Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Friday, June 08, 2007

Boreham on Worship, Choirs and Singing

The choir is not an invention; it is a creation. Let that be distinctly understood. The reason for its existence lies embedded in the eternal nature of things. God said, `Let there be light!' And there was light. He had no need to say, 'Let there be song!' because He Was; and, since He Was, the morning stars sang together. Whenever and wherever created things have stood face to face with their Creator, they have straightway burst into melody. The instinct is as old as the world, as true as the Bible, and as strong as death. There is something strikingly beautiful and suggestive about the existence of the choir. Men may go to other houses, but they will not sing there. Or, if they sing, their melody will be accidental, fortuitous, arbitrary, individual; prompted, it may be, by the whim or caprice of the moment. But when men go to this house—to the House of the Lord—they know beforehand that they will want to sing, and that they will all want to sing, and that they will all want to sing their very best; and therefore they set aside their most finished singers to lead them in their song, so that the great burst of harmony may rise with reverence as well as with rejoicing to the Throne invisible. Yes, the choir is a creation.

God is its author, and not man: He laid
The key-note of all harmonies; He planned
All perfect combinations, and He made
Us so that we could hear and understand.

And, as with all the rest of creation, God saw that it was very good. And we ministers have fallen in love with this part of creation as with other parts. Those sacred moments which preacher and singers spend together just before they enter the church are of incalculable worth. Even the business of arranging every detail of the coming service is of unspeakable value. I often think that it is like the felling of the trees in the forests of Lebanon, and the hewing of the stones in the quarries of Judea, preparatory to the building of the Temple. Everything that savoured of noise and dust and confusion was arranged away back, out of sight. 'And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither; so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building.' The tall columns, the heavy beams, the enormous stones, the massive buttresses all rose in awful silence.

No hammer fell, no ponderous axes rung;
Like some tall palm the mystic fabric sprung.
Majestic stillness!

It is very beautiful to have every tiniest detail perfectly arranged beforehand, out of sight of the worshippers, and for the minister and the choir to go to their places feeling that they perfectly understand one another, and will need no other signals or communications of any kind. And this delightful camaraderie is, in itself, of immense worth. A spirit of partnership, of sympathy, of oneness, is created which blends every part of the service into one perfect and harmonious whole; and which leads both minister and minstrels to feel that they are acting, not as separate units, but as helpers the one of the other. And when minister and singers bow together for one hushed and holy moment and afresh consecrate the powers they are about to employ to the divine service, and seek upon that service the divine blessing, each goes to his pulpit or his place feeling that he has been called to a task that angels might envy, and the triumph of the day is already more than half won. Any minister who enjoys such delightful experiences knows how greatly they enrich his ministry.

But the choir is not by any means confined to the church. When I was a small boy I used occasionally to relieve the tedium of a specially lengthy sermon by reading the private paragraphs in the Prayer-book. And I was particularly perplexed, I remember, by the notification that 'In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem.' The reference to 'quires' was perfectly intelligible, but what were the other `places where they sing'? But I have found out since. I said just now that whenever and wherever created things have stood face to face with their Creator, they have straightway burst into melody. That is actually so, and I call Mr. Standish O'Grady to bear witness. He is writing in The Irish Review on 'An Irish Sunrise.' He watches it from the slope of the Wicklow mountains, looking eastward over the Irish Sea, beyond which, faintly outlined, the Welsh hills swim in mist. He says that, as he watched darkness give place to dawn, and dawn to day, it really seemed to him as though God was creating His world all over again. And he goes on to say that 'through those few hours of luminous shadow there was silence; and yet not silence; for the grouse were talking in the heather, and the night-jar reeling, for ever reeling as he wheeled; a reed-warbler sang; and then, always, our little mountain streams kept tinkling, playing with liquid tender fingers upon their stony lyres. I distinguished the separate notes of three of them—the sweet innocents.' Then, as the grey streaks stole over the eastern hills, the lark soared into the sky, and the brave blackbird and the cheerful thrush lifted up their sweet, blithe voices. And, at last, 'so heralded, so welcomed by glad singings, pouring forth out of millions of innocent throats, the bird peoples of the earth, the silver-skirted fleeting dawn advanced, and soon the flaming cause of all that vanguard of music and beauty arose in his glory, pouring forth over all his creatures the boundless floods of his light and fire!' `Let there be light!' God said on that first day, and, when the light flashed forth, the morning stars—the first of choirs—sang joyfully together. And, from that day down to this, whenever Jehovah has clothed Himself with light as with a garment and appeared robed in the splendours of the dawn, the birds of the air have seen to it that a choir to welcome Him was not wanting.

No reader of English history can have failed to notice how strikingly the principle I have tried to set down here is illustrated on those impressive pages. Whenever and wherever, I said, created things have stood face to face with their Creator, they have straightway burst into melody. Now England has many times stood face to face with God, but twice especially. I am thinking, of course, of the Reformation and of the Methodist Revival of the eighteenth century. Those are the two greatest religious experiences that the nation has ever known. And the striking thing is that these two great religious revivals were followed by the two greatest bursts of song in the history of our English literature. The Reformation, so far as England is concerned, culminated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The great religious movement was complete, and the great poetic movement immediately began. England, to use John Richard Green's fine phrase, became `a nest of singing birds.' The ships that took part in the great fight with the Armada had scarcely sheltered in their quiet havens when Edmund Spenser landed at Bristol from his Irish retreat and published The Faerie Queen. The great poem became at once 'the delight of every gentleman, the model of every poet, and the solace of every soldier.' While the nation was still in its ecstasies over the work of Spenser, the first-fruits of the genius of Shakespeare made their appearance. Shakespeare is instantly followed by Jonson, and Jonson by a host of others. England had known nothing like it. The country became a choir. Within fifty years there arose fifty poets, many of the first order, and two centuries of silence was gloriously broken by an unprecedented outburst of song. It was exactly like the wakening of the grove to the sunrise. Through the night the gloomy trees were wrapped in sombre silence broken only by an occasional flutter when the wind sways the branches and disturbs a drowsy bird on his supple perch. But the sun rises and the great avenue is choral with an almost ear-splitting burst of melody.

It is no mere coincidence that led to a precise repetition of the same set of circumstances at the close of the eighteenth century. John Wesley had made that century peculiarly his own. He had gone through the land again and again until he had set England ablaze with religious fervour from end to end. As Mr. Augustine Birrell says in his Miscellanies, `John Wesley contested three kingdoms in the cause of Christ. He did it for the most part on horseback. He paid more turnpikes than any man who ever bestrode a beast. Eight thousand miles was his annual record for many a long year, during each of which he seldom preached less frequently than a thousand times. No man ever lived nearer the centre than John Wesley, neither Clive nor Pitt, neither Mansfield nor Johnson. You cannot cut him out of our national life. No single figure influenced so many minds, no single voice touched so many hearts. No other man did such a life's work for England.' Here again, then, you have a great and deep religious awakening. Here again England stands face to face with God. And I said that whenever and wherever created things have stood face to face with their Creator, they have straightway burst into melody. See what happened as a direct outcome of this movement that shook England. The nation became choral with song. Once more the country became a nest of singing birds. Even whilst Wesley was dying, Coleridge and Wordsworth and Southey and Lamb were brooding over the masterpieces that, a year or two later, delighted the nation. Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Moore, James Hogg and Lord Byron, George Crabbe and Percy Shelley, Thomas Campbell and Walter Savage Landor, Leigh Hunt and John Keats are all names that belong to that extraordinary period. It is no wonder that when, a few years after the death of Wesley, the poet-laureate died the Government of the day were embarrassed by the wealth of their riches and knew not whom to appoint. The fact is that the dawn had stolen over the hills, and all the birds awoke to greet it. I have sometimes heard shallow critics comparing the work of the preacher with the work of the singer. Nothing could be more ridiculous. Each has his place in the firmament, and it is a great place. But you cannot compare them. `There is one glory of the sun; and another glory of the moon; and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory.' The minister has a place all his own. It has pleased God to make him the world's evangelist. The New Testament ascribes to the preacher of the gospel a place unparalleled and supreme. He is an ambassador, a witness, a prophet, and a herald, all in one. He stands day and night between the living and the dead. His work is first, and there is no second. To institute a comparison is to introduce a confusion. But the singer also has his place. His ministry is a most gracious and sacred and beautiful one. Song has a power of its own. George Gissing tells, in Born in Exile, of the strange influence of sacred music on his sceptical hero. 'Notwithstanding his profound hatred and contempt, Godwin could never hear the union of many voices in song but his breast heaved and a choking warmth rose in his throat. Even where prejudice wrought most strongly with him, it had to give way before this rush of emotion. He entered the churchyard and found the leafy nook with a tombstone where he had often rested. And as he listened to the rude chanting of verse after verse, tears fell upon his cheeks.' But, subtle and potent as this is, the appeal of the singer, unlike the appeal of the preacher, is not an original appeal. A song may reach the heart, and, to the preacher's great delight, it often does. But the song only reaches the heart because the work of the sermon has been done so well. The song revives old associations, sacred memories, and holy impressions, and brings back, with a rush of emotion, the most precious thoughts of earlier years. The song needs that background, and is ineffective without it. It would have been useless for Paul to have stood up on Mars Hill and sung a solo. It would be ridiculous for a missionary to rely upon the singing of hymns among the palm-groves of the South Sea Islands or amidst the crowds of inland China. The moving magic of sacred song can only be effective if the work of the preacher has already been done. Song is like sunshine. But the sunshine will never woo the golden harvest from the stubborn soil unless the sower has first scattered the precious seed.

But, as against this, the singer has his compensations. If the work of the preacher is basic, fundamental, paramount, supreme, it is also true that the song of the minstrel haunts the memory longest. I have shown that a great religious awakening is always accompanied by a glorious burst of song. And the song always lingers. When Luther was journeying towards the Diet of Worms, at which he made his epoch-making stand for truth and righteousness, he suddenly caught sight of the bell-towers of the city in the distance. He rose like one inspired and chanted the great song whose words and music he had composed two days before:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work his woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate—
On earth is not his equal.

Nobody nowadays reads Luther's writings, but we all sing Luther's hymn. It was the most natural thing in the world that Charles Wesley and his songs should arise side by side with John Wesley and his sermons. Yet none but Methodist students read John Wesley's sermons nowadays—and even they do not read them from choice—but we all sing Charles Wesley's hymns. Moody's sermons are forgotten; but Sankey's hymns are all over the world. The sower does his work and leaves the field; but the sunshine plays with the growing crop till harvest-time. The song lingers; let that be the joy of the singer. And let all preachers and all singers clasp hands in happiest fellowship, and hold each other in deathless affection, till their voices blend in the perfect minstrelsy of the choir invisible.

F W Boreham, ‘A Nest of Singing Birds’ The Golden Milestone (London: Charles H Kelly, 1915), 78-89.

Image: Nest of singing birds