Choirs

The hearty congregational singing of the Methodist Revival inevitably led to the formation of choirs (referred to in the early days as 'the singers'), which in some cases became quite large by the late nineteenth century. John Wesley approved of anthems, provided they were not of a fugueing type, and included simple ones in some of his hymn-books (e.g. in Sacred Harmony, 1780). But he and his preachers sometimes had problems with their choirs (e.g. at Warrington in 1781), rather like those experienced in the Anglican Church. This became more pronounced after his death and the Large Minutes of 1797 forbade both anthems and organs without Conference permission. But anthems were popular with congregations and that same year a collection of 'Hymns, Odes and Anthems as sung at the Methodist Chapels in the Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Nottingham Circuits' was published. This issue was debated again by Conference in 1805 and 1815 and also at the Bible Christian Conference in 1820. Some writers consider that congregational singing deteriorated with greater dependence on organs and choirs towards the end of the nineteenth century; but the more recent steady decline in choirs and four-part singing did not mean a resurgence in congregational song; rather, the emergence of music groups which often sang in unison.

Quotations

'Suffer no Choirs of singers in our preaching-houses; encouage singing by all the congregation. If singing be part of the worship, why not all the people join in it? But Choir-singing, not only cuts off a great part of the congregation, from this part of the worship: but it has also a tendency to beget formality. Let none take the lead in singing, who do not fear God. Caution all, against singing what they do not experience, or understand… If it can be done, let one of the society set the tune, and take the lead in singing; promote this as much as possible. By this means, singing will be improved, and be more melodious, and edifying. Of all parts of our worship, singing comes nearest to the heavenly worship; as it raises the affections to heaven when the soul is happy in God;and makes us almost forget that we are in the body.'

Bible Christian Minutes of Conference, 1820

Sources
  • Methodist Recorder, Winter Number, 1905, pp.86-88
  • 'Methodism and Music' in Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music (1938)
  • Miriam Tuckwell in MCMS Bulletin, July 1978