1 May 2006
18th Century Theology
Professor Don Westblade
Toward a Theology of Proper Worship:
Jonathan Edwards on Congregational Song
Puritan worship practices in New England changed in many significant ways during the early Eighteenth Century. Not the least of these was a shift in the way New England congregations worshipped in song. In the Seventeenth Century, church music consisted of a cappella psalms sung in unison to common tunes and meter. This type of congregational singing suffered during America’s colonial years as musicianship was gradually lost and singing became chaotic and dissonant. “Each male worshipper sang without reference to the time and pitch of all the others” while the women remained silent. To bring back a more orderly and beautiful worship, in the 1720’s many pastors began instructing their congregations in singing by part, or “regular singing.”
This regular singing incorporated standard melodies and harmonies to create a more orderly worship. “By the New Way, or Singing by Rule, the entire congregation arrived at the same point in the hymn at approximately the same time and in approximately the same key.” This innovation, however, was not met with universal acclaim or support as some welcomed the new worship form and others staunchly defended the Old Way. New Englanders hotly debated the “singing controversy” as it came to be called, but by the 1730s and 40s most churches had transitioned to regular singing. By the time Jonathan Edwards settled in Northampton in 1726, his grandfather and predecessor Solomon Stoddard had already guided the shift in his Northampton congregation to regular singing with little controversy. Edwards himself was an enthusiast for the beauties of regular singing and introduced many of Watt’s hymns for use outside worship services.
Though already a part of worship services in Northampton under Edwards, the regular singing was still relatively new and Edwards took great care to delineate the doctrine on the public singing of praises. This also required him to answer the objections of the Old Way that were apparently still alive in his congregation concerning singing in worship. In order to avoid discord and promote harmony in the church through a unified understanding of worship and singing in particular, Edwards set out on a number of occasions to explain the doctrine of singing and exhort his congregation on their duty in worship.
This study will focus on the three main points of Edward’s teaching on singing in worship. First, Edwards’ doctrine of singing shaped his view of worship as a duty toward God incumbent upon all mankind. Secondly, Edwards argued that singing was an ordinance instituted by Christ for worship of God and edification of others and ought to be observed by the church. In addition, Edwards answered objections to ordered congregational singing. Thirdly, Edwards admonished his church to worship with the proper reverence and solemnity of heart. Out of these three main points Edwards developed a comprehensive doctrine for singing in worship and exhorted his congregation in the proper way it should be carried out.
Edwards believed that it is not only the duty of Christians to worship God, but that it is “that for which we were made.” Worship must be based on God as the Sovereign Lord of all creation who alone receives glory. For Edwards, worship consists of “knowing God’s excellency, loving God for it, and rejoicing in it.” The exercise and expression of this rejoicing consists in giving God honor and praise. This worship of God is further grounded in the excellency of Christ. Being both God and man, Christ is due equal honor with the father. Edwards demonstrated this command with John 5:23: "That all men should honor the Son, even as they honor the Father." According to the Scriptures, Edwards preached, there is the “same respect and divine worship paid to [Christ] by the Angels in heaven, as to God the Father through the command to “Let all the angels of God worship him." True Christian worship is a duty “incumbent on all mankind, in all ages alike.”
From this doctrine of worship Edwards reasoned that “certain fixed parts of time should be set apart, to be spent by the church wholly in religious exercises, and in the duties of divine worship.” In order to worship with the “greatest devotion and engagedness of mind,” Edwards held that Christians should put themselves into the proper circumstances where their minds could be “entirely devoted to this work, without being diverted or interrupted by other things.” To Edwards it is crucial to true, undistracted worship that certain times be set apart when men could throw off all other concerns in order to more “freely and entirely engage in spiritual exercises, in the duties of religion, and in the immediate worship of God.” For this reason Edwards placed a tremendous emphasis on the importance of the Sabbath. Sabbath worship for Edwards was one of the most precious times and of “great advantage for our everlasting welfare.” Because of this he exhorted his congregation to improve their Sabbaths by not losing any of it in “undue sleep, carelessness, inattention, or wandering imaginations.”
Edwards argued that singing is one of these holy ordinances of Sabbath worship. He found it necessary to preach the doctrine of singing at least twice to his congregation and in his 17 June 1736 sermon Edwards exhorted his congregation that, “a public singing of God's praises is an ordinance instituted by Christ to be observed in the Christian church." Edwards preached on Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” In this sermon Edwards answered the objections of the non-singing Quakers, explained the duty of singing specifically as an ordinance of worship, and explained the purpose (“ends”) of congregational singing for the edification of the body.
To Edwards, congregational singing is not a matter of preference, but an ordinance instituted by Christ during his ministry on earth and a commandment given to the early church. For example, Edwards allowed no room for the Quaker position that denied the public singing of praises. The Quakers, Edwards explained, believed that singing was only instituted as part of the Old Testament dispensation and that all praise after Christ’s return to heaven should be as a meditation of the heart. Edwards emphatically denied this position, and answered objections to singing with a four-part argument from Scripture. First, Christ Himself led his disciples in “singing a hymn” after his Last Supper before His death (Matthew 30:266). Secondly, in the New Testament the Apostles, such as Paul and Silas, sang praises out loud (Acts 16:25). Moreover, this practice of singing was continued in the early church as believers gathered in singing (1 Corinthians 14:26). Lastly, singing was evidently a precept of Christ as commanded by his apostles (Ephesians 5:16, James 5:13). These scriptures commanded singing with the voice, for “it would be a difficult thing to teach and admonish each other by their singing if it were only in the secret meditations of their own Hearts.” Edwards believed that Christ had specifically ordained singing as a mandatory part of corporate worship and that the apostles had commanded it for all believers.
Edwards next set out to explain the specific reasons for the ordinance of singing. Unlike worship in prayer or meditation, singing is a distinctly corporate ordinance of worship. Singing is the means by which fellow believers teach and admonish each other. As such it has a unique place in the fellow instruction among believers as the “one means whereby the word of God – particularly that part of the word that consists in Psalms and hymns and Spiritual songs – is to dwell in us richly in all wisdom.” In this way singing has an ability to help believers gain a greater spiritual understanding of the Psalms. Edwards believed that the Psalms reflected in a certain sense the “mind of the Holy Ghost” and that the singing of the Psalms would somehow impress that mind of the Spirit on our own minds. In this way public worship is a means of edification among the believers as they gain a better spiritual understanding of the Psalms.
Edwards argued that singing praises is a moral duty to express gratitude for mercies received from God. Singing is a proper and suitable expression of admiration of God and joy in Him. Through the special medium of music, singing is an important means to both excite and manifest religious affections. These two parts – exciting religious affections and manifesting religious affection – are distinct yet inseparable in true worship.
First, worship in singing has the ability to give a due sense of the “holiness of God and his perfections,” Christ and the grace and love of God through him, and heavenly enjoyments. He likened this to exciting religious affections. Edwards believed that the Harmony in singing gives “some shadow” and resemblance to that excellent and glorious harmony in divine things. By helping the mind to better conceive of the sweet harmony of divine things, it gives the mind an idea of the joyfulness and happiness that there is to be had in God. This in turn gives “sweet inward pleasure” to the soul by casting it into the proper frame to “raise suitable ideas” and a suitable sense of divine things. Thus, for Edwards, Music in singing plays a special role in exciting religious affection by raising devout affections and frames of mind.
Secondly, singing in worship is a means by which to manifest religious affection. Here Edwards was especially careful. Holy affections ought to be expressed before God and men, but not in a hypocritical and Pharisaical and ostentatious manner. Just as public prayer is appointed that men may express their adoration and dependence, singing is able to display the same things. Similarly, singing is a means of public expression of faith. For Edwards, public profession of faith was one of the “duties of Religion.” Corporate worship is a means to display one’s faith and express religious affections.
Edwards also had to answer a number of objections to his teaching and give guidance in the manner of following the ordinance of congressional singing. The role of women singing in church was one important question. Prior to the introduction of “regular singing” in New England, most churches only allowed men to sing while the women remained quiet. However, if singing was a duty for a congregation as a part of the biblical ordinances of worship, Edwards allowed no room for exclusion of women. Singing for him is as much an appointment of Christ’s as attending meeting or preaching, “and therefore ought to be attended by every one that is capable of it as much as they are no more excused from it. It is a duty as much incumbent on women as men and they are not all more excused from it.” Edwards believed so strongly that everyone in his congregation should be involved in singing that he felt compelled to explain his own silence during hymns in order to rest his voice for the sermon.
In addition, Edwards answered a puritan stigma against teaching singing by rule. Scholar Patricia Tracy noted that the widespread controversy over teaching singing had ended by 1730, but seemed to be alive in Northampton several years later. The old objection compared learning to sing by rule to taking one more step to praying by rule and “then comes popery.” Edwards’ argument was simple. If singing was a duty, then all had the duty to “put ourselves under a capacity to do it.” Since no one is capable of having a capacity to sing without first learning something of the art of singing.” Instead of leading to empty forms, Edwards believed that bringing order to singing would lead to more beautiful and harmonious worship. This coincided with an earlier sermon when Edwards preached that “parents ought to be careful that their children are instructed in singing, that they may be capable of performing that part of divine worship. This we should do, as we would have our children trained up for heaven, for we all of us would have our children go to heaven.” Praise, for Edwards, has a heavenly element. Learning to sing praises is merely a foretaste of the glorious singing in heaven to be continued for all eternity.
In his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Edwards rebuked those who had neglected true worship: “There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship” In another sermon he chastised his congregation for “gratifying your lusts in your imaginations” during the holy time of “God’s public worship.” Moreover Edwards warned that, “if you are negligent of his Praises how Justly might God be negligent of bestowing mercy on you.” Having his congregation worship with proper hearts was a passionate duty for Edwards and apparently it was still an issue in 1748 when Edwards left Northampton. In his farewell sermon, Edwards warned his congregation to have the proper heart during public worship. Exhorting them to be prepared for the last day, he reminded them that on that day, the meeting of ministers and people who have been under their care “will not be attended by anyone with a careless, heedless heart.” This was an important issue, because:
With such a heart are their meetings often attended in this world by many persons, having little regard to him whom they pretend unitedly to adore in the solemn duties of his public worship, taking little heed to their own thoughts or frame of their minds, not attending to the business they are engaged in, or considering the end for which they are come together.
Edwards desired that public worship, including singing, would be done in the proper manner, and offered explanations of the proper attitude to have while singing praises to God.
Edwards reminded his congregation that God is not as concerned with the actual singing in worship as He is concerned with the attitude of their hearts. “The external melody is not the thing which God looks at or is pleased with but tis the internal melody and the external is good for nothing but as the means of or expression of the internal.” Edwards explained that acts of divine worship ought to be attended with all “reverence and solemnity” for the Creator. There is a danger, he argued, that if singing praises is done only as a common song for amusement and diversion, it may lead to a great violation of the third commandment. Exhorting his congregation to “abound in the holy, heavenly exercise” of singing “in God’s house and in their own houses,” Edwards reminded them that praising God was a “holy act.” He went on to teach them, “When any social open act of devotion or solemn worship of God is performed, God should be reverenced as present.” Believers should worship God as if he were in the very room with them. Edwards analogized this to the presence of God in the Old Testament Ark, “As we would not have the ark of God depart from us, nor provoke God to make a breach upon us, we should take heed that we handle the ark with reverence.” Public worship in singing is a solemn, holy act of devotion to God that should be carried out in all reverence and attention to the proper attitude of the heart.
Edwards viewed worship as humble praise of an Almighty God for his attributes and mercy. As created beings, Edwards reminded his hearers that every person has a duty to praise God. Edwards held that congregational singing is an ordinance of worship instituted by Christ and continued in the early church by which a congregation could praise God together and edify each other. Because of its power in stirring the affections, singing is able both to excite and to manifest religious affections. Edwards was careful, however, to warn his congregation against singing to God without the proper attitude of the heart. Congregational worship must be attended with a proper humility, reverence, and solemnity.
Edwards, Jonathan. "That a public singing of God's praises is an ordinance instituted by Christ
to be observed in the Christian church." June 17, 1736. For a singing meeting. Repreached Dec. 1755. Yale Archives.
Edwards, Jonathan. "The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath," In The Works of Jonathan
Edwards, Peabody. MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998. II:94.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Farewell Sermon.” In Works, I:ccxiiv.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Praise, one of the chief employments of heaven.” Preached November 7,
1734. Available at: http://www.biblebb.com/files/Edwards/praise.htm.
Edwards, Jonathan. “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.” Available at:
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In Works II:10.
Edwards, Jonathan. “The End for which God Created the World” In Works I:119.
Edwards, Jonathan. “The Excellency of Christ” Available at:
Edwards, Jonathan. “The Justice of God in the Damnation of sinners.” Available at:
Edwards, Jonathan. “The Preciousness Of Time And The Importance Of Redeeming It”
December, 1734. In Works II:236.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Thoughts on the present revival in New England” In Works, I:419.
Marsden, George. Jonathan Edwards: A Life, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
Starkey, Marion L. The Congregational Way, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.
Tracy, Patricia J. Jonathan Edwards: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century Northampton. New York:
Hill and Wang, 1980.
Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Jonathan Edwards: A Biography. New York: Macmillan Company, 1940.
 George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 143.
 Marion L. Starkey, The Congregational Way, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 125.
 Patricia J. Tracy Jonathan Edwards: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century Northampton. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 112.
 Jonathan Edwards, "The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath," In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), II:94.
 "That a public singing of God's praises is an ordinance instituted by Christ to be observed in the Christian church." June 17, 1736. For a singing meeting. Repreached Dec. 1755. Yale Archives.
 Tracy, 112.
 “Praise, one of the chief employments of heaven.” Preached November 7, 1734. Available at: http://www.biblebb.com/files/Edwards/praise.htm.
 “The Justice of God in the Damnation of sinners.” Available at: http://www.jonathanedwards.com/sermons/Warnings/justice.htm.
 “Thoughts on the present revival in New England” (Works, I:419).