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Spurgeon on How to Lead Singing

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This helpful article by Charles Spurgeon, "How Shall We Sing," was published in his monthly publication, The Sword and the Trowel. Spurgeon had impassioned views on corporate worship, music, singing, and the sacraments. Over the next couple of years as I study Spurgeon for PhD studies I'll write about him often here. I hope his voice helps shape and clarify in areas where you find helpful, and in things in which you disagree, I hope you can extend grace to the the Prince of Preachers. In this text, notice how important congregational singing was to this preaching pastor.

Charles Spurgeon. The Sword and The Trowel, June 1, 1870. 276-277.

COULD we rule the service of song in the house of the Lord, we should, we fear, come into conflict with the prejudices and beliefs of many most excellent men, and bring a hornet's nest about our ears. Although we have neither the will nor the power to become reformer of sacred music, we should like to whisper a few things into the ear of some of our Jeduthuns or Asaphs (1), who happen to be "chief musicians" in country towns or rural villages. We will suppose the following words to be our private communication:

O sweet singer of Israel, remember that the song is not for your glory, but for the honour of the Lord, who inhabiteth the praises of Israel; therefore, select not anthems and tunes in which your skilfulness will be manifest, but such as will aid the people to magnify the Lord with their thanksgivings. The people come together not to see you as a songster, but to praise the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Remember also, that you are not set to sing for yourself only, but to be a leader of others, many of whom know nothing of music; therefore, choose such tunes as can be learned and followed by all, that none in the assembly may be compelled to be silent while the Lord is extolled. Why should so much as one be defrauded of his part through you? Simple airs are the best, and the most sublime; very few of the more intricate tunes are really musical. Your twists, and fugues, and repetitions, and rattlings up and down the scale, are mostly barbarous noise-makings, fitter for Babel than Bethel. If you and your choir wish to show off your excellent voices, you can meet at home for that purpose, but the Sabbath and the church of God must not be desecrated to so poor an end.

True praise is heart work. Like smoking incense, it rises from the glowing coals of devout affection. Essentially, it is not a thing of sound: sound is associated with it very properly for most weighty reasons, but still the essence and life of praise lie not in the voice, but in the soul. Your business in the congregation is to give to spiritual praise a suitable embodiment in harmonious notes. Take care that you do not depress what you should labour to express. Select a tune in accordance with the spirit of the psalm or hymn, and make your style of singing suitable to the words before you. Flippantly to lead all tunes to the same time, tone, and emphasis, is an abomination; and to pick tunes at random is little less than criminal. You mock God and injure the devotions of his people if you carelessly offer to the Lord that which has cost you no thought, no care, no exercise of judgment. You can help the pious heart to wing its way to heaven upon a well-selected harmony; and you can, on the other hand, vex the godly ear by inappropriate or unmelodious airs, adapted rather to distract and dishearten, than to encourage intelligent praise.

The Time is a very primary consideration, but it is too often treated as a matter of no consequence. Large bodies move slowly, and hence the tendency to drawl out tunes in numerous assemblies. We have heard the notes prolonged till the music has been literally swamped, drenched, drowned in long sweeps and waves of monotonous sound. On the other hand, we cannot endure to hear psalms and solemn hymns treated as jigs, and dashed through at a gallop. Solemnity often calls for long-drawn harmony, and joy as frequently demands leaping notes of bounding delight. Be wise enough to strike the fitting pace each time, and by your vigorous leadership inspire the congregation to follow en masse. May we in the very gentlest whisper beg you to think very much of God, much of the singing, and extremely little of yourself. The best sermon is that in which the theme absorbs the preacher and hearers, and leaves no one either time or desire to think about the speaker; so in the best congregational singing, the leader is forgotten because he is too successful in his leadership to be noticed as a solitary person. The head leads the body, but it is not parted from it, nor is it spoken of separately; the best leadership stands in the same position. If your voice becomes too noticeable, rest assured that you are but a beginner in your art.

One of your great objects should be to induce all the congregation to join in the singing. Your minister should help you in this, and his exhortations and example will be a great assistance to you; but still as the Lord's servant in the department of sacred song you must not rely on others, but put forth your own exertions. Not only ought all the worshippers to sing, but each one should sing praises with understanding, and as David says, "play skilfully " unto the Lord. This cannot be effected except by instructing the people in public psalmody. Is it not your duty to institute classes for young and old? Might you not thus most effectually serve the church, and please the Lord? The method of Mr. Curwen, and the use of his Sol-fa Notation, will much aid you in breaking ground, and you can in after years either keep to the new method, or turn to the old notation as may seem best to you. Thousands have learned to sing who were hopelessly silent until the sol-fa system was set on foot. The institution of singers, as a separate order is an evil, a growing evil, and ought to be abated and abolished; and the instruction of the entire congregation is the readiest, surest, and most scriptural mode of curing it. A band of godless men and women will often instal themselves in a conspicuous part of the chapel, and monopolise the singing to the grief of the pastor, the injury of the church, and the scandal of public worship; or else one man, with a miserable voice, will drag a miserable few after him in a successful attempt to make psalms and hymns hideous, or dolorous. Teach the lads and lasses, and their seniors, to run up and down the Sol-fa Modulator, and drill them in a few good, solid, thoroughly musical tunes, and you, O sons of Asaph, shall earn to yourself a good degree.

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Matt Boswell is the pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, and is the founder of Doxology & Theology.

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(1) These are directors of music that the psalmist addresses in subscript of Psalms.

2 Comments

Profound statements for all times!
I laughed at his frankness with the "barbarous noise-makings", and sighed at the thought that too many Sundays I am a solitary voice. Thanks, Matt, for posting this. I am challenged!

What a great article! And the 'old' english, a joy to read! The beginning of the 2nd paragraph is particularly helpful and I love the sentence, "May we in the very gentlest whisper beg you to think very much of God, much of singing, and extremely little of yourself". I'll pass this on to our bands.

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