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LEARNING FROM BAPTIST HISTORY: The Long History of Baptist Worship Wars

Fourth in a series:

Worship wars among Baptists have heated up in the last decade. Controversies involving styles of worship are widespread, and many churches have struggled with whether to have two worship services in order to accommodate those who want a contemporary worship experience and those who want a traditional worship experience. Other churches have sought to find a middle ground and offer blended services.

What most Baptists don’t consider is that worship wars are part of our history. Baptists have long struggled with, fought over, and even split because of worship styles.

In the 17th century, Baptists in England opposed singing in worship and developed intricate arguments against what they called “a carnal exercise.” Some of these objections to singing may have grown out of the fact that the noise of singing would call attention to Baptist meetings which were banned by English law. But even after the harsh laws against Baptist meeting in England were overturned, some groups of Baptists continued to reject group singing.

Thomas Grantham, an English Baptist pastor, fiercely opposed the singing of hymns in worship. Grantham conceded that the singing of Psalms or biblical texts in worship might be acceptable, but he saw hymns as human innovations and called on Baptists not to use these questionable innovations in worship. After all, “set songs” were as bad as “set prayers.”

Grantham also opposed the use of “mixed voices” or “promiscuous singing” in worship, for the practice of congregational singing was not warranted in scripture and therefore must not be done. The problem was that the congregation might include some who were non-Christians and thus the music would be polluted by their non-Christian singing of Christian songs.

In addition, Grantham concluded that if a congregation did sing Psalms or biblical texts, that singing must be done as a solo. And of course, the solos must be done only by men, since women had to be silent in worship. He also rejected the use of any musical instruments to accompany singing.

Other Baptist leaders were not as intense in their opposition, but like Grantham, they too noted that women should not take part in singing in church.

Another Baptist pastor in England, Benjamin Keach, had a very different understanding of singing in worship and the use of hymns, and he helped English Baptists to see the value of congregational singing.

In 1673, he persuaded his church to sing a hymn at the close of the Lord’s Supper, allowing those who opposed this to leave before the singing began. Six years later, his church agreed to sing a hymn on public days of thanksgiving, and fourteen years after that, his church agreed to sing a hymn as part of worship every Sunday.

In all, it took 20 years for him to convince his congregation that singing hymns was a worthwhile addition to worship services. Even so, 22 of his members left when the hymn singing was instituted, and they joined a non-singing church.

Today, Baptists continue to differ in their views on worship, but the questions are a bit different. Should congregations sing praise songs? Should they have praise bands? Should they have two services or even three to cater to all the worship style preferences of their members?

For many congregations, these questions have been controversial and divisive, and I certainly do not have any wisdom when it comes to making these decisions or figuring out how churches can survive worship wars.

I would, however, like to suggest from a perspective of Baptist history that such disagreements about worship practices are neither new nor should they become catastrophic controversies within a church. We can learn from Keach that time and patience will eventually bring resolution.

Lesson:
Baptists today need to step back from worship wars and gain some perspective. A willingness to compromise, to treat with kindness and respect those who hold other views, and to patiently work for incremental change when seeking to introduce new ways of worshipping can help Baptists avoid heated conflict and hurtful controversy.

Pamela R. Durso is associate executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.

Click here to order The Story of Baptists in the United States by Pamela and Keith Durso.