Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

Tuning the Heart: A Historical Survey of the Affections in Corporate Worship, with Special Reference to Jonathan Edwards


The title of this paper promises rather more than it will deliver. The history of corporate worship is a vast topic spanning not only twenty centuries but different countries and cultures, and numerous church groups and denominations. We could explore everything from Greek Orthodox to Brethren worship, High Anglicanism in England to Pentecostalism in South America, John Calvin’s reformed liturgy to John Wesley’s class meetings. This we cannot attempt.[1] Instead there will be some “soundings” from a very limited number of sources through history, followed by a more in-depth analysis based on Jonathan Edwards.

We should also acknowledge the complexity of the issues involved in this topic. Affections within corporate worship includes an understanding of corporate worship itself, anthropology and the affections in general, the work of the Spirit in religious experience, and the shaping of ecclesiology. Indeed, corporate worship can be seen as the expression and embodiment of an entire theological system. As a result, the affections in corporate worship are the tip of a very large iceberg and we will not be able to plumb the depths below. Further complicating factors are those of historical and cultural placement.[2]

Lastly, we would ideally consider the affections involved in all components of corporate worship. That would, however, require consideration of each element: confession, sacraments, preaching, etc. Instead we will focus our attention on the element of worship most often connected to the affections, i.e. singing, with some occasional glances at other elements.

The last introductory comment is over terminology. “Affections” can mean different things to different people.[3] For our purposes it primarily refers to something that is “felt” in corporate worship: the subjective experience of emotion. The language used is often generic terms such as affections or passions; or it can be more specific such as zeal, ardour or warmth; or general descriptors such as being “moved”.

Having stated these limitations, what we hope for is an overview that gives us perspective on our current situation and practice, and a degree of analysis which helps us see the issues involved in greater light. All this we trust will aid us in what we should expect and desire in our churches.

I. Historical soundings

We will consider the thoughts of a number of leading figures within church history.

1. Augustine

Augustine makes very revealing comments about the place of music and the affections in his Confessions. In a section on the various temptations of the body he admits that he finds it hard to judge the right estimation of singing because of its seeming appropriateness and yet the possibility of being led astray:

I must allow [music] a position of some honour in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it to its proper place. For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honour than it deserves. I realise that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervour and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung; and I also know that there are particular modes in song and the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two. But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralysed by the gratification of my senses, which often leads it astray. For the senses are not content to take second place. Simply because I allow them their due, as adjuncts to reason, they attempt to take precedence and forge ahead of it, with the result that I sometimes sin in this way but am not aware of it until later.[4]

We note the connection between music and the emotions, which Augustine regards as mysterious but very real. This connection means that singing religious words can stimulate far greater feeling in the singer than if they were simply spoken, and the ability of different types of music to stimulate different affections. However, Augustine also realises the danger of gratifying his senses, presumably because he is stimulated by the music alone and not the content of the words. As Helen Dell says, “He has difficulty distinguishing precisely between a rational and a sensual enjoyment and is unsure, at the time, which is taking precedence.”[5]

This uncertainty means Augustine feels he is sometimes over-cautious:

Sometimes, too, from over-anxiety to avoid this particular trap I make the mistake of being too strict. When this happens, I have no wish but to exclude from my ears, and from the ears of the Church as well, all the melody of those lovely chants to which the Psalms of David are habitually sung.

On reflection, he desires the helpfulness of music but with a caution:

But when I remember the tears that I shed on hearing the songs of the Church in the early days, soon after I had recovered my faith, and when I realise that nowadays it is not the singing that moves me but the meaning of the words when they are sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune, I again acknowledge the great value of this practice… Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.[6]

There is repetition of the crucial tension: the practice of singing can give a moving experience in itself, and yet singing true spiritual content is helpful in giving an appropriately moving experience. For Augustine the key issue is what is driving the experience: music or truth. He ends up positive but cautious.

Augustine also comments on a well-known element of worship in his day called a “jubilation”. This is a form of wordless prayer or praise, not dissimilar to charismatic versions of tongues.[7] Augustine explains what is happening:

One who jubilates, utters not words, but it is a certain sound of joy without words: for it is the expression of a mind poured forth in joy, expressing, as far as it is able, the affection, but not compassing the feeling.[8]

As the jubilation was a known medium of expressing one’s joy Augustine says if it is used by people over earthly joy we should use it for heavenly joy:

Where speech does not suffice… they break into singing on vowel sounds, that through this means the feeling of the soul may be expressed, words failing to explain the heart’s conceptions. Therefore, if they jubilate from earthly exhilaration, should we not sing the jubilation out of heavenly joy, which words cannot express?[9]

It seems that many church services involved times of spontaneous calling out of praise and thanksgiving, including this “jubilation”.

In Augustine, then, we see two key ideas: there is the commendation of right use of music to stir passionate expression while being aware of its temptations, and there is the expectation too of affectionate expressions of joy within corporate worship.

2. Luther

Luther is well known for his positive approach to music and singing; he wrote a variety of liturgies for corporate worship, as well as hymns, and he was also an accomplished musician.[10] In the prefaces to various hymnals Luther expresses something of his view of music and its use. In discussing the benefits of music he says:

We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is mistress and governess of those human emotions… which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found – at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate… what more effective means than music could you find?[11]

This power of music means it is to be used along with words of Scripture:

Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul…[12]

Commenting on the Psalms Luther speaks of the difference music can make:

Since it proclaims and sings of the Messiah, the Book of Psalms is for such hearts a sweet, comforting, and lovely song; this is the case even when one speaks or recites the mere words and does not employ the aid of music. Nevertheless, music and notes, which are wonderful gifts and creations of God, do help gain a better understanding of the text, especially when sung by a congregation and when sung earnestly.[13]

We see the power of music and the helpfulness of its link with the truth of Scripture to both aid understanding and to move the affections appropriately. In sum: “we are made better and stronger in faith when his holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music”.[14] So Reuning says:

One of the most frequent themes in Luther’s writings was that music, independent of any text or other influence, is a unique dynamic that either reinforces or undermines the meaning of the words.[15]

This meant that Luther was concerned that the music be appropriately reinforcing. When presented with some choral canons that he did not think were suitable musically, Luther commented that the composer “has enough of art and skill but is lacking in warmth”.[16] Luther wanted appropriate tunes, but he was also positive about more elaborate polyphonic singing:

How strange and wonderful it is that one voice sings a simple unpretentious tune while three, four, or five other voices are also sung; these voices play and sway in joyful exuberance around the tune and with ever-varying art and tuneful sound wondrously adorn and beautify it… He must be a course clod and not worthy of hearing such charming music, who does not delight in this, and is not moved by such a marvel. He should rather listen to the donkey braying of the [Gregorian] chorale, or the barking of dogs and pigs, than to such music.[17]

Luther, then, has a positive view of music as a gift from God, including an appreciation of its complexity and art, and a desire to employ it in corporate worship, so harnessing its emotive power.[18] He went so far as to say that the positive effects of music made it a weapon against the devil:

I am not ashamed to confess publicly that next to theology there is no art which is the equal of music, for she alone, after theology, can do what otherwise only theology can accomplish, namely, quiet and cheer up the soul of man, which is clear evidence that the devil, the originator of depressing worries and troubled thoughts, flees from the voice of music just as he flees from the words of theology. For this very reason the prophets cultivated no art so much as music in that they attached their theology not to geometry, nor to arithmetic, nor to astronomy, but to music, speaking the truth through psalms and hymns.[19]

However, Luther also recognised the presence of “carnal and lascivious songs” which should be rejected. Instead, music, along with all art forms, needed to be used in the “service of Him who has given and created them”.[20] This positive view of singing and concern for expertise in its exercise had some very practical outworking: Luther implored the Elector of Saxony to pay for a capable musician for the church in Wittenberg.[21]

3. Calvin

Calvin is often portrayed as being indifferent or even hostile to music with such statements usually drawing the contrast between him and Luther.[22] Such a negative view is not warranted, however, even if Calvin’s statements are less effusive.[23] Calvin was responsible for the overhaul of liturgy in which he emphasised the need for clarity and understanding (compared to his view of the abuses within medieval Catholicism).

Calvin places music, like many elements of the natural world, as part of God’s good gifts which are to be enjoyed, but must be handled carefully because of the potential dangers of wrong use. For example:

And we have never been forbidden to laugh or to be filled… or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine. True indeed. But where there is plenty, to wallow in delight, or gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones – such are very far removed from a lawful use of God’s gifts.[24]

With regard to music specifically, Calvin readily acknowledges its power:

Song has great force and vigour to arouse and inflame people’s hearts to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.[25]

We all know from experience how great a power music has for moving men’s feelings, so that Plato teaches, quite rightly, that in one way or another music is of the greatest value in shaping the moral tone of the state.[26]

For Calvin, the ability of singing to kindle godly affection is one of its great benefits:

And certainly if singing is tempered to a gravity befitting the presence of God and angels, it both gives dignity and grace to sacred actions, and has a very powerful tendency to stir up the mind to true zeal and ardour in prayer. [27]

Hence Calvin says music has great power and we must take care not to abuse it:

Now among the other things which are proper for recreating man and giving him pleasure, music is either the first, or one of the principal; and it is necessary for us to think that it is a gift of God deputed for that use. Moreover, because of this, we ought to be the more careful not to abuse it, for fear of soiling and contaminating it, converting it our condemnation, where it was dedicated to our profit and use.[28]

The power of music is seen specifically in the depth of absorption of what is sung:

Moreover, in speaking now of music, I understand two parts: namely the letter, or subject and matter; secondly, the song, or the melody. It is true that every bad word (as St. Paul has said) perverts good manner, but when the melody is with it, it pierces the heart much more strongly, and enters into it; in a like manner as through a funnel, the wine is poured into the vessel; so also the venom and the corruption is distilled to the depths of the heart by the melody.[29]

Hence, we should make use of songs “which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honour and glorify him.”[30] Such songs, argues Calvin, should be made up of the words of the Psalter (and other sections of Scripture).

As well as reflecting on the power of music to stir our hearts, Calvin also argues for the necessity of affection in corporate worship to guard against mere lip service:

It is perfectly clear that neither words nor singing (if used in prayer) are of the least consequence, or avail one iota with God, unless they proceed from deep feeling in the heart. […] Still we do not condemn words or singing but rather greatly commend them, provided the feeling of the mind goes along with them.[31]

Calvin speaks of the benefit that comes from the use of singing, which has to be personally experienced to be appreciated:

We are not able to estimate the benefit and edification which will derive from this until after having experienced it. Certainly at present the prayers of the faithful are so cold that we should be greatly ashamed and confused. The psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardour in invoking, as well as in exalting with praises the glory of His name.[32]

Yet he also is mindful of the dangers involved: “We must, however, carefully beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words.”[33] Calvin here references Augustine in his vacillations over music that we noted earlier. However, he concludes that when “this moderation is used, there cannot be a doubt that the practice is most sacred and salutary”.[34]

As is well known, Calvin did not believe that instrumentation should be used in the church: his comments on the use of instruments in the Old Testament refers to their belonging to the age of shadows and smacking of popery. For example:

We are to remember that the worship of God was never understood to consist in such outward services, which were only necessary to help forward a people as yet weak and rude in knowledge in the spiritual worship of God. A difference is to observed in this respect between his people under the Old and under the New Testament.[35]

Calvin also restricted the words sung to the Psalms (and other sections of Scripture). However, we must not mistake Calvin’s limitations here as negativity towards singing in general and the appropriate stimulation and expression of the affections. Speaking of the Psalms themselves he says:

There is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.[36]

4. Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts is seen as the “father of hymnody” (at least English hymnody). He was not the first to write what we know of as the modern hymn, but his publications broke the back of the exclusive psalmody of the seventeenth century in England.[37] His revolution of the praise of the church was driven by two key concerns:

To see the dull indifference, the negligent and the thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is on their lips, might tempt even a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of inward religion; and ‘tis much to be feared that the minds of most of the worshippers are absent or unconcerned.[38]

Watts questions both the “fervency” of singing and the “mind” of the worshipper. And he felt these two areas were connected; being limited to metrical psalms meant people often sang about topics they did not understand which did not then touch their hearts. As he put it: “By keeping too close to David in the house of God, the vail of Moses is thrown over our hearts”.[39] This led Watts to write both new hymns and a new version of the psalter which applied the psalms to Christ and the Christian life.

Watts’s desire for right comprehension and expression of affection in praise was because of his view of singing:

Let us remember, that the very power of singing was given to human nature chiefly for this purpose, that our own warmest affections of soul might break out into natural or divine melody, and that the tongue of the worshipper might express his own heart.[40]

The first and chief intent of this part of worship, is to express unto God what sense and apprehensions we have of his essential glories; and what notice we take of his works of wisdom and power, vengeance and mercy; it is to vent the inward devotion of our spirits in words of melody, to speak our own experience of divine things, especially our religious joy.[41]

In this picture of heartfelt, responsive praise to God, Watts sees times of singing as the nearest the church gets to the heavenly state:

While we sing the praises of our God in his Church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest a-kin to Heaven…[42]

Praise is the sweetest part of divine worship; it is a short heaven here on earth.[43]

Watts’s understanding of the theology of praise and his concerns for the praise of his day drive his reforms. He writes hymns which give a clear and dramatic portrayal of Christian truth in terms we can understand and then leads us to express how we feel about that truth. Hence, he aids the worshipper in clarity of understanding and in depth of affection.

The second of these means he did not shy away from putting emotional expressions on the lips of the worshipper. These give us an insight into the affections he desired and expected believers to express. Consider what the congregation are being led to express in the following selection of lyrics:

Such wond’rous love awakes the lip
Of saints that were almost asleep,
To speak the praises of thy name,
And makes our cold affections flame.

Now shall my inward joys arise,
And burst into a song;
Almighty love inspires my heart,
And pleasure tunes my tongue.

‘Twere you that pulled the vengeance down
Upon his guiltless head:
Break, break, my heart! O burst mine eyes!
And let my sorrows bleed.

O! What immortal joys I felt,
And raptures all divine,
When Jesus told me, I was his,
And my Beloved mine!

So Marshall and Todd say: “He took the singers and their feelings by the hand and led them along an instructive pathway.”[44]

Watts not only gave the worshipper appropriate words to use to express affection, he also thought that the act of singing such words stimulated affection. Elsewhere Watts commended meditation in acts of personal reflection and he saw the same dynamic at work in praise. Acts of praise involve “kindling into divine love by the meditations of the loving kindness of God, and the multitude of his tender mercies”.[45] In this regard Watts comments on the wisdom of God in commanding singing:

How happily suited is this ordinance to give a loose to the devout soul in its pious and cheerful affections? What a variety of sanctified desires, and hopes and joys, may exert themselves in this religious practice, may kindle the souls of Christians into holy fervour, may raise them near to gates of heaven, and the harmony of the blessed inhabitants there?[46]

5. John Wesley

Both John and Charles Wesley had significant impact on the corporate worship of the church in England. We will only consider John Wesley because of the contribution he made to the theology and liturgy of worship which are more pertinent to our topic.[47]

In surveying Wesley’s response to the pre-existing liturgy with the Church of England Johnson argues that he stands for its ongoing use but only as the means of expressing an affectionate heart response to God. He speaks of “Wesley’s insistence on the use of external forms of religion, not to the exclusion of, but rather co-operant with, the internal experience of the heart made right with God”.[48] This fits with the emphases of personal appropriation and expression of “heart religion” which were central to Wesley and Methodism.[49]

This focus on heart experience is expressed in Wesley’s comments on singing. In the preface to A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780) he speaks about the spirit of piety contained in the hymns and the use people will find in singing them:

That which is of infinitely more moment than the spirit of poetry, is the spirit of piety. And I trust, all persons of real judgment will find this breathing through the whole Collection. It is in this view chiefly, that I would recommend it to every truly pious reader, as a means of raising or quickening the spirit of devotion; of confirming his faith; of enlivening his hope; and of kindling and increasing his love to God and man. When Poetry thus keeps its place, as the handmaid of Piety, it shall attain, not a poor perishable wreath, but a crown that fadeth not away.[50]

Wesley clearly sees the singing of hymns as a means of stimulating affection for God. Elsewhere he writes about the power of music and laments the use of counterpoint in church singing which he believes limits the inherent power of melody.[51] For Wesley the ideal is that of the simplicity of a whole congregation united in song, both understanding and feeling what they are saying.[52]

So Wesley describes Methodist singing as follows:

When it is seasonable to sing praise to God they do it with the spirit and the understanding also… in psalms and hymns which are both sense and poetry… [They sing] as may best raise the soul to God, especially when sung in well-composed and well-adapted tunes; not by a handful of wild unawakened striplings, but by a whole serious congregation; and these not lolling at ease, or in the indecent posture of sitting, drawling out one word after another, but all standing before God and praising him lustily and with a good courage.[53]

Wesley’s desire for affectionate worship also led him to develop what were novel meetings for the Church of England at the time: namely the watchnight service and love feast.[54] The watchnight often included preaching and testimony, but the main content was prayer, praise and thanksgiving. Johnson argues that the purpose of such times was the focusing of the affections to achieve a series of “exchanges”:

Allowing God to change our heart, enabling us to form holy tempers through the practice of the means of grace, we begin to hear about, sing about and experience joy rather than sorrow, solemnity and reverence rather than mirth and revelry, freedom from rather than bondage to sin and comfort in Christ instead of anxiety and fear.[55]

The love feast comprised singing, thanksgiving, testimony and prayer, as well as the eating and drinking of the “feast”. Wesley describes its aim and practice:

In order to increase in them a grateful sense of all his mercies, I desired that… we might together “eat bread”, as the ancient Christians did, “with gladness and singleness of heart”. At these lovefeasts (so we termed them, retaining the name, as well as the thing, which was in use from the beginning) our food is only a little plain cake and water. But we seldom return from them without being fed, not only with the “meat which perisheth”, but with “that which endureth to everlasting life”.[56]

Again, the desire to stir up appropriate affections was foremost in Wesley’s mind.[57]

Wesley also reports a variety of more extreme spiritual experiences within the Evangelical Revivals. These include people screaming, falling over, shaking and crying excessively. Some of these can be understood as heightened versions of the affections we have already noted. Others falls into a broader category of ecstatic religious experience.[58]

II. Analysis from Jonathan Edwards

Edwards stands virtually alone in the depth of his analysis of the affections. We cannot explore all that he says but will apply some of his key insights to our specific topic of corporate worship. Edwards’ writing on this topic was of course within the events of the Great Awakenings in New England. His works examining experiences within these revivals gravitated around the larger question: “What is the nature of true religion?”[59] His work The Religious Affections was the most in-depth analysis of this question.[60]

1. The understanding of the affections

Edwards’ maxim will be well known: “True religion, consists in great part, of holy affections”.[61] By affections Edwards means the inclination of the will towards or away from an object along with the subjective feelings such inclinations involve. The primary inclinations are those of love and hate but these then result in the full spectrum of affections: desire, fear, hope, etc. Edwards sees the affections as being within the soul of a person but that they are felt in the body:

Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the will or inclination of the soul, without some effect upon the body, in some alteration of the motion of its fluids, and especially of the animal spirits.[62]

Hence God has so joined the soul and body that feelings will result. Edwards also sees a “reverse” movement:

And on the other hand, from the same laws of the union of soul and body, the constitution of the body, and the motion of its fluids, may promote the exercise of the affections. But yet it is not the body, but the mind only, that is the proper seat of the affections.[63]

This seems to recognise the possibility of a physical cause creating affections. Edwards comments later that for some people the “first ground of their affection is some bodily sensation” where the “animal spirits” are put in to an agreeable motion.[64] For our purposes we might think of the power of a piece of music to move the emotions directly.

Edwards argues for the place of spiritual affections, produced by the work of the Spirit, as a key part of true religion:

That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wouldings [i.e. wishes to act] raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God in his word, greatly insists upon it that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit and our hearts be vigorously engaged in religion.[65]

2. Affections and corporate worship[66]

Part of Edwards’ argument for the importance of the affections comes from God’s commands regarding corporate worship. Preaching, praise, prayer and the sacraments are all designed to have an effect on our affections. He comments on singing in particular:

The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.[67]               

This is a key statement of the purpose of song for Edwards. The same points of excitement and expression of affection are seen in a sermon on singing where Edwards says the ends of this duty are to: (1) “excite and raise devout affections of soul” in ourselves and in others, and to (2) “express and manifest devout and gracious affections”.[68]

Edwards sees a parallel with preaching: God’s word must be preached rather than only read in books because,

…although these may tend as well as preaching to give men a good doctrinal or speculative understanding of the things of the word of God, yet they have not an equal tendency to impress them on men’s hearts and affections.[69]

The ability of music to excite godly affections was taken as read in his Religious Affections. However, Edwards comments on the mechanism at work in the sermon mentioned. Singing can give “a due sense in the heart of God and his perfections and Christ the grace and love through him and of heavenly enjoyments”.[70] He attributed this to the following:

There is an excellent and glorious harmony in divine things, of which the harmony that is in singing seems to give some shadow, and by the resemblance helps the mind the better to conceive of that sweet harmony that is in divine things.[71]

In addition, Edwards sees something about singing with others that aids excitement of affection and resembles the worship of heaven. Hence music and singing can enable the heart to “taste” the sweetness of God and be shaped by it. Elsewhere he commented:

Music, especially sacred music, has a powerful efficacy to soften the heart into tenderness, to harmonise the affections, and to give the mind a relish for objects of a superior character.[72]

We see from this that Edwards’s understanding of the “new heart” and “spiritual taste” are intimately involved in the activity of singing. Edwards comments on this in a sermon on the “new song” sung by the saints (Revelation 14:3); he uses the analogy of learning a tune:

As in order to learn the music of other songs the voice must be tuned, so to learn the music of this song, the heart must be tuned. The music of this new song consists in holy admiration, in exalting thoughts of the glory of God and the Lamb and the great things of the gospel; and in divine love, in loving God for his excellent appearing in the face of Christ, in holy rejoicing in God and in delight and complacence of the soul in Jesus, whereby we, having not seen him, do love him and “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory”.[73]

In the same sermon Edwards later speaks of the pleasure and benefit that comes from singing this sort of gospel song:

The act of praise is an abundant reward to itself. He that sings it has communion with God in it, for in the same time that there flows a stream of love out of the heart towards God, there flows a more full stream of love from God into the soul. At the same time that he praises God with a sweet voice, Christ with a sweeter voice speaks peace to the soul and manifests his love to it.[74]

Edwards moves from his basic thesis in Religious Affections to infer that we should desire such a way of worshipping as most influences the affections:

If it be so, that true religion lies much in the affections, hence we may infer, that such means are to be desired, as have much of a tendency to move the affections. Such books, and such a way of preaching the word, and administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshipping God in prayer, and singing praises, is much to be desired, as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means.[75]

Edwards’ approach is effectively: the more affectionate, the better. He knows, however, that even if affections are stirred by such worship, they may not necessarily be true affections:

Indeed there may be such means, as may have a great tendency to stir up the passions of weak and ignorant persons, and yet have no great tendency to benefit their souls: for though they may have a tendency to excite affections, they may have little or none to excite gracious affections, or any affections tending to grace.[76]

However, he still concludes with an expectation of appropriate means leading to appropriate results, and hence a confident endorsement of affectionate worship:

But undoubtedly, if the things of religion, in the means used, are treated according to their nature, and exhibited truly, so as tends to convey just apprehensions, and a right judgment of them; the more they have a tendency to move the affections the better.[77]

In practice, then, Edwards was very positive about singing. He enforced the duty of singing on the whole congregation as part of their worship and so encouraged the practical step of singing lessons.[78] Similarly he urged parents to provide lessons in singing for their children.[79]

While he was concerned for the performance of singing, Edwards’ understanding of the dynamics of singing meant he emphasised the internal state of the heart as most important: “the external is good for nothing but as the means or expression of the internal”.[80] In speaking of the effect of the “Awakening” in Northampton, Edwards specifically comments on the singing of the congregation:

Our public praises were then greatly enlivened… It has been observable that there has been scare any part of divine worship, wherein good men amongst us have had grace so drawn forth and their hearts so lifted up in the ways of God, as in singing his praise.[81]

This was one of the reasons why Edwards introduced the use of Isaac Watts’ hymns rather than only singing metrical psalms (being one of the first New England churches to do so).[82] Edwards comments that his congregation had a “very general inclination” towards Watts’ hymns, and that they were “greatly pleased with it”.[83] He made sure the Psalms continued to be sung as well as new hymns, but his comments suggest a flexibility towards what the congregation found most helpful.

As we will see, distinguishing work is required for any one person and their experience, but despite this it seems that Edwards leant towards whatever style of singing moved the affections the most. Reflecting on the content of preaching and worship generally, Edwards lamented the lack of affection present saying, “Where are the exercises of our affections proper, if not here?”[84]

3. Distinguishing between true and false affections

Within the various experiences reported during the Awakenings Edwards recognised the presence of mixed sources of affections. Describing the more dramatic experiences he had witnessed such as crying out in agony over sin or being exalted in love and comfort, he said:

…there may be some mixtures of natural affection, and sometimes of temptation, and some imprudences and irregularities, as there always was, and always will be in this imperfect state; yet as to the work in general, the main of what is observed in these extraordinary things, they all have the clear and incontestable evidences of a true divine work.[85]

Edwards’ expectation of mixed sources is significant in and of itself and we will return to consider it later. However, it first raises the question: how then do we distinguish true spiritual affections? This is the focus of much of Edwards’s writing regarding the awakenings, not least his Religious Affections.

Edwards clears the ground by saying certain factors should not lead us to conclude that an experience was truly spiritual. These are his twelve “negative signs” which include factors such as the intensity of experience, being passive in it, being able to speak eloquently of it, or even that it leads us to praise and thank God. These and other cautions from Edwards would dampen down the confidence some might draw from their experience in corporate worship.

We should be clear: Edwards does not mean that the presence of these features is a negative factor in evaluation, only that by themselves they do not act as confirmation of a true spiritual origin. Their presence is neither good nor bad in themselves. Roberts suggests that Edwards’ caution in this vein means he would be against highlighting intense experiences or praying that people would experience them.[86] Certainly Edwards would not have us make these signs indicative of true spiritual experience and it behoves us to consider explicit or implicit ways in which we might do so. However, we have seen already that Edwards was desirous of worship in which people’s affections were moved, and so Roberts may be over cautious.

What, then, of positive signs to evaluate our affections in corporate worship? The answer in general terms from Edwards’ analysis is clear: true affections come from the work of the Spirit who gives us a new sensation or taste for spiritual realities which are then seen in the life of the believer. The question is how, within corporate worship, one can perceive this spiritual source of affections.

It is helpful here to distinguish between a “wider angle” and “narrower angle” of questioning.[87] Wider angle signs are those seen in life in general and over a longer period of time. For example, Edwards says that true affections should result in greater obedience, true humility, Christ-like tenderness and so on. This is true of many of his twelve positive signs in Religious Affections; in addition, the five marks in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God are all of that nature.[88] Such “wide angle” signs cannot be perceived within the moment of worship. Of course, they remain relevant for the question regarding corporate worship but they operate at much wider level of application across life. Ross argues that these signs can be reassuring for those who feel little in worship because of their focus on constancy and disciplined habits.[89]

Some of the signs however, or elements of them, are amenable to a narrower angle of questioning on the experience of corporate worship itself and we will consider these:

1. The first is the source of affections. Edwards’ fourth sign of gracious affections is that they “arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things”. Edwards was emphatic:

Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge. [90]

Edwards describes this spiritual understanding as a “sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things”.[91] It is not speculative knowledge or mental assent. This leads him to his famous comparison of tasting honey: this knowledge is an experiential relishing of divine things. For our purposes the point is that such true knowledge is what should lie behind our affections in worship.

It is noteworthy to see comparable comments Edwards makes about preaching in this regard:

Therefore the thing to be inquired into is whether the application or notions of divine and eternal things, that are raised in people’s minds by these affectionate preachers, whence their affections are excited, be apprehensions that are agreeable to truth, or whether they are mistakes. If the former, then the affections are raised the way they should be, viz. by informing the mind, or conveying light to the understanding.[92]

So as Roberts says, “If stimulus came from the impartation of the truth of the Bible then the emotion experienced was a genuine and welcomed response to truth”.[93] Similarly, affections while singing should only arise from such understanding; they should not be from any other source than tasting the goodness and beauty of God in worship.

This point regarding the source of affections connects with a warning Edwards gives in distinguishing between the effect of manner or style as opposed the effect of the content.[94] Speaking with regard to the words of Scripture, Edwards argues that we should beware our affections being raised by the manner of words coming to us rather than the understanding and apprehension of them.[95] Edwards is thinking of words suddenly coming to mind or sensing that God is speaking directly to you.

This principle can be expanded to cover a broader range of “manner” versus “understanding”. So we can easily be moved by the manner of a song, or the way in which a thought strikes us within a song, rather than the understanding of what we are singing. We saw above that Edwards recognises there are ways of stimulating the affections which are only to do with “manner”. He says: “there may be such means, as may have a great tendency to stir up the passions of weak and ignorant persons, and yet have no great tendency to benefit their souls”.[96] Hence we should be aware that there can be ways of leading corporate worship with similar results.

2. The second area comes from Edwards’ second sign: the “first objective ground of gracious affections is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest”.[97] This is again connected to the source of affection but is more particularly concerned with the focal point of the understanding: do affections come to the believer from an appreciation of the beauty of spiritual reality itself, or from an appreciation of the benefits received from that reality? So, for example, when we consider God’s love, do we admire it for itself and then move to the benefits it brings us, or are our affections raised only as we think of ourselves? It is the difference between a theocentric and anthropocentric view.

Edwards says that there can be a right appreciation of the benefits to self but the way in which the affection arises is very different. Using the example of love for a person he says:

When the first thing that draws a man’s benevolence to another, is the beholding of those qualifications and properties in him, which appear to him lovely in themselves, and the subject of them, on this account, worthy of esteem and goodwill, love arises in very different manner, than when it first arises from some gift bestowed by another, or depended on from him, as a judge loves and favours a man what has bribed him.[98]

Of course, the believer may go on to appreciate the gifts and benefits from God, but they are an addition and not the “first objective ground” of the affection: “The saint’s affections begin with God; and self-love has a hand in these affections consequentially, and secondarily only.”[99]

Hence Edwards says, “that which is the saint’s superstructure, is the hypocrite’s foundation”.[100] The hypocrite[101] may be filled with joy but:

… if their joy be examined, it will be found to have no other foundation than this, that they look upon these things as theirs, all this exalts them… So that their joy is really a joy in themselves and not in God.[102]

This false affection flows from true theological content but its centre of gravity is the believer rather than God. Truth is made to revolve around them and their affections come from a high estimate of self rather than of God. So Edwards says:

The high affections of many are all built on the supposition of their being eminent saints. If that opinion which they have of themselves were taken away, if they thought they were some of the lower form of saints (though they should yet suppose themselves to be real saints), their high affections would fall to the ground… it would knock their affections on the head; because their affections are built upon self, therefore self-knowledge would destroy them. But as to truly gracious affections, they are built elsewhere; they have their foundation out of self in God and Jesus Christ; and therefore a discovery of themselves, of their own deformity, and the meanness of their experiences, though it will purify their affections, yet it will not destroy them, but in some respects sweeten and heighten them.[103]

This connects to a later sign: that gracious affections are attended with “evangelical humiliation”. Rather than making the believer think well of themselves they have a sense of their insufficiency and sinfulness and so a greater appreciation of God and his grace.

This raises a number of questions for corporate worship: if my affections are raised within it, why are they? What truth am I relishing? Does it make me feel better about myself and affirm me, or does it lead to love and appreciate God for who he is in himself? Alternatively, we could ask: what would true self-knowledge do to our affections? How would I feel if I was reminded of my sin in worship? Would it in fact sweeten my affection for God, because I appreciate him all the more, or would it dampen my affections because I cannot think as well of myself?

More generally we can ask whether our corporate worship focuses primarily on the benefits of the gospel for us, or on the nature of the gospel in showing us the glory of God. And, when it does focus on the benefits of the gospel for us, what is the “centre of gravity” operative?

3. A third factor flows from the eleventh sign: the higher gracious affections are raised, “the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments, increased”. By comparison false affections “rest satisfied in themselves”.[104] This is a question about the nature of enjoyment within worship and where that enjoyment leaves us. So, Edwards explains:

The more a true saint loves God with a gracious love, the more he desires to love him, and the more uneasy is he at his want of love to him: the more he hates sin, the more he desires to hate it, and laments that he has so much remaining love to it.[105]

The reason for this effect is because true affections involve the spiritual taste and appreciation described earlier. Having tasted something so true and good, the believer wants more of it; in addition, in seeing themselves truly they see their greater need of grace. Edwards summarises: “The kindling and raising of gracious affections is like kindling a flame; the higher it burns, the more vehemently does it tend and seek to burn.”[106]

Edwards realises he is in danger of suggesting that spiritual affections may actually leave one “empty” rather than satisfied and so he goes on to clarify how gracious affections are satisfying to the soul in certain respects: (1) They swallow up desire for any other kind of enjoyment; (2) they meet our expectations rather than leaving us disappointed; (3) their pleasure is permanent; and (4) their extent is boundless.[107] So the saint wants more of God not because what they have experienced has not satisfied them, but precisely because it has satisfied them and they want more of it. By contrast, “Hypocrites long for discoveries, more for the present comfort of the discovery, and the high manifestation of God’s love in it, than for any sanctifying influence of it.”[108]

True affections in corporate worship then do not have a “cloying nature” such that we feel we have had enough of them. Nor is there a desire only for what I gain “in the moment” but rather the sense of ongoing growth and longing for further growth.

This sign is perhaps harder to apply within the experience of worship but again raises questions for us. Do we feel satisfied in our experience of corporate worship or does it lead us on to love God and long for him more? Do we look for the “buzz” of the moment or greater closeness to God? Do we long for an experience in corporate worship only for the comfort of that experience, rather than the effect it will have on my life?

III. Further comments

A few further comments and caveats are in order:

First, we should be aware that Edwards’ main assessment of affections relate to the “wider angle” areas of discernment already mentioned. That raises the question as to how much he would suggest we attempt to discern “in the moment” of worship at all. Edwards might simply encourage us not to restrict or condemn high affections in worship, nor to read too much into their presence, but rather examine their effect over time. This would effectively allow no assessment of affections in corporate worship specifically, because any evaluation over time turns on multiple causes rather than the experience of corporate worship alone. That is why we have attempted the narrower angle assessment above, but we should be aware in doing so that we are skewing Edwards’ own balanced assessment.

Secondly, we should emphasise that Edwards is desirous of an experiential Christianity where one’s affections are raised. Having described the heightened experiences of his wife he concludes:

Now if such things are enthusiasm, and the fruits of a distempered brain, let my brain be evermore possessed of that happy distemper! If this be distraction, I pray God that the world of mankind may be all seized with this benign, meek, beneficent, beatifical, glorious distraction![109]

Thirdly, we should reflect on Edwards’ expectation of mixed sources of affections which we noted earlier. In discussing the sources of error within the awakenings he began as follows:

The first thing is the mixture there oftentimes is in the experiences of true Christians; whereby when they have truly gracious experiences, and divine and spiritual discoveries and exercises, they have something else mixed with them besides what is spiritual: there is a mixture of that which is natural, and that which is corrupt, with that which is divine. This is what Christians are liable to in the present exceeding imperfect state.[110]

He goes on to say that Christians never have experiences that are “wholly pure, entirely spiritual, without any mixture of what is natural and carnal”. He believes the most common causes of unspiritual affection are “human, or natural affection and passion; impressions on the imagination; and a degree of self-righteousness or spiritual pride”. Some of these sources are not sinful in themselves but are part of a person’s emotional “make up”. Edwards says that “the same degrees of divine communications from heaven shall have vastly different effects, in what outwardly appears, in persons of different natural tempers”. He goes on:

The same is also evident by the different effects of divine communication on the same person at different times, and in different circumstances… And sometimes there is not only a mixture of that which is common and natural with gracious experience, but even that which is animal, that which is in a great measure from the body, and is properly the result of the animal frame.[111]

This type of variation between people, and for the same person at different times, is not spiritual but neither is it wrong and our expectations of affection in corporate worship should allow for it. This certainly means we should not judge an affection by its intensity, which is helpful pastoral counsel for those with both high and low experiences.

IV. Concluding reflections

Our historical soundings and analysis from Edwards give a number of reflections on the place of affections in corporate worship. We will present them in a series of statements with some occasional further comments:

1. There is a consistent expectation and desire for affection within worship, not as a luxury but as a necessary element of true spirituality.

2. There is a consistent appreciation of music and singing because of their aid to both stimulate the presence, and aid the expression, of affection in worship. This links to an expectation of the positive effects of corporate singing because of the effect on the affections. This is considered a means of grace ordained by God for our good.

3. There is a frequent awareness and concern for affections that are stimulated by unspiritual means within the act of singing. This can simply be a natural effect or it can involve explicit sin.

We should note that rather than being balanced between a positive and negative position, and so ending up in a no-man’s land, there is usually positivity about the right use and negativity about wrong use alongside each other. Is it the case that our positivity and negativity over affection in worship somewhat balance each other out? By comparison is it that many of these writers are simultaneously more positive and more negative than we are today?

4. There is recognition of the ordinary means of music as part of God’s created order.

This recognises the presence of aesthetics – good or poor poetry and music. There is a need for appropriate tunes that are consonant with the truth of the words being sung and that allow for appropriate stimulation and expression of affection. There is then ready appropriation of what is affective aesthetically.

There is greater variety within our survey over what makes music suitable, how simple or elaborate it might be, and whether instrumentation is appropriate. These factors show both cultural variation and the subjective nature of such judgements. However, the general recognition of means remains. We do not expect the Spirit to use a poorly delivered sermon, with no appropriate emotion, even if the truth content is high. Similarly then we do not expect the Spirit to use poor tunes, badly played, and with terrible lyrics, even if the truth content is high.

Edwards especially would seem to lean towards utilising effective means, rather than having concern over unspiritual affections holding him back. He is of course aware of the presence of unspiritual affections but the answer for him was not to therefore have less affectionate worship.

5. There is consistent recognition that true affections must flow from the truth being reflected on rather than the circumstances of singing. Edwards takes this further than others in distinguishing between manner and content, and between an anthropological and theological centre to our affections.

This points to the need for people’s engagement within corporate worship; it should be a cognitive as well as affectionate act. Indeed, it is affectionate precisely because of the content of the cognition. Edwards directs his congregation: “Diligently attend to what is sung. Don’t let your mind be on the ends of the earth as regarding only the music of the voice.”[112]

There is also an implication for those leading corporate worship. They should ask, “What will most appropriately present the truths being reflected on, and what will aid engagement with them?”, rather than asking, “What will, of itself, produce a certain atmosphere or response?”.

6. There is the implication that in addition to clarity of content we should organise our services and our singing with the aim of stimulating and allowing expression of affection. Paying attention to this is not (necessarily) to be manipulative of people’s emotions; rather it is to try to be helpful of people’s affections. There is a sense in which we cannot feel too much in response to God. So if music is an aid to that feeling I should be glad for it, and if singing is an appropriate vehicle for my feelings I should embrace it.

Speaking of preaching, Edwards says:

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.[113]

Applying this to corporate singing one would say we have a duty to lead in whatever way would raise the affections of the congregation as high as we can – with the same proviso of being affected only by the truth and with affections that are consonant with it.

7. We should be positive about depth of feeling within corporate worship rather than being sceptical.

Edwards says:

There are false affections and there are true. A man’s having much affection, don’t prove that he has any true religion: but if he has no affection, it proves that he has no true religion.[114]

We know that if we feel deeply for God we may well be expressing true affection towards him, even if there are mixed sources, but if we are not feeling deeply then we are certainly not.

8. We should not set too much store by what we feel in corporate worship. The natural movement of the affections, especially in a corporate experience of singing, can generate feelings by itself. We should beware attributing all that we experience within a religious setting to the work of the Spirit.

9. We should pray for God to use singing as a means of grace to excite and express true affection. We know that true affections are ultimately only produced by the work of the Spirit, hence we should pray for that work, knowing that God has ordained singing as a means by which the Spirit will work. Edwards says that only Christ can teach us the new song of the redeemed in the truths of the gospel:

Therefore you must go to God. You must cry to him to grant you instruction, to impart the knowledge of the subject matter of this song, and to put your heart in tune, [to] give you that blessed skill.[115]


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