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Early Music in Longmeadow's First Church

by Melissa Cybulski, Board member, Longmeadow Historical Society
December 17, 2020


Isaac Watts' Hymns and Spiritual Songs- 1704
[click image to enlarge]

Recently on Facebook, the First Church of Longmeadow began sharing a few videos of their virtual choir.  In this global pandemic age when choirs cannot meet in person, their approach of editing individual performances into one cohesive video presentation is the perfect meeting of art and technology. 

It also inspires us to wonder how Longmeadow’s earliest residents and First Church members would feel about such an assembly of voices.  Surely the technology in and of itself would be a marvel.

Early documents and writings show us that in the earliest years of the church singing was controversial.  Longmeadow’s First Church building was built in 1716 and its first minister, 22 year old Stephen Williams, began his 67 year tenure at the pulpit.  The church was the center of all social, political and spiritual life for the young community.   

This History Note was inspired by recent postings of virtual choir videos by the First Church of Christ in Longmeadow. Link to their videos included below. How would early congregants feel about such singing?

Recently the First Church of Longmeadow began sharing a few videos of their virtual choir on Facebook. In this global pandemic age when choirs cannot meet in person, their approach of editing individual performances into one cohesive video presentation is the perfect meeting of art and technology. It also inspires us to wonder how Longmeadow’s earliest residents and First Church members would feel about such an assembly of voices. Surely the technology in and of itself would be a marvel!

Early documents and writings show us that in the earliest years of the church singing was controversial. Longmeadow’s First Church was built in 1716 and its first minister, 22 year old Stephen Williams, began his 67 year tenure at the pulpit. The church was the center of all social, political and spiritual life for the young community.

Williams kept a diary of his life in Longmeadow. In a nine month period between 1717-1718, he mentions his worries over community strife caused by the issue of singing at services at least 28 times. Early New England settlers were steeped in Puritan tradition. It seems Rev. Williams wished to bring singing into the congregation and it was met with resistance by his flock. On July 25, 1717 he writes in his diary, “this day I have observed some uneasiness among neighbors about singing & I am at loss to do in ye case – oh Lord God be pleased to direct thine unworthy servant in the case.” A month later on August 21, he writes, “Some of my neighbours seem to be exceedingly out of humour because of whas has been said & done about singing.” And on October 11, “this day I heard of some of my neighbours had lost their affection for me because of what I did about singing, but my conscience don’t accuse me of any irregularity in matter – but I pray ye to forgive me & show me his will.” Clearly this weighed heavily on his soul.

It is difficult to know exactly what caused some of his congregants to so strongly oppose the idea of singing during services, but in Longmeadow’s 1884 Centennial Book, Rev. John W. Harding writes about the early years of the church: “Alas! the strife that raged awhile between the Psalter and Watts's Hymns; between the free singing and that by rote- the unheavenly dissonance - as Thomas Walter (1696-1725), the Roxbury pastor says, ‘left to the mercy of every unskilful throat to chop and alter, twist and change, according to their diverse fancies; and, 'so little attention paid to time, that they were often one or two words apart, producing noises so hideous and disorderly as is bad beyond expression’." One can only imagine the sounds pouring out of the new church on the green!

The “Psalters” likely would have supported the use of the The Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book ever printed in New England and a staple of early New England Christian worship services. Watt’s Hymns refers to a 1707 addition to spiritual music called Hymns and Spiritual Songs by Isaac Watts. While psalms were believed to be directly inspired by the word of God, Watts’ hymns were not as direct a connection to the actual word of God as Watts had written and composed them himself.
In 1765, the church voted “that there Some Suitable Person Provided Upon the Precinct Cost to Instruct us in the Art of Singing – And that Deacons Nathaniel Ely, Erza Stebbins and Eleazer Smith be a Committee to Hire Some
Person."

Fast forward to 2020, and the art of singing is indeed strong with The First Church of Christ Virtual Choir under the direction of music director, Dan Inglis.

 


Check back to the History Notes Archive often to read new articles as they are posted.


Longmeadow Historical Society

697 Longmeadow Street
Longmeadow, MA 01106
(413) 567-3600
LongmeadowHS@gmail.com
 
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