...that is the question. From our modern vantage point, many might be surprised that Baptists have not always answered adamantly in the affirmative, “Yes, let us sing!”
A 17th-century controversy in Baptist churches debated the propriety of congregational singing. One side held that such singing was a form of preaching/teaching and should not be done in a mixed assembly. They also considered a printed hymn with the same disdain as a written prayer. The other side argued that it was present in the New Testament in both command and example. Two major opponents in the matter were Benjamin Keach and Isaac Marlow (at one time members of the same church). One can find Keach’s side in The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship: Or Singing of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, Proved to Be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ; With an Answer to All Objections and Marlow’s in A Brief Discourse Concerning Singing in the Public Worship of God in the Gospel-Church. Others entered the fray as well, such Silvanus Heathcote in Truth Cleared, or, A Brief Narrative of the Rise, Occasion, and Management of the Present Controversy concerning Singing in the Worship of God: with an account of several letters that have passed between Mr. Benjamin Keach and Isaac Marlow.[i]
Of 17th-century English Baptist worship, Leon McBeth writes:
“The earliest Baptist worship was lengthy and dealt primarily with Bible exposition. There was no singing, and Baptists put great value upon spontaneity and audience participation.
“By the 1670s, some Baptist churches were singing both the Psalms and ‘man-made’ songs. This was quite controversial, and many churches split over the ‘singing controversy’. Benjamin Keach, a London pastor, led his church to sing a hymn after the Lord’s Supper, and within a few years they were also singing during regular worship services. In 1691, Keach published the first Baptist hymnal, Spiritual Melody, a collection of over three hundred hymns.”
Baptist Theology: a Four-century Study James Leo Garrett, citing Martin,[ii] describes the situation this way:
“‘In 1673 [Keach] introduced [in his Horselydown congregation] the singing of a hymn at the conclusion of the Lord’s Supper,’ citing Matt. 26:30. After hymn singing became officially an every-Sunday practice in 1691 in Keach’s congregation, controversy erupted among Particular Baptists.[iii] The most prolific author opposing the practice…Isaac Marlow…wrote eleven books on this matter.[iv] The controversy divided Particular Baptists for about a decade.”[v]Needless to say, the final end of the controversy was congregational hymn singing in Baptist churches.[vi] Martin writes, “It is perhaps safe to say that by the end of the 18th century the use of hymns had become a generally recognised part of public worship among Baptists and Independents.”[vii]
Baptist controversies about singing include[viii]:
- The Singing Controversy (Singing vs. Not Singing)
- The Psalm Singing Controversy (Singing Psalms vs. Singing “man-made” hymns)
- The Regular Singing Controversy (Lined Singing vs. “Regular” Singing)
- The Musical Notation Controversy (Books with words vs. Books with words & music)[ix]
- The Musical Accompaniment Controversy (A cappella vs. Musical instruments)
- The Contemporary Music Controversy (Traditional hymn vs. Contemporary style music)
- The Song Projection Controversy (Song books vs. Screens)[x]
Further reading (including some of the other controversies)
- An Appendix concerning the Ordinance of Singing
- Benjamin Keach and the Baptist Singing Controversy: Mediating Scripture, Confessional Heritage, and Christian Unity
- English Particular Baptist Singing and Congregational Worship Practices to 1700, by Thomas D. Ross [If link does not work, Seek (on Google) and ye shall find (a PDF)]
- Exclusive Psalmody?
- Hymn Lining: A Black Church Tradition with Roots in Europe
- “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”: A History of Baptist Hymnody in North America
- Public Worship and Practical Theology in the work of Benjamin Keach (1640-1704)
- ’Sing to the Lord a New Song’: The Regular Singing Movement in Colonial New England
- The Baptist Contribution to Early English Hymnody
- The First Worship War Among Baptists and the Reformation of Congregational Singing
- The First Worship War Among Baptists, Part 2
[ii] Benjamin Keach, 1640-1704, Pioneer of Congregational Hymn Singing, Hugh Martin, London: Independent Press, 1961, pp. 9-10
[iii] Initially 22 members of the Horselydown Church withdrew and joined a church pastored by Robert Speed, who opposed congregational hymn singing. (Garrett, pp. 86-87) “English Particular Baptist Singing and Congregational Worship Practices to 1700” by Thomas Ross is important in that it shows differences on the question as much as 20 years or more before the Horselydown Church started singing in connection with the Lord’s Supper.
[iv] These include Some Short Observations made on a Book newly Published by Mr. Benjamin Keach: intituled, The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship (1691); Prelimited Forms of Praising God, Vocally Sung by all the Church Together, Proved to be No Gospel Ordinance (1691); Truth Soberly Defended: in a Serious Reply to Mr. Benjamin Keach’s book intituled, The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship (1692) and The Controversie of Singing Brought to an End, or, A Treatise in Three Parts (1696).
[v] Keach and Marlow were Particular Baptists, but controversy also existed among the General Baptists on the subject of hymn singing. According to Hugh Martin in The Baptist Contribution to Early English Hymnody the General Baptists originally showed more unanimity against it, following the prominent leader Thomas Grantham, who “complained that the Church was suffering in many ways by ‘the encroachment of humane Innovations’ [including] ‘the Custom which many have taken up to sing David’s Psalms or their own composures in a ‘mixed multitude of voices’.” (p. 201)
[vii] The Baptist Contribution to Early English Hymnody, p. 208
[viii] Some of these controversies have been more widespread and intense than others, and they have not been limited to only Baptists.
[ix] I didn’t find a specific online article that addressed this. It is sometimes addressed in the histories of church music among Baptists. This controversy was sometimes intertwined with the musical accompaniment controversy, but not necessarily. For example, many Primitive Baptists use “note books” but will not use musical instruments. It may at times also be connected to the “lined singing” controversy, but all users of words-only hymn books do not line their hymns.
[x] Sometimes called singing “off-the-wall.” This controversy is often mixed with the controversy over singing traditional hymns versus contemporary style music – but again, not necessarily so. Some object to singing traditional hymns from a projector screen.