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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Jonathan Edwards and Contemporary Worship Music

I've been reading George Marsden's massive biography of Jonathan Edwards (Yale Press, 2003) and I've discovered something I never knew. During Edwards' day there was a controversy over what kind of worship music to use in church. The older, more traditionalists among the laity wanted to keep to exclusive Psalm singing (usually done poorly with no accompaniment). Why? Well, mainly because that's what had "always been done" in Puritan churches and thus, it just felt more like church to them. They were against the "modern" invention of human composed songs (we call them hymns) and the use of such innovations as three part harmony and (gasp!) musical instruments.

On the other side of the worship divide were mainly clergy who felt that God was better glorified by "regular" singing where people learned parts, were free to use a variety of musical instruments and to sing songs that were composed by modern authors as long as they were faithful to the message of Scripture. Isaac Watts, of course, was at the forefront of this movement. Most will remember him as the author of such songs as "Joy to the World," "Alas and Did My Savior Bleed" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross". His hymns were a large part of the "new music" being sung mostly in the city churches, but largely rejected by the churches in the smaller towns and countryside.

Now, most of that I already knew. But what I did not realize until reading Marsden's book, was that Calvinist stalwarts Cotton Mather and Increase Mather (both famous preachers of the day who pretty much defined what it meant to be theologically conservative) were on the side of the new music. And right along with them, championing the new music was a very young Jonathan Edwards (in his late 20's).

For him, it just made sense. Edwards' famous grandfather, Solomon Stoddard (whose pulpit Edwards took over in 1726) had been one of the first to introduce the "new music" into rural Massachusetts, and young Jonathan continued the reforms he began.

I think if Edwards was with us today, he'd be in the forefront of those who believe in using good contemporary music (as well as solid older hymns) to the glory of God. I don't mean the fluff. There's a lot of worthless stuff out there that isn't worthy to be used in worship - both in contemporary and traditional song books. What I mean are the solid, biblical, Christ exalting songs from every age -- whether Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" Wesley's "And Can It Be", or "In Christ Alone" or "The Power of the Cross" both by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend, or any one of a hundred other new and old songs I could mention.

The point, once again, is not "traditional" or "contemporary", but Christ honoring and biblical, verse not.

In Christ Alone, My Mighty Fortress!

Scott Lee

PS - For those interested in exploring this subject for themselves I would suggest John Frame's excellent work "Contemporary Worship Music". It's a tad bit dated now and could really use a revision, but still a good place to start. Also, Sovereign Grace Ministries ( is a marvelous resource for well written "new" music with rock solid biblical words. So also is


BradyLee said...


I've been introduced recently to Sovereign Grace music and I love it!

Michael said...


It's funny how it seems like trends like this are likened to someone walking with a dead leg. The good leg can step normally but the dead one has to be dragged along. The stuff they argued about back then is the stuff that is supported now, like a stubborn leg hanging behind.

I just wrote an entry about divisions and need your input. Take a look when you get a chance, brother.

Take care,

Lydia said...

Very interesting post...I've been looking for something of Edward's to post on our blog today and I ended up on your site. Good read.

We use scripture to critically review "Christian" music that is popular today...

Our site is.