Music and the Reformation: historical context


In the divine prophetic scheme, the time of the end would be preceded by a period of 1260 years of dense spiritual and moral darkness, commanded by Satan through the church of Rome and the system that directs it: the papacy.

During the Middle Ages, the political strength of the Roman church knew no limits. Papal authority was enough to lay bare kings and subdue nations. The worst kinds of violence and cruelty were committed in the name of religion. Millions of faithful Christians were persecuted, tortured and killed.

However, the Lord mercifully cut short the suffering of His people, prompting, in the sixteenth century, a movement that would undermine the power and influence of the church of Rome: the Protestant Reformation.

In many ways the Protestant Reformation implied a radical break with principles, doctrines and practices implanted by Catholicism in the Middle Ages, and promoted the restoration of fundamental biblical truths. The doctrine of salvation solely by grace and justification by faith was restored. The Bible was enthroned as the only infallible guide. Christ was once again regarded as the only Mediator between God and humanity.

When Had the Darkness Begun?

Early in the early Christian church, the apostle Paul warned believers about the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thessalonians 2: 7) and the “man of sin” (2 Thessalonians 2: 3), referring to the emergence, strengthening and predominance of the papacy that would occur in the centuries to follow.

In the fourth and fifth centuries AD, the church experienced a severe spiritual chilling. Christianity, formerly proscribed and discriminated against, after the “conversion” of the emperor Constantine became the official religion of the state. The simplicity of the gospel was cast aside and pagan doctrines and customs were introduced into the church.

“Almost imperceptibly the customs of heathenism found their way into the Christian church. The spirit of compromise and conformity was restrained for a time by the fierce persecutions which the church endured under paganism. But as persecution ceased, and Christianity entered the courts and palaces of kings, she laid aside the humble simplicity of Christ and His apostles for the pomp and pride of pagan priests and rulers; and in place of the requirements of God, she substituted human theories and traditions. The nominal conversion of Constantine, in the early part of the fourth century, caused great rejoicing; and the world, cloaked with a form of righteousness, walked into the church. Now the work of corruption rapidly progressed. Paganism, while appearing to be vanquished, became the conqueror. Her spirit controlled the church. Her doctrines, ceremonies, and superstitions were incorporated into the faith and worship of the professed followers of Christ.”—The Great Controversy, pp. 49, 50.

“Most of the Christians at last consented to lower their standard, and a union was formed between Christianity and paganism. Although the worshipers of idols professed to be converted, and united with the church, they still clung to their idolatry, only changing the objects of their worship to images of Jesus, and even of Mary and the saints. The foul leaven of idolatry, thus brought into the church, continued its baleful work. Unsound doctrines, superstitious rites, and idolatrous ceremonies were incorporated into her faith and worship. As the followers of Christ united with idolaters, the Christian religion became corrupted, and the church lost her purity and power.”—Ibid., p. 43.

Changes in Music

In the early Christian church, music in worship was an important instrument of teaching the Word of God and fellowship among the brethren, as seen in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. Both biblical texts establish the types of songs that Christians should use in their meetings. Paul mentions the psalms, which maintained the musical tradition of Israel, and refers to hymns and spiritual songs. The hymns contained the truths of the Christian faith and served for teaching. The spiritual songs valued the communion between the brethren (koinonia), making the worship more spontaneous and participatory.

In the synagogues and houses where the Christians congregated, the music was sung with singleness of heart and devotion by the congregation. The songs reflected the simplicity of the gospel and the joy of fellowship among the brethren.

This picture, however, was totally modified in the Middle Ages.

The central character for the modification of the function of the music in worship was Gregory the Great, a pope who lived in the fifth and early sixth century, and in homage to who created the expression “Gregorian chant.” He was the main promoter of Schola Cantorum, a center specializing in teaching vocal music. In the Middle Ages, the music in the cult began to be sung only by professionals of the Schola Cantorum. The people did not actively participate in singing.

In the early Middle Ages, there was still congregational singing, but it was quite simple compared to the sophisticated singing of the soloists and choir. Over time the congregational singing was totally eliminated from worship.

Sacred music in the Middle Ages was characterized by being exclusively vocal. Musical instruments were rejected. The sacred music was solemn, severe, totally distinct from secular music. There was no division of musical time (beat) nor fixed rhythm. Harmonization in voices also did not exist: the chant was homophonic (sung in unison). The melody, was without leaps or large intervals.

The music was presented exclusively by the men who were members of the clergy, who sang only in Latin; thus the people did not understand the message of the song. The congregation did not take part in the praise.

Gregorian chant was the style of music that prevailed within the Roman Church throughout the Middle Ages. In this period:

1) The teaching of the Word was banished from worship.

“In order for Satan to maintain his sway over men, and establish the authority of the papal usurper, he must keep them in ignorance of the Scriptures. The Bible would exalt God and place finite men in their true position; therefore its sacred truths must be concealed and suppressed. This logic was adopted by the Roman Church. For hundreds of years the circulation of the Bible was prohibited. The people were forbidden to read it or to have it in their houses, and unprincipled priests and prelates interpreted its teachings to sustain their pretensions.”—Ibid., p. 51.

“It had been Rome’s policy, under a profession of reverence for the Bible, to keep it locked up in an unknown tongue and hidden away from the people.”—Ibid., p. 269.

Besides the mass being performed in Latin so that only the clergy could understand it, the use and handling of the Scriptures by the people, in worship or outside it, was forbidden and penalized. So strong was oppression that only in the last centuries of the Middle Ages did the translations of the Bible into the vernacular begin to be made.

2) Worship lost its communal character.

The sacred music of the Middle Ages remained for a long time in the hands of the monks. Many of them dedicated themselves exclusively to music and were expertly trained in the art of singing. In addition, they knew how to write music, unlike secular musicians, who could play and sing only by ear.

The monks were the music “professionals” and took care of the liturgy. The congregation was participating less and less. The worship became clericalized. The ecclesiastical system of hierarchy excluded the figure of the layman. The people were placed in the category of being mere spectators. The church was more a hierarchy-led institution than a community of believers saved by Jesus.

Even the architecture of the chapels was adapted to the new conception of worship. The inner structure of the houses of worship was designed to distance the altar from the congregation, reflecting the distance between the people and the clergy. It came to the point that the maximum participation of the people in the church was to pray silently.

3) The worship became formal and pompous, distancing itself from the simplicity of the gospel.

Catholic rites and ceremonies were characterized by ostentation and outward pomp, which, while dazzling and captivating the imagination, served only to confound the minds of the people (see The Great Controversy, p. 235), leading them to bid true worship farewell.

Impressively, Ellen White describes the ostentation of Catholic worship, warning of the danger of being impressed by forms and departing from the true religion:

“Many Protestants suppose that the Catholic religion is unattractive and that its worship is a dull, meaningless round of ceremony. Here they mistake. While Romanism is based upon deception, it is not a coarse and clumsy imposture. The religious service of the Roman Church is a most impressive ceremonial. Its gorgeous display and solemn rites fascinate the senses of the people and silence the voice of reason and of conscience. The eye is charmed. Magnificent churches, imposing processions, golden altars, jeweled shrines, choice paintings, and exquisite sculpture appeal to the love of beauty. The ear also is captivated. The music is unsurpassed. The rich notes of the deep-toned organ, blending with the melody of many voices as it swells through the lofty domes and pillared aisles of her grand cathedrals, cannot fail to impress the mind with awe and reverence.

“This outward splendor, pomp, and ceremony, that only mocks the longings of the sin-sick soul, is an evidence of inward corruption. The religion of Christ needs not such attractions to recommend it. In the light shining from the cross, true Christianity appears so pure and lovely that no external decorations can enhance its true worth. It is the beauty of holiness, a meek and quiet spirit, which is of value with God.

“Brilliancy of style is not necessarily an index of pure, elevated thought. High conceptions of art, delicate refinement of taste, often exist in minds that are earthly and sensual. They are often employed by Satan to lead men to forget the necessities of the soul, to lose sight of the future, immortal life, to turn away from their infinite Helper, and to live for this world alone.

“A religion of externals is attractive to the unrenewed heart. The pomp and ceremony of the Catholic worship has a seductive, bewitching power, by which many are deceived; and they come to look upon the Roman Church as the very gate of heaven. None but those who have planted their feet firmly upon the foundation of truth, and whose hearts are renewed by the Spirit of God, are proof against her influence. Thousands who have not an experimental knowledge of Christ will be led to accept the forms of godliness without the power. Such a religion is just what the multitudes desire.”—Ibid., pp. 566, 567.

A Decline in Papal Influence

By the thirteenth century Europe was in great social and moral decline. Plagues increased. There was hunger everywhere. The monks came to be seen as a privileged class, sheltered in their monasteries. They became unpopular. They were interested in maintaining their possessions and did not care about the needs that the people faced. The church of Rome was corrupting itself more and more. The sins of the popes were known to all. Wickedness has become widespread.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the church, in deep financial difficulty, intensified the sale of indulgences. The people began to suffer greater oppression. It was in this environment of moral degradation that the Lord opened the way for the Protestant Reformation.

Although true faith has been preserved from faithful to faithful century by century (The Great Controversy, p. 97), the gospel, for hundreds of years, has been obscured by dense darkness. Now came the moment when the light of truth should shine brightly, preparing the world to receive the still more intense light that would shine some three centuries later, at the time of the end.

All these facts were in the plan of God, present in the prophetic word from ancient times.

Christians must know the story. The study of history is important because through it we realize that God has in His hands the control of the great facts at all times. He leads them according to His sovereign will, to attain His purposes.

As we see God’s care with His people in the past, we can be assured that He will take care of us.

“We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”—Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White, p. 204.




    Justin Kambe

    (October 23, 2017 - 4:08 am)

    This Is True Reformation

      Bethany Montrose

      (November 6, 2017 - 8:39 pm)

      Praise the Lord!

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