The History of Christian Music

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The musical bridge between Judaism and Christianity links the latter faith to over 2,000 years of Hebraic culture covered in the Old Testament. Examples of the folk musical tradition—that is, the music of the people—include references to a number of instruments for accompaniment including lyres, harps, tambourines, and other percussion. The textual evidence suggests dance and music were instrumental in almost every aspect of life. The Old Testament includes later reference to professional worship music, especially following the construction of temple of Solomon in about 900 B.C. Dual-reed pipes were played during specific religious events such as Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles. For the most part, however, the early music seems to have been impromptu displays of deep emotion created as a response to significant events. Perhaps most important was the spontaneous music created in response to David’s victory over the Philistines in the first book of Samuel. The Hebrew word anah, which means “to respond,” emerged at this moment and persists to the present day when describing “Jewish antiphonal singing” (psalms with short refrains placed between verses). The shift away from music ecstasy to “liturgical music of a more contemplative kind, formal, symbolic, and ritualized” began in the Old Testament and was largely adopted in Christian practice, as deliberate counterpoint to the “possessive” potential of music and “associations with debauchery and immorality” (Wilson-Dickson 1992).

The Rise of Christian Music
In contrast to the Old Testament, there is little reference to music in the New Testament. Jewish practice of temple worship was adapted and reinvented into Christianity. For example, upon their conversion, those who led singing in the synagogue also led it in their new Christian faith. In other words, since “Christians saw their faith as a completion of Judaism, they were able to continue to use many parts of Jewish liturgy” (Wilson-Dickson 1992). But there is little written evidence of the actual music used in worship by either the Christian or Jewish community from the time of Jesus Christ through the seventh century A.D. Since the two faiths share many common foundations, a look at highly orthodox Jewish worship of the present day when compared with ancient musical sources reveals some possibilities of what ancient  Christian music was like. But those Eastern traditions that worshipped in the vernacular especially laid the foundations for traditions that are alive today, even as other strains of Christianity greatly evolved with time. Still, even as Christians were composing an array of new songs that celebrated the particulars of their own faith, the Old Testament continued to be the source of much of Christianity’s musical tradition. Perhaps most notable is the compilation of 150 psalms (traditionally attributed to David, who himself gleaned inspiration from ancient Biblical sources) which “have produced remarkably consistent patterns of musical setting” for some 3,000 years (Wilson-Dickson 1992).
Fifteen Centuries of Christian Music

Christianity suffered through three centuries of persecution in the name of conspiracy, treason, and heresy. Christian fortune changed when the Emperor Constantine converted to the faith and granted freedom of worship throughout the Roman Empire. After the fall of the empire, the hierarchy of the church gained strength and control, particularly under Pope Leo the Great in the middle of the fifth century and Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. Since written music notation had not yet been created, a Spanish nun’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the fifth century is one of few existing records about it. She describes morning worship complete with call-and-response psalm reading and recitation as well as hymns accompanying the bishop to the cross and to the sanctuary where the baptized Christians took Holy Communion. The importance of music is clearly stressed in the account, summing up that “[a]mong all these details this is very plain, that psalms or antiphons are always sung; those at night, those in the morning, and those through the day” (Wilson-Dickson 1992).
Monophonic Gregorian chants, or plainchants, are incorrectly attributed to Gregory the Great. Though his work to create a more standardized liturgy was critical, the chants emerged out of the monastic tradition. Benedict of Nursia from the early sixth century developed a rule of prayer that divided the day in prayer, work, and study. The religious tradition of Christian monks combined with numerical bases and mercantilism to help shape the standardized hours of the day. The schedule included regular singing of hymns and chanted passages of scripture. Hymns, it should be noted, were simply defined as a “song in praise of God,” and while chants generally stayed close to scripture, new and more ornate compositions began to emerge from the three musical traditions: “cantillation (prayers, readings, psalms), free composition…[and] new poems set to music (hymns)” (Wilson-Dickson 1992).
These foundations became integral to Christian worship, and such rituals from vespers to mass were developed to praise and reflect upon the majesty of God. For a thousand years the Christian musical tradition was passed down orally and aurally, until the development of musical notation (especially the work of the Italian monk Guido D’Arezzo from the early eleventh century) allowed vast new possibilities for arrangements that became increasingly intricate with an emerging multiplicity of sounds called “polyphony.” About the time of the Renaissance, new harmonic progressions were added to the layered melodies. It is out of such a rich musical foundation that sects during the Reformation began to develop separate branches of musical traditions that were taken up by Christian missionaries and carried throughout the world (Wilson-Dickson 1992).
A Brief Look at Orthodox Traditions
Christian musical traditions in Western Europe and the Americas developed distinct regional qualities that have evolved with the times and the emerging religious factions and movements of recent centuries. In the meantime, however, worship in the Orthodox Church maintained direct ties with its rich and multiplicitous past, allowing for Orthodox Christians to “retain a sense of identity through the ancient liturgy” (Wilson-Dickson 1992). Various orthodoxies, both ancient and more recent independent branches, developed music customs that kept strong roots in the early Orthodox traditions that developed out of the splintering from the Roman Church in the fourth and fifth centuries following Emperor Constantine’s establishment of the center of this new Christian empire in Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople).
The liturgy of the Orthodox Church became the religious sanctuary that members relied upon during the uncertain centuries of Ottoman rule following the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Examples today range from the Greek Orthodox focus on the human voice in chant and hymn to the lively and emotional litany of the Coptic Church of Egypt. In all these traditions branching from the original separation from the Roman church, music is fully integrated with worship: “As in the Orthodox Church, music [in Coptic worship] is an inseparable part of the liturgy and the whole service is sung from beginning to end—the music being not so much a way of worshipping, but worship itself” (Wilson-Dickson 1992).
Psalm Versification in Europe and the Evolution of American Church Music
Nearly a century before the first permanent English settlement in North America, Spanish missionaries spread their faith and music in the New World, where their first cathedral was charted in 1512 in Santo Domingo. By the middle of the sixteenth century, both the Spanish and French had established themselves in present day Florida, and the latter had on hand the early psalm versifications made by converts to Reformed Protestant sects. Such “[m]etrical psalms set to unison melodies would become the only music for many churches on the Continent, in England, and subsequently in America” (Ogasapian 2007). Psalters, or individual psalm compilations, began cropping up as early as the 1530s, though such versifications caused the exile of authors such as Clement Marot along with the reformist John Calvin, whose first Psalter was printed in Strasbourg in 1539.
Following the end of papal authority in England with the 1534 Act of Supremacy, certain alliances and protectorships following Henry VIII’s death helped align the English church with Calvin as he was drafting early editions of the “Book of Common Prayer.” His work helped establish in the English vernacular the first complete sets of English metrical Psalms from the middle of the century. For example, Robert Crowley’s Psalter of David set to “a single tune…[was] adapted from the Gregorian seventh tone and set Faburden-style with melody in the tenor harmonized with voices above and below” (Ogasapian 2007).
The 1547 publication of nineteen metrical psalm translations, titled Certayne Psalmes Chosen out of the Psalter of David and Drawen into English Metre by Thomas Sternhold, Groome of Ye Kings Maiesties Roobes, would go through over 600 editions with numerous additional translated psalms (notably those by John Hopkins) and additions (including a metrical setting of the Ten Commandments) well into the early nineteenth century. Psalmody--described as “congregational music that was simple, scriptural, and singable”—was born, and it was particularly popular in smaller parish churches because it consisted of “short repeated stanzas in clear English, set syllabically to easy tunes in familiar style” (Ogasapian 2007).
A number of psalmody styles found their way into the English colonies, from the Sternhold and Hopkins (or Old Version) to editions by Henry Ainsworth and other Genevian Psalters (where English Protestants had been exiled during the reign of Mary I). Some well-educated ministers endeavored to prepare a new translation free from corruption, which resulted in The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, also known as the “Bay Psalm Book.” Published at the recently founded Harvard College in Cambridge, it was the “first book produced in the Colonies” (Ogasapian 2007).
Near the end of the seventeenth century, Colonial Anglicans brought the New Version--though, until some ministries began importing English psalm books, singing teachers, and organs, the quality of singing had greatly deteriorated. The movement saw publication of texts emphasizing the importance of singing and resulted in the unexpected grouping of singing school members that became the predecessor of modern choirs of particular important in Southern gospel. Furthermore, American focus on preaching and pietism—which focused on the individual response and personal emotion—encouraged religious revival during the Great Awakening.
Out of the religious fervor a new and distinctively American style emerged, like that of William Billings, who published hundreds of psalm tunes and anthems for choirs in six collections over 30 years. The New-England Psalm-Singer of 1770 was “the first collection of music by a single American composer” (Ogasapian 2007). While his compositions were geared solely toward all-male choirs, subsequent composers began integrating female parts, and even saw major shifts of the melody from the tenor to the soprano. Also, immigrant musicians through the eighteenth century caused an influx of European musical influence that began to blend with native tunesmiths and set the stage for a multifaceted urban church music that enhanced worship and drew crowds (Ogasapian 2007).
American Southern Gospel Music
With the nascent democracy and new social interests, modes of evangelical piety developed in numerous parishes and cities throughout America, and the revival eras of the nineteenth century were born. While eighteenth century churches were segregated, many free urban blacks in the North had formed entirely separate congregations by the turn of the century. An early stereotype was propagated that “African Americans…have a natural affinity for music” that was supported by Thomas Jefferson: “[Blacks] are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time.” The positive stereotype saw fruition in early schools where black singing masters taught whites (Ogasapian 2007).
In 1801, the first African-American book of hymns appeared: pastor Richard Allen’s Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns. Though it wasn’t a major departure stylistically from its antecedents, whites attending black parishes in the first decades of the nineteenth century were affected by the distinctive style, movement, and total experience of the singing, choir, and shouting that had roots in revivals and camp meetings. Letters of the time included references to “the merry chorus manner of the southern harvest field” and the spiritual, or “the alternating call-and-response style of the slave song, and indeed, of African music” (Ogasapian 2007).
Countless musical traditions of Africa mixed with Christian worship practices to develop unique rhythmic forms imbued with deep, spiritual emotion which were driven by congregational participation related to culture and memory, rather than the written harmonies and counterpoint of the Western tradition. The musicality of Africa was transplanted to America with the slave trade that began in the sixteenth century. The mixing of cultures in America during the era is the foundation of the gospel tradition (as well as the basis of that uniquely American musical genre, jazz) that defines Christian worship in independent churches with roots in the south of the United States (Wilson-Dickson 1992).
In short, African musical traditions met Christianity, as blacks slowly converted to the faith that offered hope and the potential for delivery from oppression. At first, blacks attended white churches. Though segregated, when the slaves took hold of the hymns, they impressed upon the congregation a quality that Andrew Wilson-Dickson describes as “a life and vigour…which the whites could not fail to notice” (1992). Late in the eighteenth century, blacks were allowed to form independent churches and further developed foundational hymnals and musical traditions out of the popular camp meetings and spirituals. The lyrics, of course, were adapted from the Bible and the English hymnal tradition.
Wilson-Dickson identifies the first printed use of the term “gospel” from a 1874 collection entitled Gospel Songs, A Choice Collection of Hymns and Tunes, New and Old, for Gospel Meetings, Sunday School. Clearly evident is the integration of worship and music. But black gospel wouldn’t be able to fully assert its identity until the 1920s in spite of having older roots (1992). The genre in general hit its stride following World War II, and at its height of popularity in the 1950s it was defined by broadening styles, new niches, and musical experimentation in which everyone got involved.
The tumultuous period leading up to the civil rights movement, however, propagated fear and created a divide along the race line that segregated audiences which had previously been integrated--especially for popular acts such as the Good Gate Quartet, perhaps the most famous African-American group of the time (Goff Jr. 2002). But the intensity of movement and expressive power of black gospel had immensely talented and prolific proponents such as Thomas Andrew Dorsey (not to be confused with trombonist and dance band leader Tommy Dorsey), a jazz and blues composer and musician who switched to gospel music, writing thousands of songs and founding the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. He is generally regarded as “the father of gospel music” and his work helped establish the big commercial business of black gospel (Wilson-Dickson 1992).
White southern gospel developed its own set of conventions as well as developing along commercial lines. Songwriters such as Lee Roy Abernathy and Thomas Mosie Lister pitched original material directly to gospel quartets independent of music publishing companies, pointing the industry in new directions. With the Civil Rights era, a blending of gospel influences occurred to help shape a contemporary gospel style that was defined by exciting new sounds that lured larger audiences to the message of gospel music. However, the changes “threatened to redefine the method and scope of worship in Christian America” as contemporary Christian music and new media altered the religious landscape (Goff Jr. 2002).
Contemporary Christian Music
While the idea of Christian rock and pop has been controversial, many musicians have embraced the new form of music as an expression of the so-called Jesus Movement (sometimes couched within the contentious Fourth Great Awakening) of recent decades. Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (CCM) identifies a kind of spiritual renewal that is celebrated across many denominations of Christianity in America. Though the history of Christian music hasn’t been abandoned—indeed, southern gospel lends an immediate influence—many artists have chosen to take risks and break stylistically from the past. CCM identifies the five major themes taken up by lyrically by these musicians: the son and the father, the holy spirit, end times or apocalypse, evangelism, and praise and worship.
In particular, praise and worship songs within the Jesus Movement have a transformational power, affecting the very manner in which people worship. Yet the source for many of these songs remains in the Psalms and the Gospels. When CCM recently compiled a list of their choices for the 100 Greatest Songs in Christian Music, “between one-third and one-half of all the songs…could be considered praise and worship songs. But,” as Steve Rabey acknowledges in his introduction to the compilation, “this shouldn’t be surprising, as Christian music is created and performed not only for human ears but for a heavenly audience that shares with us in the praise and worship we offer up” (Taff et al. 2006).
Ultimately, the five themes have variously always been at the heart of Christian music. Ideally, it seems clear that the end objective for composers of Christian music is to earn God’s grace and eternal salvation after a humble life lived in the service of a creator. This was certainly true of the author of the Psalms and remains true of musicians today who adapt and reinvent millennia-old texts or compose original ideas. Original, that is, to the extent that the inspiration and the final judge are one in the same. If there were any question as to the legitimacy of the music of the Jesus Movement, it was stamped out by a letter signed by more than sixty artists and music executives working within the genre and featured in CCM in 1986: “The letter urged an end to all negative…reviews…[since] true success is serving God and touching people’s lives.”
The aim of the letter was to remind the magazine and its readers that the work of these artists is not economically based, but rooted in a “pure form of ministry” (Taff et al. 2006). In other words, there was no place for negativity in reviews because the magazine should not be critical of an individual’s positive spiritual expression. It would be akin to writing a scathing review of the Psalms. The list is populated with such prolific recording artists as The Gaithers, Larnelle Harris, and dc talk (who achieved mainstream success with the 1995 release of Jesus Freak), as well as crossover artists from the last couple of decades including Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay and, more recently, Third Day, Switchfoot, Mercy Me, and P.O.D. But even the spiritually zealous and dedicated musician Keith Green, who turned down a lucrative contract to provide his final album “on a free-will offering basis,” the profits from which would support missions and causes, didn’t achieve the top spot. That belongs to Rich Mullins, whose 145th Psalm-inspired “Awesome God” represents Mullin’s “view of Christianity as something you do, not something you talk about” (Taff et al. 2006).
Still, in the early years of the twenty-first century, Christian music sales have exceeded $600 million annually and show no sign of slowing down. While Christian music continues to evolve and reach new audiences around the world, it nevertheless stays appropriately close to that driving force behind the inspiration: the message of Christian salvation (Goff Jr. 2002). Debate has stirred over the place of Christian rock and pop in the church itself, but whether or not it finds a home within the places of worship, it will continue—as with all thriving traditions and movements throughout the world—to coexist within Christianity as an expression of faith, just like the traditional hymns and psalmody that have been in use by Christians for over two thousand years.

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