This post is about a mystery and what I found that solved it.
Here’s how it began…
In my first year in college, I went with several other students to visit the worship service of an African-American church. This was my first experience with traditional black worship and one of those amazing moments that fostered my lifelong passion to explore the many forms and styles of Christian worship throughout history.
When the pastor began to preach, he quickly fell into a rhythmic cadence that stood half-way between speaking and a kind of singing. The pulse of the sermon moved and built until, at just the right moments, it reached a high point. Then, softening and slowing his voice, the rhythm would start over. My friends were mesmerized. All the way we talked about how moving and powerful we found the service. They were especially enthralled with the preaching.
“That was incredible,” someone commented. “Have you ever heard anything like that in your life?”
Everyone nodded, confirming it was totally new to them. Everyone, that is, except me. I was floored. Of course I’d heard preaching like that before. Hundreds of times. Throughout the years of my childhood I went to church, Sunday after Sunday, with the Primitive Baptists of the central Appalachian mountains. I’d heard my uncle preach like that. My cousins. Other lay preachers of the Association. These were not the rural southern descendants of slaves, but the Scots-Irish descendants of settlers and coal miners. The Primitive Baptists, in that region, had been largely isolated since they had divided from other Baptists over disputes in the opening decades of the nineteenth century.
Go ahead, listen to these two brief clips. Traditional Black Preaching. Traditional (white) Appalachian Preaching.
Here was a mystery: Why did the preaching of these two distinct groups end up having a “normal” style of preaching so similar to one another and so different from most other American churches?
I looked for a common historic connection. Perhaps they had both been a single group once and had only divided along racial line in the last century or so. No, other than sharing a common heritage as Protestants rooted in the General and Particular Baptists of England in the colonial era, there was no historic connection. It could have just been a coincidence. But, the more I studied and listened, the less likely that became.
Over the years, however, a picture became clear to me. An idea that linked the preaching of my childhood with traditional African-American preaching. More than that, it linked the preaching of my childhood with the sounds of synagogues, Greek Orthodox monasteries, medieval Latin Masses, and old men praying in German in an Old Order Amish church.
In all these traditions, sometimes best preserved in the reading of scripture, the distinction between speaking and singing is not as clear as it is in churches today. Public speaking had a musical quality to it. A repeating improvised use of snippets of melody and rhythm that was not quite a song, but was certainly not just talking. In some synagogue worship this is called cantillation (songlike). I’ve come to apply this word to a much larger number of traditions.
Here are a listing of a number of short sound clips. Notice how they come from widely separate histories and traditions. Although they do not all sound musically similar, all of them share the quality where speaking and singing are blended together.
Hebrew Cantillation in a Synagogue
Byzantine Greek Orthodox Chant
Late Medieval Latin Chant
Old Order Amish Prayer
The final key to solving the mystery lays in the fact that both African-American worship and the Appalachian worship of my childhood were largely isolated from the changes that evolved in the great majority of American Protestant Churches over the past century and a half. This explain why they sound so much alike. It also suggests the great (to many) surprise. This style of preaching, so foreign to many of us, is probably much closer to what we would hear if we had a recording of Barton W. Stone or Charles Finney or John Knox. This was normal. It is our normal that is new.