(Third in a series of reflections on the church of my boyhood)
The congregation that gathered in the little white church on Third Street in Estevan in the 1930s loved to sing. My mother had a rich contralto voice and my father a pleasant, light tenor. Elsewhere in the congregation one could pick up additional voices, sopranos carrying the tune and two or three men booming out the bass.
At one period in my childhood, once a year our minister exchanged pulpits with the Baptist preacher in town. I remember his saying to our congregation that he loved to preach at the Free Methodist church just so he could hear the people sing.
From 1910 forward there was the little black hymn book without musical notes. Later during my childhood a book with notes was added called the Worship In Song – a good collection of gospel songs. The hymn book was used for morning worship and the gospel song book was for less formal Sunday evening services.
Much simpler choruses were reserved for Sunday School. Their lyrics were generally not as good as today’s more Bible-based words, although some of the earlier choruses have been shown to have staying power. There was “Deep and Wide,” and “Wide, Wide as the Ocean” which many can still hum.
Then there was the more novel action chorus: “Dig them up, get them gone/ all the little rabbits in the fields of corn;/ envy, jealousy, malice, pride,/ and all the other sins that in my heart abide.”
There was neither organ nor piano, even though Ruth Holmgren was an excellent pianist and had her piano teacher’s certificate, from the Toronto Conservatory. There were no guitars or brass instruments or drum sets. No choirs. No public address system or microphones. Our singing was a cappella, and it was always hearty.
The absence of what was sometimes referred to humorously as “the wooden brother” (the piano), and choirs, traced back to historical realities at the time the Free Methodist Church came into being as a denomination at the mid-1800s. Choirs, the leaders saw, had become centers of pride, conflict, and formality in the mother body. The founding fathers said the new body would do better without such distractions in worship. That may have been extreme but necessary at the time.
The minister simply announced a hymn, someone “raised the tune” and the congregation was off, singing their hearts out to the glory of God. This congregation of the Prairies was made up of business people, housewives, auto mechanics, and farmers. One member, Pete Holmgren, was the mayor of Estevan for a period. His son, Cliff, was the volunteer driver of the larger of two fire trucks.
If there was “special music” a quartet might go forward, stand behind the pulpit, hum a note and sing. On occasion there was a second or even third start because the pitch wasn’t right or the lead singer had momentarily strayed from the tune, but the false start, except for a moment’s embarrassment, did not seem to be a lasting concern for anyone. And those numbers were usually excellent. It was all a part of the emphasis on simplicity in worship.
It was in this environment that I developed a strong sense of pitch and learned early to sing all four parts by reading the notes in the Worship In Song. I can still close my eyes, and hear my home congregation singing with verve in all parts that more complex gospel song, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” How the men loved to boom out the moving line in the chorus!
On a few occasions, my younger sister, Eunice, and I were put forward to sing together, usually in Sunday School. I was about eight and she five. She had a sweet, true soprano voice and I could sing an alto by ear. This was unusual enough that the congregation approved heartily. At that time, there were no commercial cassettes or CDs or DVDs to be measured against, and no high-fidelity public address systems to enhance the sound. We were appreciated as home grown talent.
The lack of musical instruments in the little white church on Third Street seemed only to enhance love for music. I grew up with a passion to become a gospel singer as a vocation (later revised to becoming a minister with musical ministries on the side). And my sister became a piano teacher and mothered a musically well-trained family of four.
I cherish this simple but earnest heritage. At the same time, I can see that it would not meet my current needs or those of my extended family. That heritage was for those times, those people, and that place. Life moves on and so does church culture.
I only pray that whatever the future changes in public worship, one thing will not be lost: the keen and uncomplicated sense I absorbed on the prairies of Saskatchewan, that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” As I see it, that’s what every aspect of public worship should be about – from the opening greetings to the offertory to the number before the sermon and the closing prayer.
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