Once many people in America couldn't read. Early religious groups who came here were literate, but across great stretches of the land illiteracy was common. One such region was the south where many former Africans had been imported as slaves. Naturally, most slaves couldn't read, but often the white people who owned them couldn't read, either. Georgia was founded as an English penal colony, so many of its early settlers were illiterate. Illiteracy was multi-racial.
Over time, many slaves became Christians and formed their own churches. As their numbers grew, church leaders began to push for education so they might read the Bible. Illiteracy was an obstacle to their Christian growth. Others argued that slaves didn't need to read. The issue became contentious and caused schism in some denominations. Nevertheless, many thousands of slaves - and later ex-slaves - learned to read through church efforts.
As the nineteenth century advanced and the slavery issue was resolved, Christian education efforts moved to cities where thousands of uneducated children lived - often wild on the streets. American Christians joined forces with English and European Sunday School movements to teach these children. The country was literally transformed as thousands learned to read and received religious instruction. This valuable work built the nation's moral fiber, preparing us for the twentieth century's turbulent years. Today, millions of descendants of those children are productive and educated citizens. Many are people of faith. This historic effort to educate poor children sets our country apart from most others.
Slave Christianity also produced the unique "black" style of worship. It is very demonstrative, with much emphasis on oral repetition. To some extent the style came from slaves' cultural origins, but it also arose because most early worshippers could not read. Sometimes this included the preacher. A literate assistant would read some verses of scripture aloud, and the preacher would expound upon them. Then more verses and more preaching. (Some black preachers still use this style, but they now read the verses themselves.) Singing was similar, since no written music was available and most people couldn't have read it, anyway. The leader sang a line, then the congregation (or choir) repeated and embellished it. This musical style still flourishes in African-American churches whose worshippers are now entirely literate.
The church's victory over illiteracy bears on our current day. History sometimes repeats itself. Fast-forward to our era and the Baby Boomers who changed America as they moved through various ages. First, we had zillions of babies. Then, hula hoops, poodle skirts, college protests, sports cars and commercial emphasis on Boomer youth styles. Boomers didn't wait their turn. They took over. Whatever they wanted they got, because of their great numbers (70 million).
Boomer influence has been much felt in church. Boomers are running things now, and they are cleaning house. Everything old must go. No previous generation has so insisted that its worship and music preferences become the new norm. Church-growth experts like Rick Warren - a Boomer (age 52) who has built a megachurch and written best-selling books on worship styles - are driving a whole new approach to worship.
One aspect of the new worship movement has to do with reading, which is where we came in. But I speak of reading music, not the written word. In many churches today, hymnals are gone. The Boomers have tossed printed music. Although praise teams still see music copy, worshippers get only the words of songs. Those unfamiliar with the tunes - usually modern and in difficult meter - stand mute or mumble along with others in the same boat.
The Boomer Church - which brags on how seeker-friendly it is - is actually insider-friendly. Each congregation now has its own private musical liturgy. "Our people eventually learn our songs," said one minister. But visitors are out of luck, as I can testify. Recently I attended services at a megachurch. I knew none of their praise-songs, and I left the "show" without having sung a note. (For this singer it was not a happy Sunday.)
Complaints about this are growing, but Boomer Church leaders have the answer: printed music is unnecessary because "modern" people can't read music. This seems to silence all debate. I'm amazed at how uncritically the premise is accepted, as no data support it. The explanation is just too convenient, and I‘m not buying it. (Maybe it's true in California, but not in Virginia.)
Clearly, a great many churchgoers can benefit from seeing the music for worship-songs. This was why churches had hymnbooks. Both strangers and long-time members could open the hymnal and sing along. (Every church was "stranger-friendly".)
But whether the widespread-music-illiteracy claim is true or not is irrelevant. When an important worship-skill is missing, the Church should help people obtain it. Once churches taught reading because illiteracy was seen as intolerable. In my day, schoolchildren could read music. If that skill has been so neglected that many now lack it, the Church must help restore it.
In earlier columns I wrote about the Normal Culture. This is what America once was. People grew up in mostly intact families, went to school, learned music, worshipped, played, joined the scouts, worked, dated, fell in love, married, raised families, stayed married, and lived productive lives. Singing was important to that culture. Today it's disappearing. If you wonder about the degeneration of culture, you don't have to look much beyond this. Try to recall when you were last in a secular crowd where people sang together as if they really meant it. In an earlier column I related this experience from my own youth:
"At the open-air Baccalaureate Service for my high school graduation in 1960, our entire class of over 700 rose and un-self-consciously sang, ‘God be with you till we meet again' in a stirring benediction chorus. Classmates wept openly and embraced as the words Till we meet at Jesus' feet rang out in the June evening. I shall never forget the sound..." (1)
Americans have always been a singing people. They still want to be, but they need the tools. One tool is knowing how to read music. (Another is having music to read.) Churches once fostered music-literacy. Popular singer Amy Grant says she learned to read music by following songs in the church hymnal when she was a child. So did I and millions of others.
Christians led historic efforts to teach reading. They should now lead a national music-literacy effort. But they'll need to stop pretending it doesn't matter. It will be a major attitude-correction in the Boomer Church. The "experts" will have to be overruled. We're waaay overdue on this.
(1) "Without a Song" (http://www.ahherald.com/atlarge/2004/040304_without_song.html)