Posted by: Jerad File | March 27, 2009

Worship Wars of the 17th Century

When one speaks of “worship wars” today, it usually refers to the style of music one prefers for public worship. However, this is no new debate. Worship wars seem to have been a part of Baptist life from the beginning of the English speaking movement. I had known this before, but was reminded while reading part of Ella’s biography of Gill this morning. It seems that the controversy was not about music style. It wasn’t even about whether it is permissible to be accompanied by music (as even some denominations claim today). Rather, the controversy was over whether singing was permissible in public worship at all! Singing was a part of the public worship of the established Anglican church. Baptists, as well as most other dissenters, rejected singing in public worship as being a vestige of Romanism.

Benjamin Keach, Gill’s predecessor at the Goat Yard Church, had been a pioneer in the use of congregational singing in public worship and was harshly criticized even in his own church. The controversy lasted for years and was even still alive when Gill became the pastor of this historic church–though most of the non-singing camp had already left by this time. This controversy is probably why the final article of Gill’s 1729 Declaration of Faith was included as important enough to belong in a confession of the church. It states, “We also believe that singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, vocally, is an ordinance of the Gospel to be preformed by believers; but that as to time, place, and manner, every one ought to be left to their liberty in using it” (Ella, 84-85).

This is also reflected in Chapter VII of Gill’s Body of Practical Divinity, entitled “Of Singing Psalms, As a Part of Public Worship.”  Here Gill treats singing as “an ordinance of divine and public service” (BOD, 957). Gill was an advocate of vocal singing in public worship. As to the question of what is permissible to sing, he argued that the command to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” all refer to singing songs that were contained within the pages of Scripture.  Though, Gill was known to quote the lines of hymns by Isaac Watts. According to Ella, Gill never really came down firmly in the debate over public singing, merely opting for prudence (Ella, 90).

Two things I think are of note in this matter: 1) Gill refers to public singing as an ordinance. This deserves some later discussion. Hopefully I will return to this in a later post. 2) The General Baptists were the strictest in thier oposition to public singing in worship. It was the Particular Baptists who were more open to singing.


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