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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

19th Century Baptist Worship Wars?

Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802–1880) is not a well-known name in Baptist history, but his life and ministry represent something of a window into nineteenth-century Baptist America, a century in which both America and Baptists changed dramatically. Jeter was ten years old, for instance, when the War of 1812 broke out. By the 1870s, when he recorded his Recollections of a Long Life (1891), Jeter still had “a vivid recollection of many events” during the war, including the day he delivered the news of peace to his hometown. Jeter compared his experience to Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” Decades later, as pastor of First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, where he served for thirteen and a half years (1836–1849), Jeter attended the first Southern Baptist Convention in Augusta, Georgia (1845). Jeter was a Southerner at heart. Even though he left in 1849 to pastor Second Baptist Church of St. Louis, he eventually returned to his beloved Virginia to pastor Grace Street Baptist Church in Richmond. In the capital of the South, Jeter also lived through the Civil War, in which he heartily supported the Confederacy. As an editor, evangelist, moral reformer, missions advocate, and pro-slavery pastor, Jeter was characteristic of the evangelical intellectualism of many Baptists in the South. However, due to his old age and willingness to express his opinions on a number of religious developments in the nineteenth century, Jeter’s Recollections also provide a first-hand account of many of the changes in the Baptist church. One of the changes of which Jeter did not approve was the new style of liturgy and corporate worship. Although, admittedly, Jeter grew up in rural Virginia and likely witnessed geographical and cultural changes in addition to chronological, his account is certainly representative of how many old school Baptists felt by the end of the nineteenth century. In chapter 63, entitled “Changes for the Worse,” Jeter writes,

There is now in the worship, especially of city churches, more formality and less fervency than there was in former times. This change is particularly observable in singing. Sixty years ago this was a pleasing and popular part of Christian worship. Almost everybody could sing, and many could set and lead the music. The tunes used were plain, but solemn and impressive, and the songs and hymns were evangelical, if they were not refined poetry. While congregations were assembling, devout persons would set tunes, and all would unite in singing songs. Perhaps half a dozen hymns would be sung before the commencement of the pulpit services. In this singing there was perfect freedom. Any one, man or woman, might select a song and set a tune, with the assurance that all present would unite in the singing. In the public worship the minister lined out the hymn, and the whole congregation joined in the music. At the close of the sermon, it was not unusual for several songs appropriate to the discourse or the occasion to be sung with earnestness and delight.

Now a great change has taken place. Music is conducted chiefly by choirs. These are composed largely of the young and volatile, and led by choristers, some of whom are not even professors of religion. The tendency is, more and more, to make church music a matter of taste and amusement rather than of devotion. The aim is, in many cases, to exalt the choir rather than the Redeemer, and the congregation are expected to simply hear and praise the music. The singing is an exhibition, not religious worship. Whether the music has a tendency to make those who practice it irritable and perverse, I cannot say, but certainly, within the range of my knowledge, no class of persons is so frequently disturbed by jealousies, feuds, and incurable divisions as are church choirs. There are few churches which have not been annoyed by the bad temper and unpleasant jarring of their choirs. Meanwhile, church music, in what is commonly deemed its highest excellence, has lost its power to move the hearts and consciences of congregations. Many listen to it, and are pleased with it, as a matter of taste, but even in them it excites no devotional feelings, calls for no penitential tears, and awakens no holy desire, while the masses hear it with as much unconcern and with as little profit as they would the pattering of rain. (Recollections, 316–17)

Clearly, contemporary Baptists are not the first to complain about new styles of worship infiltrating the church. At least one Baptist after the Civil War longed for the older liturgy where “there was perfect freedom” among God’s singing people. Whether Jeter’s biting critique of late nineteenth century worship can be chalked up to a proto-fundamentalist Baptist curmudgeon is hard to say, but what is certain is that a man who lived in almost every decade in the 1800s was astonished at the changes in worship in Southern Baptist churches. Indeed, Jeter had seen much during his lifetime. He was a founder of the Southern Baptist Convention and lived through the most tumultuous epoch in America’s founding. He endured two different wars, but one might say he could barely tolerate the worship wars in his own church! Amazingly, Jeter lived to see the Baptists transform from a marginalized sect to a denomination that exploded in the Second Great Awakening, eventually out-dueling the Methodists for popular supremacy in American culture. But with all these changes, he was apparently not happy with the developments in corporate worship.

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