Rev. Thomas Symmes (1677-1725) was a graduate of Harvard who, among a handful of other Puritan ministers in the 1720’s, fought for the improvement of congregational singing in New England churches. Not that he was picky–several contemporary accounts remark that “jarring discords tore the tortured air” because the people were musically illiterate. No one had music in front of them, so people would switch tunes mid-song, start too high or low, and drag so slowly that they had to take two breaths in one word.

Several Harvard-grads had a solution–teach the church people to read music. Symmes, one of the foremost proponents of the new music education, met stiff opposition from parishioners who were suspicious of fa, so, and la. In his book Utile Dulci: Or, A joco-serious dialogue, concerning regular singing… (1722-3), he (with tongue in cheek) records some of their “objections:”

  1. It is a new way, an unknown tongue.
  2. It is not so melodious as the usual way.
  3. There are so many tunes we shall never have done learning them.
  4. The practice creates disturbances and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly.
  5. It is Quakerish and Popish and introductive of instrumental music.
  6. The names given to the notes are bawdy, yea blasphemous.
  7. It is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it.
  8. It is a contrivance to get money.
  9. People spend too much time learning it, they tarry out nights disorderly.
  10. They are a company of young upstarts that fall in with this way, and some of them are lewd and loose persons.

There’s a lot surrounding this historical issue that could be explored, viz., the tension between text (content) and musical beauty (form), the sensitive nature of introducing change in a church, and the advantages/disadvantages of pastoring a rural vs. urban congregation (many of the objectors in this instance were country churches). But I’d like to get through some more reading before making such remarks, and this will have to suffice for now.

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