So why do we sing in worship services? My Unitarian Universalist tradition comes out of Calvinism, and we started singing because John Calvin said we should sing the Psalms — you know, sing because it’s in the Bible. Well, now we’re post-Christian, and some of us are very critical of the Bible, so why do we sing in worship services?
I think many Unitarian Universalists sing in worship services because it’s a chance to promote their favorite theological doctrine. Shades of John Calvin! The humanists in our midst like to sing songs that extol the virtues of humanism, and they pout when there are songs that mention God. The theists and Christians in our midst want to hold on to the tradition of Unitarian Christianity and Universalist Christianity, and they pout when they have to sing songs that don’t mention God.
Maybe this is why I like to sing with the Pagans and the New Age types. They just sing, and it’s powerful, and changes the way you think and feel. They know that “sustained singing is an ancient technique for creating altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation, elevated blood oxygen, and cranial and somatic vibration” (Marini, Sacred Song in America, 93). They know you don’t have to be a trained singer to get all these benefits. And the Pagans know that you when you sing about topics like birth and death and the ultimate meaning of life, you will be transformed. I also like to sing with Sacred Harp groups for exactly the same reasons. Not because I am in complete doctrinal or theological agreement with Pagans, New Agers, or Sacred Harp singers, but because I want to sing with people who don’t care what you sound like and who know that singing is supposed to transform you.
A recent article in the Portland Oregonian makes this point eloquently. Read it and — well, yes, read it and weep. I did. I wish typical Unitarian Universalist hymn singing affected me like that….
Currently, I’m reading Sacred Song in America by Stephen Marini (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003). Marini is a religious historian who is probably best known for his studies of Revolutionary-era religion in North America (Marini has also founded a well-respected group that sings 18th century American choral music and Sacred Harp music, has composed music in the singing school tradition, and has edited a collection of such music).
One of the chapters in Sacred Song in America covers the conservatory tradition of sacred music. Half of this chapter consists of an interview with Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006), long-time music director and composer-in-residence at King’s Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist church in Boston. There are many delightful moments in the interview, inculding Pinkham’s revelation that he was an atheist, and his story about how he got the New England Conservatory to stop having a prayer at commencement, and his comments on the singability of choral music, but I found this exchange particularly delightful:
Stephen Marini: The Unitarian tradition seem especially right for you, given your sense of things, because they are not going to push you on beliefs and doctrines and dogmas.
Daniel Pinkham: But Unitarian churches, they are fundamentalists in reverse!
I’ve been looking through some shape-note hymnals, and came across this interesting tidbit in The Norumbega Harmony, in the introductory essay by Stephen Marini*:
“The greatest musical influence in Maine… was Supply Belcher…. Belcher’s primary successor was Abraham Maxim, a native of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, who settled during the 17090s in Turner [Maine], where he taught singing schools and converted to Universalism. Maxim’s Oriental Harmony (1802) and Northern Harmony (1805) reflect the [William] Billings-Belcher influence that thoroughly dominated Maine’s singing school tradition.”
Although he is little more than a footnote today, Maxim (b. 1773 – d. 1829 Palmyra, Somerset County, Maine) must be the earliest North American Universalist composer whose works survive today. The Norumbega Harmony contains two compositions by Maxim, settings of hymns by Isaac Watts. Both compositions are fuguing tunes (for the record, Buckfield, p. 166 is an L.M. tune; Machais, p. 169, is a P.M. tune), and a quick look reveals that both seem musically interesting. Universalist hymnodists and choirs, take note!
* Stephen Marini is the historian who wrote the ground-breaking Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, a third of which book covered the indigenous Universalism of central New England; thus Marini knows his early New England Universalism. Marini’s other major scholarly publication is Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture.