Thomas Ohlgren


Dr. Westblade


18th Century Religion—Jonathan Edwards


November 22, 2013


For a New Tradition:

Rationalist Thought in the Regular Singing Controversy of Puritan New England


            In 1723, Mr. Niles of Braintree, New England suspended “seven or eight [members] of the church for persisting in their singing by rule” (Hood 89). Their suspensions were later lifted but the question remains: just how did a subject as inconsequential as singing excite so much division? Often times the matter is portrayed as an instance of a stubborn people clinging to old ideas and traditions. While it is true that the Puritans were a conservative people, to dismiss the issue with that little inspection is premature. Controversies usually become grand because of ideas. With that in mind, one should first understand the Puritan’s conception of worship music and Calvin’s thoughts on the matter before glibly dismissing the introduction of singing by note. Then, it becomes clear that the controversy surrounding the introduction of regular singing into Puritan New England is an early instance of a fusion between Puritan orthodoxy and rationalist thought.  

In order to better understand the regular singing reform of the 1720s one should first focus on Calvin’s theology and theory of worship music. Then, one can better understand the Puritan’s conception of worship music and “usual” way of singing in the 17th century. Lastly, this paper will focus on the regular singing reform of the 1720s with its rationalist roots and how that differs from the old way of singing of the 17th century.

From the time of the first settlements up through the 17th century, New England congregations followed the musical theology of John Calvin. According to Calvin, every part of the church service is justified and finds purpose in the revealed word of God. This includes music. For Calvin, music is purely intended for the glorification of God.

Further, its form is provided for in the Bible. As Charles Garside Jr. explains, Calvin agreed with Augustine, that “no one is able to sing things worthy of God unless he has received them from Him” (Garside 23). Accordingly, the psalms of David are the only songs “received” from God in scripture—a view which Puritan clergymen held in the early colonial period.

Besides identifying the content of the songs, Calvin also deduced certain requirements for the singing of the psalms. Garside identifies Calvin’s three main requirements: total commitment of the heart, intelligence, and memory. A total commitment to the heart simply means that songs of praise must truly come from the heart. By intelligence, Calvin writes: “the peculiar gift of man is to sing knowing what he is saying” (Garside 26). The people should be literate and attentive to the words being sung, not “without understanding” (Garside 26). To sing without understanding would be to sing as the parrots do: beautifully, but also neglecting the reason that comes with man’s station in the world. Third, Calvin hopes that the singer is not distracted by either the text nor the music but fully immersed in the praise of God—freed from distraction. This explains his insistence on memorizing the psalms.

Taken together, it is evident Calvin concentrated on the content and text of the song, more so than the actual beauty or structure of the music. His requirements for singing are noteworthy but they nevertheless leave a treble clef empty and unguided.

Of course, this did not mean that there was total freedom within Calvin’s theology of music. Instruments were banned from use for fear of distraction and the dangers they posed in appealing to the sensual side of man. Calvin spoke of this in one of his sermons: “the invention of instruments had ministered rather to man’s pleasure than to his actual needs” (Covey 384). Additionally, the entire congregation was expected to sing, not a set choir like the Lutherans. He wanted the hearts of all to be engaged in the act of worship. In reality, then, Calvin was strict about the structure of worship. But, because his views on worship stemmed strictly from the confines of revealed theology these qualifications seem justified. On the other hand, because Calvin drew solely from revealed theology, he had a hard time establishing the actual music of a ‘proper’ worship service. The Bible has nothing to say about notes, melodies, and treble clefs. If music is an art or science, as the regular singing reformers believed, it would be impossible to extract that science from a document about sin, atonement, and redemption.

Most 17th century Puritans abided by Calvin’s theology of music. They were, after all, Calvinist reformers. In particular, this meant that Puritan psalmody maintained a strict adherence to the scriptures, as Calvin would have hoped. Additionally, as seen in John Cotton’s discourse, they concentrated upon the spiritual beauty of the worship rather than the beauty of the musical sound.

In order to examine Calvin’s influence on Puritan psalmody one should look at the definitive psalmody book in 17th century New England, The Bay Psalm Book. The first edition was released in 1640 by New England clergymen who were eager garter international attention and display the benevolence of the new world. True to Calvin’s ignorance of musical instruction, “[t]his first edition contains only Psalms, there being no “Spiritual songs,” or hymns” (Hood 21). Albeit, the end of the book contains instructions—an “admonition to the reader”—which contains vague instructions on setting the psalms to tunes. All this is to say that the purpose of the psalm book was to set the Songs of David to meter, not lay out notes and chords for the congregation to master.

Later versions of The Bay Psalm Book continued to focus on the words. There were many revisions of the book, all the way into the 18th century. Above all, the clergymen were worried about fidelity to the text of the scripture. Hence, as George Hood puts it, “its faults, as a metrical version, designed to be sung, were many and palpable” (Hood 30). But, as clergymen saw it, the musical faults in Puritan psalmody were outweighed by the strict Biblicism being maintained. Nevertheless, as this paper will later discuss, Puritan congregations developed a musical tradition despite the lack of instruction.

Whereas The Bay Psalm Book displays the 17th Century Puritan’s Calvinistic adherence to textual integrity, John Cotton’s discourse on singing reveals another Calvinistic tendency in their worship practices. The other noticeable musical approach the Puritans adopted from Calvin was their emphasis on the spiritual beauty of the worship over the beauty of the music. John Cotton’s 1647 treatise, Singing of Psalms a Gospel Ordinance, explores this idea with some length. For one, the discourse supported Calvin’s theology of music, namely that music lay strictly within the confines of revealed theology. Cotton makes no attempt to improve the quality of worship by adding written music or deducing a natural philosophy about beauty in music. Rather, he believed the purpose and form of worship was provided for in scripture. For Cotton, the glorification of God is increased by the spiritual beauty of the singer, not by the music being sung. This is spelled out in his answer to an objection about “carnal” men singing in worship:

Though their melody be more beautiful and glorious to the outward appearance, as being more artificial and more musical: yet seeing the Spirit of Grace is more abundantly poured out in the New Testament, then in the old, if the holy Singers sin? with more life and grace of the Spirit, our melody is the more beautiful and glorious before the Lord, and his spiritual Saints, though theirs was more beautiful and glorious in the outward sense. (Irwin 179).

Joyce Irwin rightly notes: “the quality of the music, therefore, is determined not by the excellence of the performance but by the degree of spiritual arousal” (Irwin 179). As Cotton and Calvin see it, quality music was more likely to appeal to the sensual pleasures of man than to glorify God. Consequently, the musical quality waned throughout the 17th century but, again, this was tertiary compared to the Calvinist calling to strict Biblicism. Besides, an informal singing tradition did develop despite a lack of formality in rules and notes.

The “old way” of singing, as it was called, was essentially an oral tradition. The tradition consisted of a limited number of tunes sung in memory. Often times the tunes were embellished and “lined out” by a parish clerk or some other Congregational leader. Paul R. Osterhout explains this process of lining out: “typically, the psalm would be read in prose, a tune would be chosen and announced, and someone would chant the psalm, one or two lines at a time. Then the congregation, sometimes aided by a chorister, would join in singing those lines” (Osterhout 127). This process would be repeated through the end of the psalm. Because most congregations were not musically educated, church members often became dependent upon the leaders and this tradition of lining out.

Some musical reforms were made during the 17th century, but they were unable to unify worship music in New England. Ultimately, congregations were left in the dark when it came to the art of singing. Churches realized this, too: “there was for want of a proper supply of tunes, a general dullness and monotony in the music of the church” (Hood 57). One of the minor reforms occurred in 1690, whereby music was appended to the Bay Psalm Book. This “music” attached was but a step in the right direction, nothing like the introduction of regular singing which would come twenty some years later. The music included many errors and even lacked the bars for the notes. Note some of the musical directions included in the appendage: “these two tunes, begin your first note low, in regard the tune ascends eight notes above it” (Hood 59). Instruments were not used, so the degree of pitch indicated was unknown. It is unsurprising, then, that by the end of the 17th century congregations throughout New England were unable to sing more than three or four tunes (Hood 86)

And, of these three or four tunes, no two congregations sung the same version. Thomas Walter remarked on the ordeal, saying it sounded “like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time,” producing noises “so hideous and disorderly, as is bad beyond expression” (Hood 84). Still, the Clergymen should not be surprised considering so little emphasis was laid on the actual beauty of the music.

That all changed in the 1720s. Shockingly, the beauty of the music began to concern a number of clergymen in the early 18th century. In a sermon, Thomas Symmes commented on the state of singing: “it is to be feared, singing must be wholly omitted in some places, for want of skill, if this art is not revived” (Hood 85). Mr. Symmes was not alone. According to Laura L. Becker, between 1720 and 1730 “no fewer than thirty-one clergymen” preached in favor of the new way of singing that was being expounded (Becker 83).

The new way of singing being endorsed by clergymen in the 1720s was called “regular singing.” As opposed to the “lining out” that most congregations practiced, the regular singing movement introduced patterns and notes into the psalm-books and sought to base worship songs on the common rules of music.

Much has been written on the effects of the Regular Singing movement throughout New England. However, this paper will focus on the ways in which the Regular Singing reform can be viewed as an early instance of Puritan orthodoxy mingling with enlightenment rationalism. The works of Thomas Symmes and Thomas Walter, in particular, reveal this fusion if not solely by their striking dissimilarity to the musical approach of John Cotton.

            For context, one should remember that Boston in the 1720s was a thriving, metropolitan city. The new world was gaining attention just as early Clergymen had hoped. But, this had consequences. Boston became an intellectual hotspot, taking in as many new ideas as its puritan ministers hoped it was sending out. Writers and thinkers like John Locke were being imported to the states—primarily through the University system.

            Thomas Symmes published The Reasonableness of Regular Singing in 1720. The sermon is a defense of regular singing, directed towards those who still preferred the usual way. As Joyce Irwin points out, the very title “is evidence of the passing of strict biblicism” (Irwin 182). There are no references to scripture in the title, an uncommon approach for a Puritan minister. His arguments are even more revealing. Symmes provided four main points to advocate singing by note: history, melody, rationality, and scripture. Interestingly, scripture is only the basis for one of his four points. This should be compared to Cotton’s work in 1640 which centered every paragraph on scripture. As a clear indication of rationalist thought in the regular singing controversy Symmes’ third argument should be noted.

            In is third argument Symmes’ places reason in a special place of authority. To be clear, it would be heresy for Symmes to place human reason above the authority of scripture. Yet, he comes close to doing so, at least when it comes to music. In fact, he has no reservations about submitting the singing controversy to the dictates of human reason. From his sermon:

That way of singing which is most rational is the best and most excellent… It is most rational in any art or Science to practice according to the rules of it, especially in that which is used in the joint worship of God; where every man is following his own fancy, and leaving the rule is an inlet to great confusion and disorder, which is very contrary to Him who is not the Author of confusion, but the God of Order… (Hood 99)

One can see the beginnings of a natural theology here. God is the God of order and that order includes rules and ways of singing. To honor God, then, would be to sing according to those rules. Interestingly, rationalist thought begins to infiltrate Puritan orthodoxy through one of the more obscure aspects of a worship service—psalm singing. To be fair, these changes were most likely made with the express goal of unification, not simply because of new philosophical theories. But, it is nonetheless interesting that the Puritan desire to unify New England churches is based upon rationalist music reform. These small concessions are but a shadow of the change that will accompany the enlightenment in America fifty years later.

            One can also see the fusion of enlightenment rationalism and Puritan orthodoxy in the works of Thomas Walter. His 1720 singing treatise, The Sweet Psalmist of Isreal, contains a similar musical approach to Thomas Symmes.

            For one, Walter places the art of singing within the confines of science. In his discourse, Walters describes music as “a sweet and pleasant science…. There is scarce anything in the whole Creation of God, so wonderful and astonishing, as the Doctrine of Sounds and Harmony” (sweet psalms 6). Later in the piece Walter notes that “there is a Mathematical Sweetness and Pleasancy in Sounds” (Walter 7). In both instances, Walter is splitting from both Calvin and Cotton by placing music under the discretion of science. Like Symmes, Walter sees a natural order and beauty in the mathematical-like “doctrine of sounds and harmony” that occurs in music.

            Furthermore, his brief discussion of chords and harmony point to his rationalist, mathematical mindset. He writes: “when the number of tremors… caused by two Sounds, are proportionable, there is an harmonious agreement of those two Sounds; but if disproportionate, a Discord is produced” (Walter 8). His deference to “proportions” reveals his inclination to look at music in light of its scientific qualities. That same inclination is found in Symmes’ work.

            Still, Walter fused his mathematical disposition within the Puritan orthodoxy. Towards the end of the treatise Walter qualifies a good psalm song: “in general a good Version of the Psalms is to be pleaded for, where moving Words and moving Sounds go together” (Walter 18). So, he was eager, like Cotton and Calvin before him, to “make the Statutes of God our Songs,” but the form changed according to the new, rationalist conception of music.

            Walter’s and Symmes’ discourses were promptly followed by the release of musical education books and singing schools in New England. To an extent, then, the reform had worked. On the other hand, musical innovation would continue to be a point of contention for the Puritans. Advocates of regular singing were ridiculed because they departed from a revealed theology of music by addressing music as a science. For Puritans such as John Cotton and Calvin, every part of the church service found its purpose and content in the revealed word of God—including worship music. Still, defenders of regular singing won the battle to unify churches by fusing Puritan orthodoxy with rationalist thought. Time would later tell that they lost the war to the enlightenment and the dismissal of Puritan piety.










Becker, Laura L. "Ministers v. Laymen: The Singing Controversy in Puritan New England, 1720-1740." New England Quarterly 55.1 (1982): 79-96. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http//>.


Covey, Cyclone. "Puritanism and Music in Colonial America." William and Mary Quarterly8.3 (1951): 378-88. JSTOR. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <>.


Garside, Charles, Jr. "The Origins of Calvin's Theology of Music: 1536-1543." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 69.4 (1979): 1-36. JSTOR. Web. 19 Oct. 2013. <>.


Hood, George. A History of Music in New England; with Biographical Sketches of Reformers and Psalmists. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1970. Print.


Irwin, Joyce. "The Theology of "Regular Singing"" New England Quarterly 51.2 (1978): 176-92. JSTOR. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <>.


Osterhout, Paul R. "Note Reading and Regular Singing in Eighteenth-Century New England."American Music 4.2 (1986): 125-44. JSTOR. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <>.


Thomas, Walter. The Sweet Psalmist of Israel. Boston: J. Franklin, 1722. Print.