Hymn singing was of great importance to the early Adventists. James White recalled that at the first official Millerite camp-meeting held in Exeter, Maine in 1842, “the singing of Second-Advent melodies possessed a power such as I had never before witnessed in sacred songs”. (James White, Life Incidents, Steam Press of the SDA Publishing Association, 1868, p73.)
Such hymn singing produced wide ranging responses from the “almost breathless silence” of nearly a thousand listeners that James White experienced when he commenced a service in Litchfield Maine, by singing “You Will See Your Lord a-Coming”; to the “animated singing” and “shouting aloud for joy” that Joseph Bates experienced at a camp-meeting in Taunton, Massachusetts in 1842. (Joseph Bates, The Autobiography of Elder Joseph Bates, Steam Press of the SDA Publishing Association, 1868, p265.)
For these early Adventists, hymn singing was an integral part of their daily life—Joseph Bates recorded that following an 1842 camp-meeting in Salem, Massachusetts, a two-hour delay at the railway station resulted in the waiting Adventists “singing Advent hymns” and becoming “so animated and deeply engaged that they people in the city came out in crowds, and seemed to listen with breathless attention”. (“Incidents in My past Life. No. 45.” Youth’s Instructor September 1862, p66.)
Singing was also an important part of home and family life for Adventists. Willie White recorded that “the singing of advent hymns in those days invariably constituted a part of the social intercourse of devoted Adventist families”. After news had been exchanged with visitors, it was typical that “they all joined in song.” (“Sketches and Memories of James and Ellen G. White XXX” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 13, 1936, p7.) White also noted the part hymn singing played in the White family worships: “At seven o’clock all assembled in the parlor for morning worship. Father would read an appropriate scripture, with comments and then lead in the morning song of praise or supplication, in which all joined.” (“Sketches and Memories of James and Ellen G. White XXX” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 13, 1936, p7.)
There was great diversity in the singing of early Adventists. Joshua Himes addressed some of the issues in 1843 in his “Preface” to The Millennial Harp—the second Millerite hymnal published,
“We are aware of the difficulty of suiting the taste of all classes in musical and devotional compositions; the greatest possible diversity for this purpose, which is consistent with the nature of the work in which we are engaged, must therefore be allowed. Some of our hymns, which might be objected to by the more grave and intellectual, and to which we ourselves have never felt any great partiality, have been the means of reaching, for good, the hearts of those who, probably, would not otherwise have been affected; and, as our object, like that of the Apostle, is to save men, we should not hesitate to use all means lawful, that may promise to ‘save some.’ (Joshua Himes, Millennial Harp, Boston, 1843, p 2.)
Furthermore, there was some degree of controversy over not only the styles of Adventist hymn singing, but over the presence of musical instruments. As C. Warren Becker points out, “During the early years of the Seventh-day Adventist church, no musical instruments of any kind were used in its worship services.” (“‘Such as Handle the Harp and Organ:’ Organs and their Masters in the Seventh-day Adventist Church”, Adventist Heritage 14:1, 1991, p5-11.) It was not until 1877 at a Californian camp-meeting, that an organ was used to accompany Adventist singing. At the first morning meeting, J. N. Loughborough read from Psalm 150 in an ultimately successful effort to convince the congregation of the propriety of organ accompaniment.
By 1900, Ellen White is herself actively promoting the use of instrumental music—and using a similar argument to that used by J. N. Loughborough: “In our camp-meeting services there should be singing and instrumental music. Musical instruments were used in religious services in ancient times. The worshipers praise God upon the harp and cymbal, and music should have its place in our services.” (Testimonies Vol. 6 p63.)
The earliest Adventist hymnals did not include music and one Adventist described some of the resultant problems “alas! When we sang; one prolonged a quarter note, until it consumed the time of a whole note, with a hold and swell besides. Some were singing one verse, until others had progressed pretty well into the next; and the ending word of each verse echoed and reechoed, each according to the different notions of propriety”. (J. Clark, “Music”, The Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald November 10, 1859, p200.)
One way of addressing this issue was to set new hymns to well known popular tunes, and early Adventist hymnals display several examples of this practice. “Land of Light” was written by Uriah Smith and first published in 1856. Smith’s hymn focused on heaven and was set to the popular secular tune “Old Folks at Home” by Stephen Foster. Smith also penned “O Brother Be Faithful” and set it to the popular tune, “Be Kind to the Loved Ones at home” by Isaac Baker Woodbury.
As Adventism matured, some of the more vibrant aspects of Adventist worship were replaced with a focus on order and discipline. Ellen White emphasized this when she wrote, “Singing is a part of the worship of God, but in the bungling manner in which it is often conducted, it is no credit to the truth, and no honor to God. There should be order and system in this as well as in every other part of the Lord’s work”. (“Co-operation with Ministers” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald July 24, 1883, p466.)
While promoting order and discipline, Ellen White championed singing with enthusiasm. Once when a congregation sang listlessly and without feeling she stopped them and remarked, “I have heard the angels sing. They do not sing as you are singing tonight. They sing with reverence. Their heart is in their expressions of song. They sing with meaning. Now let’s try again and see if we can’t put our hearts into the singing of this song.” (Recounted in Arthur L. White, The Lonely Years 1876-1891, Review and Herald, 1984, p384.)
Following the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, as new doctrines were formulated: the Sabbath, the state of the dead etc.; new hymns on those themes were added to the Adventist repertoire. “Lo! An Angel Loud Proclaiming” was first published in 1848 and represents the first hymn written by a Sabbath-keeping Adventist. It was written by Herman Gurney who was known as the “singing blacksmith” because of his habit of singing while he worked at the anvil; and outlines the new Sabbatarian Adventist understanding of the Third Angel’s Message and the eschatological role of the Sabbath doctrine.
“He sleeps in Jesus” was written by Annie R. Smith and was first published in 1853 as a poem honoring Ellen White’s older brother Robert F. Harmon who died of tuberculosis at the age of 27. It effectively outlines the relatively new Adventist doctrine on the state of the dead, and was then published with music as a hymn in 1855. Smith was one of early Adventism’s most prolific hymn-writers with three of her hymns occurring in the current Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal.
Perhaps one of the strangest inclusions in any Adventist hymnal is the anonymously authored “Smoking and Chewing Song” found in Temperance and Gospel Songs for the Use of Temperance Clubs and Gospel Temperance Meetings edited by Edson White and published in 1880. With the chorus: “Chewing! Smoking! Spitting! Choking! Sending clouds whirling in everybody’s face. Chewing in the parlor, Spitting on the floor, Is there such enslavement? Is there such a bore?”; it is perhaps not surprising that the song was never republished in an Adventist hymnal. (Reproduced in James R. Nix, Early Advent Singing, Review and Herald, p190-191.)
For Adventists, the singing of hymns served many functions – from the teaching of doctrine to the building of community. Despite ongoing struggles over music styles and lyrics; Adventists continue to sing of the soon return of Jesus Christ.