(Excerpted from A History of Worship” by George Skramstad)

The Story of Worship…

Early in Genesis we find mention of the first musician. His name is Jubal and considered the father of all who play the harp and flute.” We cannot find record that he led worship, but his music was an indication that music was an integral part of Israel life.

Synagogue Worship

This expanded and developed the use of the voice. With the fall of the temple, instruments fell into disuse, which meant the synagogues were for worship using singers only. Intonation or cantillating of the Psalms and the Pentateuch and perhaps the recitation of prayers were all a part of this process.

In the first century, records show that each book of the Bible had its own mode or formulae when it was read. However, there became a transition from declarative reading into musical reading. The chanting of scripture goes back as far as Ezra in the 5th century B.C. We know that the Psalms were sung in the Temple.

Israelite music was modal. It had much ornamentation or embellishment (depending upon the skill of the singer), it was very rhythmic without regular recurring meters. Its scale included quarter tones that are very foreign to western music. Also, Israelite music was monophonic music … music that has a melody line only.

Music In the Early Church

The Jewish converts carried over the musical culture of Jewish worship into the church and Christianity. In this regard, there was no radical break from Judaism in new forms of Christian music. Musicologists doing research have found the similarity of early Gregorian chant and Jewish music. Even the way scriptures were read and prayers were given had many similarities.

Very little can be said about the music of the first three centuries of the church beyond texts used and liturgical forms followed. We know that it was modal and sung without instruments. There are evidences from the historian Bliny in the first century, Justin Martyr in the second century, and Tertullian in the third century of recorded worship practice that implicated chant and use of singing.

In the fourth century Christians were able to worship openly, with Constantine establishing Christianity as a lawful and respected faith. It was then that buildings began to be constructed to house the growing congregations and forms of worship began to be formulated. A missionary to Yugoslavia by the name of Niceta from the Syrian Antiochian church is credited with using hymnody to spread the gospel. Jerome wrote that Niceta spread the gospel among European pagans chiefly by singing sweet songs of the cross.”

By the end of the fourth century the Roman Empire was permanently divided into Eastern and Western Empires. By the seventh century the Eastern Orthodox churches recognized two Byzantine liturgies that are the same today: the Liturgy of St. Basil and the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom. In the sixth century St. Gregory the Great of the Western Church founded the Schola Cantorum to standardize and teach the official chant within the church. Music notation was begun and history was made. All liturgy and music was done in Latin for the purpose of bringing uniformity to the Western church so that the same mass and music would be heard in every church. The early church fathers did not like the use of instrumental music in worship because of their association with mystery cults, the Greek theater, and pagan rituals.

From Luther to the Wesleys

The Reformation Movement, however, saw the return of the Bible and the hymn book to the people in their own language through the influence of Martin Luther. He saw that the people were not relating to the formularies of the traditional church. In 1523 he presented his first reformed liturgy. In 1526 the German Mass replaced the historic Latin songs with vernacular hymn versions set to German folk song melodies. The major mode/​keys became acceptable and we find a new relaxation of the once prescribed regulations. An example of this is Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

With Luther’s reformation movement came new freedom in worship. Instruments were allowed and the people began to sing their faith once again. A new strength and purpose was experienced in worship services. The formation of the protestant hymn came into being.

The Reformation was not only evident in Germany and mainland Europe, but also in England. After Henry VIII broke with the Pope in 1534 and assumed leadership of the Anglican Church, the Latin Roman Mass continued to be used without change. After the death of Henry VIII, Archbishop Cranmer set about to devise a truly reformed English liturgy that became a reality with the Book of Common Prayer, released in 1549. It was another attempt to bring worship back into the hands of the people.

The Puritan movement gathered increasing momentum during the close of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. In worship, its emphasis was on scriptural simplicity” — no choral or instrumental music, much after John Calvin’s Geneva. Both in England and in parts of Europe, the Anabaptists attempted to rid the church of music and the arts by the whitewashing of frescoes, removal of sculptures, and the stripping of ornate altars and symbols from places of worship so that God could be worshiped without distraction.

Worship in the English Free Church Tradition led by The Separatists spawned the singing of unaccompanied metrical psalms. Out of this came the Presbyterian, Independent Congregational, and Baptist churches.

Evangelistic hymns in the modern sense were one of the glorious by-products of Britain’s Great Awakening in the eighteenth century. Charles and John Wesley are credited with rescuing hymn singing from the bondage of the two-line meters — common long and short. Their sources were the new psalm tunes, opera melodies, and folk songs of German origin. Charles Wesley wrote the texts for some 6,000 hymns; O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” are two examples.

The American Scene

The early colonies took their worship and evangelical cues from Mother England. America’s first worship music consisted of metrical psalms, and these were still the norm during the preaching of Jonathan Edwards.

In 1800 the Camp Meeting Movement began with an outbreak of revival in an outdoor encampment in Caine Ridge, Logan County, Kentucky. The music that characterized the camp meetings was very simple with much repetition, very emotional, and frequently improvised. The brush arbor” meetings continued on and characterized this free style of worship expression. It is said that both the African American and the Caucasian worshiped together during this time. Ralph Hudson’s At the Cross” was one of the hymns to emerge from the camp meetings.

Beginning in the 1840′s, the Sunday school hymns of William Bradbury and others had the same musical form as camp meeting songs and were picked up eventually by the adults, which gave us our first gospel hymns” such as Jesus Loves Me.”

It was the evangelistic missions of Moody and Sankey in Great Britain and America that launched the gospel song on its century-long career. Many music educators wrote gospel songs as well for the singing schools across our land.Towner, Bliss, Root, and Fanny Crosby are part of this generation of contributors. The blind Fanny Crosby, author of perhaps 9,000 gospel song texts, is a sterling example of faith and skill. Fanny wrote the words while Phoebe Palmer Knapp composed the music for songs like Blessed Assurance.”

Billy Graham began his ministry with Youth for Christ in 1949. His approach with worship leader Cliff Barrows was a refreshing one, but shunned the sensational and overemotional worship music. They used music from Fanny Crosby, Charles Gabriel, Lillenas, John Peterson, and finally, Bill Gaither. In the 70′s and 80′s it was the Gaither’s that captured the imagination and the approval of much of the evangelical public. As in all experience songs, the new gospel music reflects the patterns of our day. A modern person’s need of God is not well expressed in such frontier language as I’ve wandered far away from God; now I’m coming home.” Sin and lostness must be redefined for each succeeding generation. We’ve had worship for centuries and we shall continue worshipping. The Bible teaches that God alone is worthy of our worship.

… And The Story Continues

There are so many contemporary examples of how telling God’s Story continues on through worship. John Michael Talbot in the Roman Catholic Tradition. Jack Hayford with Majesty,” Rich Mullins and Our God is an Awesome God,” Don Moen composing Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord,” Andre Crouch performing My Tribute,” Darlene Zschech and Hillsong’s Shout to the Lord.” Michael W. Smith. Marcus Dewitt and Latino Promise Keepers. The story goes on …

Keep telling the story. It is this calling that gives me greater purpose and understanding in the days ahead, as together we worship a God of all nations, of all peoples, of all styles, of all forms, and of all creation!

(Material was collected from many sources, especially from The Complete Library of Christian Worship, editor Robert Webber.)