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Early Music in Longmeadow's First Church

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

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.

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 what 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 the 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 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.

Contributed by Melissa M. Cybulski, Board Member, Longmeadow Historical Society

Originally published December 17, 2020

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