Last night, I had the privilege of leading a unique kind of experience to open this year’s 120th annual St. Louis Campmeeting: an “old-fashioned hymn sing.” Pastor Jim Sirks (from Battle Creek) and I played our guitars to accompany a crowd of over 100 that gathered in the old tabernacle on the St. Louis campgrounds. This event kicked off the campmeeting in stellar fashion, and I’d like to share a few reflections with you about the evening.
In the Church of God, we have a diverse collection of songs. For this event, I selected sixteen of our “heritage hymns,” songs written by some of the earliest people in our movement. I grouped these sixteen into four groups of four, each group revolving around a different theme: Songs of Praise, Songs of Gratitude, Songs of Testimony, and Songs of Commitment. There may be other types of songs in our heritage, but even these four groups reveal a wide variety of songs in our tradition that can be used for any occasion. (By the way, we sang all the verses of all sixteen songs, and the whole event lasted only an hour.)
In the Church of God, we have people who can sing four part harmony. The acoustics of the old tabernacle – a small, open-air, wooden building with lots of hard surfaces – added to the musical experience produced by two acoustic guitars and a hundred voices. These were songs that people knew and wanted to sing. And many sang the parts (alto, tenor, bass) they have learned and have known for many years. Singing in harmony is a gift from God, and it does something spiritually to connect people together in worship. Worship (including but not limited to singing) is a communal activity, something we do together and not alone. (Remember that electronic amplification is less than a century old – newer than many of the songs we sang last night!)
In the Church of God, we sing what we believe. In late 19th Century America, church music was an instructional tool that helped people learn the contours of our faith. So much of our early heritage music contains a tremendous amount of theology. While we did not reflect on the theology of all sixteen songs last night, I did highlight one hymn in particular: “The Bond of Perfectness” by D.S. Warner. One of my seminary professors, Dr. Gil Stafford (previously pastor of East Ashman Church of God in Midland), once said that this was the epitome of Church of God theology in lyrical form, because it blends together our understandings of holiness and unity so beautifully:
How sweet this bond of perfectness, the wondrous love of Jesus;
A pure foretaste of heaven’s bliss, oh, fellowship so precious!
Oh, brethren, how this perfect love unites us all in Jesus!
One heart, and soul, and mind we prove the union heaven gave us.
Oh, praise the Lord for love divine that binds us all together;
A thousand chords our hearts entwine, forever and forever.
“God over all and in us all,” and through each holy brother;
No pow’r of earth or hell, withal, can rend us from each other.
Oh, mystery of heaven’s peace! Oh, bond of heaven’s union!
Our souls in fellowship embrace, and live in sweet communion.
These reasons, and several more, are why I am committed to having us sing at least one of our heritage hymns in each of our Sunday morning worship services. Which are your favorites?