Heart Talks

By Elmer Ellsworth Shelhamer

Chapter 17


By Adam Clarke


     If any minister is puzzled to know what to do with a proud organist and a worldly choir, it might be Well for him to adopt Adam Clarke's method of dealing with them. We quote from his "Life."

     "The society at Dock, built a new chapel at Windmill Hill, much more commodious than that which they had opposite the Gun-Wharf Gate; but so much had the congregations increased that this new erection was soon found to be too small. When the seats of this chapel were in course of being let, he noticed for the first time, what he had occasion to notice with pain often after: How difficult it is to satisfy a choir of singers; of how little use they are in general and how dangerous they are at all times to the peace of the Church of Christ! There was here a choir and there were some among them who understood music as well as most in the nation; and some, who taken individually, were both sensible and pious. These, in their collective capacity, wished to have a particular seat, with which the trustees could not conveniently accommodate them because of their engagements to other persons. When the singers found they could not have the places they wished, they came to a private resolution not to sing in the chapel. Of this resolution the preachers knew nothing. It was Mr. Clarke's turn to preach in the chapel at the Gun-Wharf the next Sabbath morning at seven; and there they intended to give the first exhibition of their dumb show. He gave out, as usual, the page and measure of the hymn. All was silent. He looked to see if the singers were in their places and behold, the choir was full, even unusually so. He thinking that they could not find the page or did not know the measure, gave out both again; and then looked them all full in the face, which they returned with great steadiness of countenance! He then raised the tune himself and the congregation continued the singing. Not knowing what the matter was, he gave out the next hymn as he had given out the former, again and again -- till they were silent. He then raised the tune and the congregation sang as fore. Afterwards he learned that as the trustees would not indulge them with the places they wished, they were determined to avenge their quarrel on Almighty God: for He should have no praise from them, since they could not have the seats they wished! The impiety of this conduct appeared to him in a most hideous point of view; for, if the singing be designed to set forth the praises of the Lord the refusing to do this because they could not have their own wills in sitting in a particular place, though they were offered, free of expense, one of the best situations in the chapel, was a broad insult on God Almighty. They continued this ungodly farce, hoping to reduce the trustees, preachers and society to the necessity of capitulating at discretion, but the besieged, by appointing a. man to be always present to raise the tunes, cut off the whole choir at a stroke. From this time the liveliness and piety of the singing were considerably improved: for now the congregation instead of listening to the warbling of the choir, all joined in the singing, and God had hearty praise from every mouth. Mr. Clarke has often witnessed similar disaffection in other places by means of The singers and has frequently been heard to say: 'Though I never had a personal quarrel with the singers in any place, yet I have never known any case where there was a choir of singers that they did not make disturbance in the societies. And it would be much better, in every case and in every respect to employ a person to raise the tunes and then the congregation would learn to sing. The purpose of singing would be accomplished, -- every mouth would confess to God, and a horrible evil would be prevented, -- the bringing together into the house of God and making them the almost only instruments of celebrating His praises, such a company of gay, airy, giddy and ungodly men and women as are generally grouped in such choirs -- for voice and skill must be had, let decency of behavior and morality be where they will. Everything must be sacrificed to a good voice in order to make the choir complete and respectable. Many scandals have been brought into the Church of God by choirs and their accompaniments. Why do not th e Methodist preachers lay this to heart?

     "At the conduct of the singers in Plymouth Dock, Mr. Clarke was much grieved because there were among them men of sound sense, amiable manners and true piety: and so they continued in their individual capacity; but when once merged in the choir, they felt only for its honor and became like to other men! Disturbances of this kind which he has witnessed in all the large societies have led him often seriously to question whether choirs made any essential part in the worship of God! Most of those who are employed in them being the least spiritual part of the Church of Christ; generally proud, self-willed, obstinate and intractable: besides, they uniformly hinder congregational singing, the congregation leaving this work to them; and they desiring it so to be left."

     Before closing this chapter let us hear a few words from John Wesley:

     "When we came to Neath, I was a little surprised to hear I was to preach in the church; of which the church wardens had the disposal, the minister being just dead. I began reading prayers at six, but was greatly disgusted at the manner of singing. (1) Twelve or fourteen persons kept it to themselves, and quite shut out the congregation: (2) These repeated the same words, contrary to all sense and reason, six or eight or ten times over: (3) According to the shocking custom of modern music, different persons sang different words at one and the same moment; an intolerable insult on common sense, and utterly incompatible with any devotion. At five I had the pleasure of hearing the whole congregation at the room 'sing with the Spirit and the understanding also.'"