Christian faith, the role of music, and comfort zone

During a recent picnic social with our ELCA church congregation in Lonsdale, I get acquainted with a retired pastor who so happened to be talking about the brief founding histories of early colonizers in Minnesota from different parts of Europe who used church, religion and congregation as a way of reinforcing identity which inevitably set rules and definitions to exclude “others”. This led me to reflect on the purpose of music and musical practice in religious settings which I’ve been learning and putting much thought into for a musicology class about Race, Identity and Representation in American Music at college.

In Eileen Southern’s book, Music of Black Americans that we are currently studying, she pointed out that commercial and religious outreach formed the basis for Europe’s settlement of North America which confirms what the retired pastor was sharing with us during the picnic. Considering the first book published in the United States (the colonial America) was the “Bay Psalm Book”, printed by Stephen Daye in 1640 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is not hard perceiving truly how significant a role Christian faith played in people’s identity formation as well as the development of music in the colonial America.

“Bay Psalm Book”, the first printed book in colonial America.

By searching through the American Periodicals Series Online 1740-1900, I came across a primary source publication, Western Recorder (1824-1833) volume 2, by American Periodicals Series II in Apr 26, 1825. In the column “Poetry and Music”, they first presented a translation of an ancient Spanish Poem, then followed by a reflection of the purpose and performance practice of music in religious congregational settings during services.

“The following is a translation from an ancient spanish poem, which, says the Edinburgh Review, is surpassed by nothing which we are acquainted with, in the Spanish language, except the ode of Luis de Lean.”

Extremely few background or ethnographic information was provided except describing the piece as an “ancient Spanish poem” and it is interesting that no effort was made to at least include the original Spanish title of the poem. Instead, only “Kindled only at the skies.” This stands out to me as a form of using language (English) as a way of creating a new collective identity. Given that the language, the shape and sound of it plays a significant role in poetry, I’m surprised that zero efforts were made to include original texts in this column. I’ve tried briefly searching for the original texts with the English translation with no success.

In the section that follows, the writer discusses the fine line of the use of music during worship, that is to invoke a state of deep contemplation on the end of the worshipper without making the music too much of a distraction. The writer argues that in achieving such an ideal state of worship, the repertoire must be drawn from familiar tunes, with minimal use of dissonance or technical brilliancy or skills displayed by the musicians. While using familiar psalms and tunes provides security being within the comfort zone for the congregation to engage in contemplations and worship, it raises the question of how far the church and its congregations is willing to engage in truthful yet difficult topics that reflects Christian values and how progressive the church congregation is.

The religious movement, “Great Awakening”, during the 1730s has greatly shifted the music scene at congregations throughout colonial America. Slow, dragging and sometimes monophonic psalms are gradually getting out of favour while the more lively and vibrant hymns take over in many congregations. While this Western Recorder article was published in the early 19th century, it somewhat reflects a conservative drawback on the congregation and Church leadership.


Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.

POETRY & MUSIC. (1825, Apr 26). Western Recorder (1824-1833) Retrieved from

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