Something less than a half century ago, away down in the depths of the "Great Valley," amid the limestone cliffs of Middle Tennessee, there stood a Baptist meeting-house called Hickman Creek, after the rock-bottom stream whose mountain waters flowed roaringly by. That house was very simple in its architecture, but still it might be considered first-class building for the times. The logs were hewed instead of round, and the roof of shingles instead of clap-boards; a rare improvement for Smith county in those days. The house was an oblong structure, with two doors in one side, and a pulpit of huge dimensions on the other. There were reasons for a capacious pulpit; it was expected that all the preachers who happened to be present would sit in it, and that all would preach or exhort. This was one reason. Another reason grew out of the queer habit some of the preachers had of walking instead of standing, while they preached. It was no unusual thing in those days to see a preacher promenading from end to end of his pulpit during the whole sermon; his eyes, in the meanwhile, closed, and one hand pressed to his ear, as if to protect the tender organ from the dolorous intonations of his own voice. Hence long pulpits, with both ends boarded up, were a necessity as well as a convenience.
To this noted place, where four or five roads, or wagon-tracks, converged, might be seen once a month, on Sabbath, multitudes of people coming down the hill-sides on horseback, and gathering in thickening crowds beneath the beautiful forest grove which environed the meetinghouse. The dwellers among these rock-girt hills, for many miles around, came up with their wives and children to worship God under the broad liberty of conscience, unfettered alike by civil enactment and by laws of pride and vanity. They were a plain people, living far from the world's great thoroughfares, and free from the extravagances and vices of city life. Colleges were unknown in that region, consequently the preachers, like the people they served, were men of limited education. They were men of sincere piety and fervent zeal, but governed in manners and in preaching by laws of their own. Unlike the gowned clergy of our day these primitive preachers of the wilderness were accustomed, on a hot summer's day, to take off their coats and preach in the shirt sleeves - a very convenient habit for those who toiled coatless all the week. Unlike the drilled theatrical disclaimers of the modern pulpit, who read their sermons, these earnest, unsophisticated heralds of the gospel, with no teacher of elocution but the promptings of their own pathetic voices, sung their sermons. Like their illustrious ancestor with the leathern girdle, their voice was heard "crying in the wilderness."
Vulgar and ludicrous as the habit may seem to the eyes of learned criticism, this sing song preaching had its attractions. Congregations would set [sic] from three to five hours, on backless benches, and listen to sermon after sermon sung off in this way, without complaining. But the congregation of this refined age, who sit on cushioned seats, with cushioned backs, and cushioned foot-stools, and listen to sermons enriched by the best creations of intellect and genius, set off with all the improved arts of voice and gesture, and all the witchery of rhetoric, complain dreadfully if they are kept more than forty-five minutes. There must be a difference somewhere, either in the essence and manner of preaching, or in the taste and instincts of the hearers. After all it is a question whether singing the gospel is not as apostolic and efficient as reading it; whether the one did not make as many converts in that day, as the other makes in this age.
It was at this meetinghouse, and under this preaching, when a small boy, I got my first ideas of divine worship, and of Jesus Christ as a Saviour for sinners. And this fact may account for some notions that cling to me at the present time. The first pastor I remember to have met and heard at Hickman Creek was a tall, gray-headed gentleman by the name of Durham. It was under the ministry of this aged servant of God I first witnessed the exhibition of instrumental church music. It was very simple and primitive in its order. The instrument was not an organ, nor melodeon, nor violin, nor flute, nor drum, nor horn. It was a cheap and portable concern, that the pastor carried in his pocket, which at the proper tune he played himself, thereby saving the expense of a salaried performer.
When the hymn was announced Father Durham drew from his pocket a lady's tucking comb, to one side of which a piece of brown paper had been adjusted. While the congregation struck the air of the tune, he sung the same notes through the comb, which being reflected by the paper, and broken into diverging and crossing volumes by the intervening teeth, produced a monstrous jingle of sounds, that supplied the place of bass, treble, alto, and all the imaginary notes. Whether scientific or not, the primitive church instrument sent out a novel clatter of sounds, which to my uneducated ear seemed wonderfully melodious.
Little did I dream at that time of living to be a grown-up man; of being transported from those native hills and dropped down among cities; to tread the threshold of majestic Gothic temples, and see the tucking comb transferred from the preacher's pocket to a spacious room in the gallery, and expanded into the beauty and grandeur of the church organ, with its thundering sounds.
I will not undertake to give an opinion as to the comparative merits of the various instruments of church music. Let those who believe in instruments do this, if they choose. After some years of experience I decidedly prefer congregational singing to all the instruments in the world. Some might attribute this to erroneous education, or the lack of education. Be this as it may, I would rather listen, especially on the Sabbath, to some forty or fifty clear toned human voices, such as may be heard in some of our African churches, where praises spring up from the very bottom of the heart, and pour out in solid sluices from wide mouths; where time is kept not by the rules of gamut, but by the spontaneous swinging of their bodies as they heave to and fro beneath the pulsations of spiritual emotion; I would rather listen to this than to the finest organ in America. What dying Christian in his dissolving hour would not prefer the vocal praises of one single kindred spirit, making melody from the heart, to all the heartless instruments in the world?
[From Samuel H. Ford, editor, The Christian Repository, April, 1860, pp. 266-269. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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