, who landed in 1620 at Plymouth Rock, brought with them their psalm-tunes and their hatred of secular music," wrote one author in 1883. Actually, the Pilgrims had a genuine love of music other than psalm tunes. One of their favorite tunes, which we sing today, was "Greensleeves," a secular ballad then nearly a century old. (The Christmas text we sing to this, "What Child Is This?," is of 19th-century origin.)
The Pilgrims sang the Psalms throughout their odyssey to America. Edward Winslow described the scene when they left Delftshaven in 1620: "And when the ship was ready to carry us away, the brethren … that stayed at Leyden feasted us that were to go, at our pastor's house, being large; where we refreshed ourselves, after tears, with singing of psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts, as well as with the voice, … indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard."
Their Psalm singing aboard the Mayflower irritated the sailors, whose leader began to mock the Pilgrims, calling them "Psalm-singing puke-stockings." Suddenly he came down with a mysterious fever and died the very same day and the taunting ceased dramatically.
In a hymn written in 1833, Leonard Bacon portrays the Pilgrims singing Psalms when they landed at Plymouth:
O God, beneath whose guiding hand Our exiled fathers crossed the sea; And, when they trod the wint'ry strand, With prayer and psalm they worshiped thee.
American music education begun attempting to undo the damage inflicted by lining out, the Puritans sought to restore the ability to read music. A Reverend Mr. Symmes wrote, "Would it not greatly tend to promote singing of psalms if singing schools were promoted?" Cotton Mather, in The Accomplished Singer, said in 1721, "We ought certainly to serve our God with our Best, and Regular Singing [by note] must needs be Better than the confused Noise of a Wilderness. God is not for Confusion in the Churches of the Saints; but requires, Let all things be done decently." That same year, John Tufts published the first American music textbook, An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm-Tunes.
Singing schools did not reform Psalm singing, but what they did achieve has affected us all: In their attempt to teach sight-singing, the Puritan ministers began music education in America, and they made singing a communal activity. By encouraging composition, they paved the way for the first generation of American composers.
The true purpose of music
Music, to the Puritans, was an art to be loved and treasured. Its highest function was to be found in worship. It was not music they hated, but the abuses of it. As John Playford, England's most important printer of the age, wrote in Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick in 1654, "I believe it is an helper both to good and evil, and will therefore honour it when it moves to Vertue, and shall beware of it when it would flatter into Vice."
They also understood that music possessed psychological values. In 1684, Increase Mather praised "the sweetness and delightfulness of Musick" for its natural power to soothe "melancholy passions" — that is, it was an effective antidepressant.
But it is Playford who perhaps best expresses the Puritan view of the purposes of music — a view we might well claim for ourselves: "The first and chief Use of Musick is for the Service and Praise of God, whose gift it is. The second Use is for the Solace of Men, which as it is agreeable unto Nature, so it is allow'd by God, as a temporal Blessing to recreate and cheer men after long study and weary labor in their Vocations."
In 1984, Richard Dinwiddie was the music director and conductor of the Chicago Master Chorale. He is now a professor at Chabot College in Hayward, California, teaching music, religious studies, philosophy, and humanities, and leading its distance education program.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on Thanksgiving include:
Thanksgiving at Fair Acres | A meal with my mother and other nursing-home residents opened a small crack in their stony detachment, and gave a brief glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. (November 13, 2000)
CT Classic: Giving Thanks in Plague Times | Philip Yancey found much to give thanks for in Donne's Devotions. (November 1, 2000)
Christian History Corner: Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | "Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness." (November 1, 2003)
CT Classic: Two Kinds of Thanks | Three hours in a women's shelter taught me the difference. (November 1, 1999)