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Religious Studies Theses
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Death in Sacred Harp
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Tilley, Jessica, "Death in Sacred Harp." Thesis, Georgia State University, 2007.
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DEATH IN SACRED HARP
Under the direction of Kathryn McClymond
The extraordinary body of Sacred Harp music has been dubbed “the oldest
continuously sung American music.” Steven Marini, scholar of sacred arts, proposes that
the Sacred Harp community welcomes anyone into their singings, regardless of their
religious beliefs. His analysis does not take into account the emphasis placed on
conversion to Christianity that is demonstrated by the lyrics and the rituals of the Sacred
Harp community, however. Religion is not “a matter of personal faith” to Sacred Harp
singers as Marini suggests, but a matter of a very specific set of faith commitments. The
implications of these commitments for Sacred Harp singers determine their eternal
destiny. An investigation into the lyrics of The Sacred Harp hymnal reveals a
preoccupation with death, always with intent to point toward the individual “religious”
choice of eternal death or eternal life and the desire to share that knowledge with anyone
who comes in contact with this remarkable phenomenon.
INDEX WORDS: Sacred Harp, religious studies, Steven Marini, musicology, American
history, American religious history, ethnography, Southern American history
DEATH IN SACRED HARP
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Arts
in the College of Arts and Sciences
Georgia State University
DEATH IN SACRED HARP
Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr.
Electronic Version Approved:
Office of Graduate Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
Georgia State University
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
II. Convention in Henagar, Alabama. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
III. History of Sacred Harp. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8
IV. Southern Migration. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13
V. “Deeply Spiritual Attitudes:” Fellowship Misconstrued. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16
VI. “Content of the Words:” Death in Sacred Harp Lyrics. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
VII. “Rituals of the Hollow Square:” Memorial Lesson and Leading. . . . . .23
VIII. Conclusion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
Death in Sacred Harp
Sacred Harp has been lauded as the “oldest continuously sung American music.”1
As it is sung in traditional southern communities, Sacred Harp is as close to the earliest
American musical form as one can currently find. George Pullen Jackson calls Sacred
Harp music, “an organic body of American folksong.” As such, the Sacred Harp
community is the subject of inquiry from musicologists, ethnographers, sociologists,
historians, and religious studies scholars. Jackson also notes that, as a “folk” movement
Sacred Harp has been subject to significant scholarly misrepresentation.2 It is an element
of this misrepresentation I will consider here. In this thesis, I will specifically examine
the prevalence of death in Sacred Harp lyrics, ritual, and attitudes of the singers. As I do
this, I also will consider the work of one current scholar of sacred arts in America,
In the following pages, I will subtly complicate Marini’s study by proposing that
death-talk to instigate conversion has been and continues to be a crucial focus of the
Sacred Harp community. I propose that an analysis of the lyrics, rituals, and attitudes of
the singers themselves reveals multiple forms of “death-talk,” an angle Marini does not
consider thoroughly. I conclude that Marini consequently insufficiently constructs the
Sacred Harp community. Though subtle, Marini’s misrepresentation has broader
implications on studies on Sacred Harp and, more significantly, on the broader academic
study of religion.
Hinton, Matt, Erica Awake, My Soul (Atlanta: Awake Productions, 2006).
Bealle, John Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong
(Athens: U of Georgia P, 1997), 111.
The Sacred Harp community is, I will argue, intent on converting non-Christians.
From the complex theology from which Sacred Harp derives, the community proposes
two fairly straight-forward plans of action: Firstly, one must believe that the death of
Jesus Christ was the single act that redeems all of humanity from sin and guarantees an
eternity in paradise with God. Secondly, one must proclaim to others, out of concern for
their eternal fate, that all who do not accept this will spend eternity in hell.
Accompanying the extraordinary music and deeply rooted sense of history, then, is the
desire that all who join in the community to sing will then be moved to fellowship—a
state that requires conversion to Christianity. Death is significant primarily as a pivot that
turns life to heaven or hell, and it holds, because of that instant, eternal significance.
Sacred Harp is, at first encounter, primarily sound. Marini states that Sacred Harp
singing is “delivered . . .with extraordinary volume, range, and precision.”3 Sometimes
the air is so dense with sound, he says, it is as the singers suggest: “You could cut it with
a knife.”4 Marini describes Sacred Harp singing as a “piercing vocal tone without
vibrato,” with harmonies often sung, “slightly flat or sharp, lending an archaic modal
sound to the ensemble.”5 Open-throated singing elevates the volume and the “dispersed
harmony” produced creates a “unique synergy” that Marini likens to Whitman’s
“barbaric yawp of democratic song.”6 This combined with open fifths and three-note
chords creates an overall aggressive drive, even on songs set at a slow pace. Marini
exclaims, “they deliver all of this with a laser-like chest tone quality that could shatter
Marini, Steven, Sacred Song in America (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003), 73.
glass.”7 Though consideration of the sound produced is vital to any study of Sacred Harp,
it is the motivations behind this extraordinary sound I would like to explore in this paper.
Chief among these is the assertion that those who die “unsaved” (those who have not
converted to Christianity) enter a torturous and eternal death and those who are “saved”
enter a blissful and eternal life.
The thesis will 1) offer a description of a current-day Sacred Harp singing, 2)
briefly sketch a history of Sacred Harp, 3) consider Stephen Marini’s analysis of Sacred
Harp, 4) explicate elements of death found in the lyrics of The Sacred Harp, and 5)
consider elements of death found in rituals of Sacred Harp, especially activities of the
Hollow Square which include the Memorial Lesson. Throughout, I will weigh the
accounts of current singers along with scholarly analyses, constantly highlighting the
conversionary priority of the community.
Convention in Henagar, Alabama
I first attended a Sacred Harp singing on Sunday July 2, 2006. It was an all-day
singing, the second day of the annual Henagar-Union Convention, a consistently wellattended Sacred Harp singing. My contact that day was Matt Hinton, a Sacred Harp
singer who had completed a documentary on the community that same year.8 I had heard
about Sacred Harp just eight hours before I met Hinton to drive to the singing. Late the
night before, I ran into a local music producer at a concert in east Atlanta who described
this musical event he had attended earlier that day (he was referencing Sacred Harp but at
Asterisks suggest songs from I Belong to This Band:Eighty-Five Years of Sacred Harp
Recordings (Dust-to-Digital Recording: Atlanta), 2006. Several songs on this recording
were recorded at the Henagar-Union Convention July 2006 which I attended. Here, #23
Ninety- Fifth 36B is suggested.
Hinton, Awake, My Soul.
the time couldn’t remember what it was called). He described it as unlike anything he’d
ever heard or seen. He described a square toward which everyone present sings. He
gesticulated as he described the leader who would stand in that space and lead the rest of
the singers by pumping their arm up and down. He finally gave up trying to explain, as if
exhausted at the prospect, and said we “had to go” the next day, the second and final day
of the convention. When I expressed interest in attending, he gave me Hinton’s phone
number. Hinton and I planned to meet at 7 the next morning.
On the three and a half hour drove to Henagar, Alabama, I received a colorful
history lesson of Sacred Harp from Hinton, as well as a description of what was expected
of me at the singing. I remember Hinton stressing above all that I was expected to sing as
loudly as I could. He said, “they say, ‘if you can hear your neighbor, you’re not singing
loud enough.’” He then suggested that until I got the hang of it, I sit next to a really loud
singer. “Just don’t be bashful,” he encouraged. We pulled off a rural road up a gravel
drive past a grassy lot full of cars, parked ours beside the graveyard, and walked up to the
one-room church building about 35 by 60 feet. By 9:40, when we arrived, singing had
just begun in the small un-air conditioned space. The sound as we entered was
enveloping and, as Hinton had predicted, expressly loud. The one hundred sixty singers
gathered in the small space produced a sound that vibrated the room. Singers sat in pews
shoulder to shoulder, and some stood. A breeze made its way through open windows and
the hand-held paper fans of the singers. The air smelled of sweet perfume, flowers, and
warming grass from outside, and even that early in the day, of sweat. Women were
dressed in casual dresses and men in pants and dress shirts. Some older women wore
stockings and some older men wore ties. Jewelry and make-up were minimal. As the day
wore on, the temperature increased, and the men rolled up their button-up sleeves.
Women fanned aggressively. Everyone at this singing was white (though this is not
always the case). The singers were predominantly over fifty years old; around twelve
singers looked under thirty. There were also four or five young children wandering
between pews dressed in smaller versions of the adults’ style clothes. The utilitarian cars
parked outside in the grass suggested a lower middle class demographic.
The service structure was simple and centered around the signing. Likewise, the
arrangement of the room centered around the person who was leading each song. Each
singer had the opportunity to lead one song that day. Anyone who wished to lead had
submitted his or her name to a designated leader at the beginning of that day’s singing.
This leader called one name after each song ended; the singer called then walked to the
center of the room, to a small empty space about four by four feet called the Hollow
Square. All singers sat in a configuration that allowed their voices to target that space in
the center of the room. The singer called out the number of the song he or she wished to
lead, set the pace by pulsing his or her arm in the air and all singers commenced singing.
By the end of the day, most of the people present had led a song. The first time through
each song, syllables fa, sol, la, or me were pronounced instead of the written lyrics. After
one time through, the words were sung, and typically, all verses of the song. The leader
led a song for three to five minutes. Only this leader had the chance to hear the song with
all four to six part harmonies equally represented and meeting in the Hollow Square. The
singing continued uninterrupted and grew in volume and intensity until noon when a
young leader-for-the-day declared a break for dinner, stressing that everyone was
welcome to share in the meal, whether they had brought something to contribute or not.
There was certainly no shortage of food. Long-time Sacred Harp singer Shelbie
Sheppard, for instance, claims that she brings between fifteen and twenty dishes to each
dinner.9 Men and women procured dishes from coolers in the backs of vehicles and in
less than ten minutes, casseroles, fresh vegetables, meat, and bread were laid out on long
permanent concrete tables. One smaller table was filled with sweet tea and desserts.
People stood to eat, at high tables, perfect for maneuvering conversations and return
visits to the food tables. Conversation was generally jovial. Topics near me revolved
around national politics (the elderly man who stood eating beside me had an American
flag pin stuck in his ball cap), where I “was from” (the wife of the elderly man
proclaimed: “Oh! We’ve got cousins in Atlanta!”) and the food we were eating. Another
couple near me discriminatorily nibbled one tomato slice then another slightly lightercolored slice, conclusively determining thereby which tomato gardener was superior.
Most people returned to the table for “seconds” and then for dessert. After an hour of this
festive atmosphere, the food was repacked in coolers in the vehicles and singers moved
Hinton stood behind a small table he had set up under a tall pine tree during the
meal, a respectful distance from the dessert table, selling copies of his documentary,
“Awake, My Soul” for $20. Singers bought many. Several singers who were at the
Henagar singing that day figured in the documentary and most present that day knew
someone on it. A few people who had previously viewed it expressed gratitude to Matt
for his work. Singing recommenced while we were repacking the discs, a little past 1
Hinton, Awake, My Soul.
After the first songs after dinner, a “Memorial Lesson” was delivered. The same
man who declared it was time to break for dinner stood in the Hollow Square at this point
and delivered the lesson, which was composed of a few brief comments about “those who
have gone before,” and an expression of gratitude for their Christian example. There were
nods, inarticulate grunts, and Amens in affirmation. He then read the names of singers
from several states who had passed away in the past year. In the five minutes it took for
this Memorial Lesson, the mood of the room changed. Singing began again immediately
afterward with songs typically in minor keys. Several who led from the Hollow Square
after the Lesson began by dedicating their chosen song to one who had died. Some
singers were visibly moved by the Lesson. There was an increase of foot-stomping, kneeslapping, clapping, fist-pumping, and general intensity of the already extraordinary
sound. After two more hours of this relentlessly loud singing, an elderly man on the front
row prayed a prayer in closing. The small building and tables beside it were cleared out
and deserted in half an hour.
When we left, I had a fairly intense head-ache, one I suspected was triggered by
my unfamiliarity with such physical exertion in singing and also with the volume
produced by it.10 I was intrigued by the singers’ product and passion and decided I
wanted to explore this community further. My primary interest, predictably, was in the
sound of the music and it was only in conversation with Matt Hinton weeks afterward
that I began to realize that the community members did not so predictably consider this
their primary purpose in doing what they do. Hinton stated assuredly that there was more
that unified this community than a shared history and love of music; there was also a
pervasive awareness of the state of the souls of those present, a celebration for those
“saved” and an active concern for those who were not. Hinton expressed that the singers
had faith in the experience of a Sacred Harp singing as an instance in which God himself
could move a non-Christian to revelation and salvation.11
History of Sacred Harp
A sketch of the history of Sacred Harp will help contextualize the community
within the history of religion in America. Sacred Harp’s early colonial roots are in the
tradition of “singing schools,” established around 1700 to address what was perceived as
a problem with early northern colonial church music. Their Puritan theology called for
“plain” musical style. This entailed unadorned, single-lined melody sung without musical
accompaniment. Because parishioners were largely musically illiterate, songbooks were
not used; rather, songs were taught by repetition. Consequently, the canon of church
songs at the time was quite small and the few dozen songs that did exist were sung in
one-line melody in dragging tempo.12 The desire for a more diverse body of religious
music motivated some colonial musicians to instigate weekend or week-long “singing
schools” to teach parishioners to sing newly composed and often fairly complex religious
music. These music teachers were self-motivated and traveled from town to town,
advertising that the school was going to be held, and then hosting an apparently effective
course in musical sight-reading.13
The theology contained in this new body of music can be traced to 17th and 18th
century Protestant theologians. The singing schools’ instruction so effectively worked its
Hinton, Matt. Talk at Georgia State University, 2007.
Hear #10 Morning 163T
Hinton, Awake, My Soul.
Marini, Sacred Song in America, 74.
way into the churches that, as Marini records, by 1770, “churches in America . . . had
become seedbeds for a new American synthesis of sacred song.” Marini gives credit for
that synthesis “almost single-handedly” to Bostonian William Billings (1746-1800).
Billings was a “tanner, patriot, moderate Congregationalist, and self-taught singing
master and composer.” Billings looked to British hymn writers Charles Wesley, John
Newton, William Cowper, and most notably Isaac Watts for lyrical inspiration. Watts
(1674-1748), minister, theologian, and poet, wrote music as he claimed, to “promote
Protestant consensus by focusing on the most essential beliefs of Reformed theology and
the promotion of a deeply emotional piety” while, as he put it, “avoid[ing] the more
obscure and controverted points of Christianity.’”14 As a result, Watts adopted an
extremely simple style of composition. “The metaphors are generally sunk to the level of
vulgar capacities and endeavour’d to make the Sense plain and obvious,” he wrote.15
Watts expressed concern that anyone who encountered the lyrics he wrote would
understand them. Sacred Harp lyrics, and the theology they contain, were as important to
the singers as was the music that mediated it. Billings and the singing school music
composers who followed him, wrote music resonant with Watts’ emphasis on what they
determined to be “the essential” Christian beliefs. Chief among these essentials was the
individual experience of sin and then redemption through the death of Jesus Christ, a
theme in the Sacred Harp “canon” that provides the skeleton for all others.
Consonant with this emphasis on simplicity and accessibility in lyrics, Billings’
appropriated the “shape-note” system of written notation, a system he suspected could be
easily learned. Shape-notes derive from 11th century European syllabic notation, and are
reminiscent of the four-note system of the ancient Greeks. Billings adopted the European
syllables, returning them to the four-note version. The syllables fa sol la and me replaced
lyrics in this instructional system.16 Each syllable was represented by a notehead printed
in a literal shape placed on a traditional five-line ledger: a triangle, a circle, a rectangle,
or a diamond. Each shape, consistently corresponding to one of the four syllables, made
sight-reading fairly simple. Once singers learned this 4-note notation they could sing any
song written in this simple form. Both the musically trained and musically illiterate in the
American colonies adopted this effective form, transforming what had characteristically
been the realm of the learned—written musical form—into a form accessible to the
populace at large. This democratic thrust hit a chord with the colonists, and the system
and singing schools that perpetuated it increased in popularity throughout the 18th
century. By 1800, singing schools had reached the height of their popularity. By 1844
with the publication of The Sacred Harp, a hymnal cataloguing hundreds of the most
popular shape-note songs, the movement also had a name—Sacred Harp.17 In this name,
the significance of the unaccompanied nature of the music was lauded. It was only the
human vocal chords that were required to produce this music, a “harp” considered
“sacred” by the composers.
Billings, well aware of contemporary European musical forms, intentionally
wrote music that was quite different from them. His songs were rambunctious in form,
implementing open fifths, two-note chords, and uninhibited static sound, which were all
unacceptable in contemporary European music. Shape-note composers were opposed to
Cobb, Buell The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: U of Georgia P,
the constrictions of trained Europe not so much to support any complicated political
philosophy as to express opposition to the constriction that European musical training
placed on individual expression and, it was concluded, on individual experience. Lifelong
Sacred Harp singer and historian Jim Carnes concluded an analysis of the sometimes
“rough around the edges” delivery of the music of Sacred Harp by offering this: “Let’s
just say that as a musical style, this tradition just has different priorities.”18
Consider Buell Cobb’s The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music in which he
asserts that the tradition from which Sacred Harp derives never aspired to “angels’
song.”19 Rather, these early composers and singers speak of the desirability of “earthly
tunes.” Cobb cites Billings’ mandate that in music, “nature is the best dictator” (Cobb
61).20 Billings expressed a strong conviction: Music should be of a quality consummate
with the Creator God to which it was sung. In this it should reflect the “natural” world as
God created it (translated by Billings as the sound of the “sacred harp,” unencumbered by
unnecessary instruction or restraining notation), and that music should be easily
accessible to anyone God took the time to create. Billings so adhered to his own mandate
that he frequently composed music outdoors so that the sounds of “nature” could mingle
with his composition. (He once testified that he paused in an uninspired state for a good
length of time until a cow mooed and provided the tone for his next chord.21) These
“earthy” songs often referenced the substance of earth—wind, water, and blood, for
instance—as well as the processes of human existence there earth—birth, decay, and
Hinton, Awake, My Soul.
Hinton, Awake, My Soul..
death, for instance. In this, composers pointed to what they cannot know of God’s divine
Nature by building on what they do know of God by the created nature around them.
In Sacred Harp lyrics, Puritan preoccupation with death lingers and merges with
Watts’ philosophy of theological simplification as Billings transposed it. David Watters
suggests that the Puritan-origin preoccupation with “end things” was rooted in “an
attempt to see creation as God sees it, employing in this life eyes of faith and looking
forward to the end of time when all illusions attendant on earthly and sinful existence
would finally dissolve.”22 In the sermons, literature, and art of the colonial community,
Watters finds hope expressed for an end to earthly difficulty and a belief in eternal
reward for faithful Christians. Consider Harvard trained Puritan preacher, Michael
Wigglesworth, who warned parishioners of the impending judgment for the unsaved.23
Wigglesworth’s sermon The Day of Doom was a poetic prescription for hell familiar to
Puritan colonials. The lesson it contained was that if one’s soul had not been saved by
acceptance of Jesus Christ’s death, an eternity of torture was his or her fate. Also, if one
was aware that fellow humans were destined for hell, the one saved was required to do all
he or she could to bring the unsaved to salvation. Indifference to the fate of others was
judged harshly in the end. Sacred Harp does not adhere to the Calvinist-origin, Puritanadopted doctrine of the elect. Rather, Sacred Harp lyrics reveal a theology of Jesus
Christ’s death as a democratic act—one in which all may be saved. According to this
doctrine of universal salvation, all that was required to save one from hell and usher in
Maclear, J.F. “Review of:“With Bodilie Eyes:” Eschatological Themes in Puritan
Literature and Gravestone Art” in The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 40,
No. 3 (Williamsburg: Omohundro Institute, 1983), 469.
Long, Thomas L. “Puritan Appropriations of Catholic Discourses in Michael
Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom” (Presentation at the International Medieval Congress,
University of Leeds (England), July 2000),1, 7.
eternity in heaven was acceptance of Jesus Christ’s death for each individual’s sins.
Nothing more complicated was employed in the theological structure of Sacred Harp.
Even the cross-denominational ritual of Eucharist that marks the death of Jesus Christ is
not employed in Sacred Harp services. The metaphysical intricacies of the Eucharist are
not palatable to the Sacred Harp community. An individual’s one-time decision to accept
Jesus Christ’s death secures an eternity in heaven. This is the theology of Sacred Harp
and the primary proclamation of their remarkable sound. The music that mediates this
theology lends a powerful mode of proclamation, indeed.
The apocalyptic lyrics and archaic form of the shape-note tradition instigated a
regional migration in the early 19th century as “soft, sweet” gospel music and lyrics were
adopted in New England churches. Shape note music, considered “rustic and rural” in
contrast, moved southward. By 1840, shape-note singing was situated almost exclusively
in rural communities of the south and southwest. Even in the late 19th century, when
urban southern churches began adopting gospel music, many rural communities did not.
Jim Carnes explains, “shape notes is not a style of music; it’s a notation, [and] it came to
be associated with acoustic Southern . . . music of preachers and camp meetings.” Carnes
places the music culturally as well as geographically. He continues: “It didn’t seem to fit
in with the post Civil War great urban revivals [that] were much more targeted toward the
wealthy city dwellers.” Rural southerners, then, provided the environment for Sacred
Harp music’s preservation.
By the early 20th century, academic inquiry into Sacred Harp music was solidly
focused on the tradition as a southern “folk” art. Musicologists traveled south to
catalogue what was considered by then a quintessentially southern manifestation. These
early investigations frequently caricatured singers as ignorant backwoodsmen and
women. In 1928, Karl Carmer published an amateur ethnographic sketch called The
Sacred Harp Singers which was one of the first pieces to be published on the community.
He presented what became a consistent characterization that catapulted them into “folk”
significance, specifically in regards to their own ignorance as to the value of the piece of
history they had preserved.24 The account presented stubborn illiterate southerners who
sang what Carmer ungraciously called “ludicrous” music. Carmer suggested Sacred Harp
music offered a foothold into a raucous southern narrative. Sacred Harp communities’
lunches of fried chicken and fresh fruit pies was romanticized to induce Rip-Van-Winklelike nostalgia. Current scholars Buell Cobb and John Bealle do the same, though in more
subtle ways. Cobb comments in regard to the sound in the Hollow Square: “Imperfections
are burned away.”25 Bealle quotes a local in lauding Sacred Harp as “an exotic relic of
bygone days” and references the “planter gentility” which is alive in Sacred Harp.26 This
caricature of backwards-thinking people in a time warp has proven to be inexhaustibly
interesting, but it is one that misconstrues the community. One example of the
insufficient construction lies in the unacknowledged elements of death-talk in Sacred
Harp as they are used to stimulate conversion-talk. Instead, tales of quaint southern social
At least on this one point, I propose that Marini has also misconstrued Sacred
Harp. In his descriptions of traditional singings, Marini characterizes traditional Sacred
Bealle, 84, 97.
Cobb, 11, 12.
Harp singers’ who sing because that is what their relatives and neighbors do as it was
what their parents and grandparents’ relatives and neighbors did before them. In
stereotyping the community this way, he presents them as a relatively theologically
passive community. After an investigation into the lyrics, I will propose that they are far
from passive, though their approach to conversion is not the evangelical norm.
Among the voices contributing to the body of Sacred Harp scholarship, Steven
Marini is at the forefront. In Sacred Song in America, Marini offers a thick description,
historical overview, and scholarly analysis. He suggests the Sacred Harp community
perpetuates a generic spirituality. In his chapter on Sacred Harp, Marini cites the “rituals
of the hollow square, the content of the words, and the deeply spiritual attitude of
traditional singers” as elements that mark Sacred Harp as a “deeply religious activity.” In
none of his extensive writing on the community does Marini note the desire to convert
others to their community; rather, he depicts a community passively welcoming people of
any faith, consequently minimizing one element of this “deeply religious” community
that makes it such. His definition of “religion” makes a way for this characterization.
The three elements that Marini highlights that causes him to conclude that this is,
in fact, a religious community, are the rituals, the lyrics, and the spiritual attitudes of the
singers. These are the three that I will also consider to highlight exactly how this
community’s focus on death points to their conversionary priorities.
I will begin by considering “the spiritual attitudes of traditional singers” and
consider the use of one word that suggests this. “Fellowship,” as it appears in Sacred
Harp singers’ vocabulary, points to a complex community association. To offer an
example, I will consider how the word works into the descriptions of Jeff Sheppard, a
respected leader in the Sacred Harp community. Marini interviewed Sheppard in his
research and a consideration of what Marini does with this word suggests a subtle but
significant misunderstanding of the community.27
I. “Deeply Spiritual Attitudes:” Fellowship Miscontrued
In interviews for his chapter on Sacred Harp, Marini asked Jeff Sheppard about
the relationship of Sacred Harp singings and primary religious institutions. Sheppard
responds, “Sacred Harp singing is not . . . church.” Sheppard claims that it is, instead, the
Sacred Harp singers’ “experience of Christianity” that is shared with “people you love.”
When Marini probes to determine if Sacred Harp might be, then, the religion of
traditional singers, Sheppard “unhesitatingly” responds: “It’s not their religion. It’s their
fellowship.”28 Marini narrates immediately after quoting Sheppard, weaving Sheppard’s
words into his interpretation and offering his own definition of religion: “Religion is a
matter of personal faith and denominational identity. Fellowship is a lifetime of
relationships with ‘people you love’ and a shared ‘experience of Christianity’ that
transcends any particular communion.”29 Marini’s turn here is toward a generic
spirituality, one in which religion is a matter of “personal faith.” To these Sacred Harp
singers, however, identity with a very particular Christian religious experience is what is
required. Sheppard’s statement has been broken into ill-fitting parts in Marini’s
appropriation. Sheppard’s “it’s not their religion” suggests that the focus not be detracted
from a very specific set of Christian beliefs and turned to Sacred Harp. Singing, he
proposes, is what these religious people do to proclaim their religion, but it is not their
Hear #16 Consecration.
religion. The fact that there is a “they” is less important than what “they” share, namely a
theology of salvation situated within a very particular belief in the significance of the
deaths of Jesus Christ and of each individual. This common belief is one of the essentials.
In the Sacred Harp community, fellowship is necessarily commonality.
Fellow- suggests society. Marini is correct about this. The suffix
-ship, however, necessitates commonality. From the Anglian, -ship suggests “state or
condition of being,” from the Latin, “consort,” and from German, “to create, order or
appoint.” This, I propose is at the heart of the “deeply spiritual attitude” Marini notes, and
makes the generic spirituality he suggests implausible. Sacred Harp singers use the word
fellowship in the fullness of its etymology. In fellowship, “society” requires a common lot
as implied by “consort.” In the singers’ use, then, fellowship entails a state or condition
of being that is created, ordered, or appointed to share this common lot. The invitation of
Sacred Harp singers’ fellowship is not as much “all may participate, all may lead, and all
may be saved,” as it is “all should participate, all should lead, and all should be saved.”
Only then is fellowship complete.
II. “Contents of the Words:” Death in the Sacred Harp Lyrics
Marini concedes that the response to the question, “What’s the most important
aspect of the singings?” is deceptively simple. “It’s the words,” he claims. I will now
consider this “most important aspect” at length.30 I propose that Marini stops short of
probing the words’ implications. After a consideration of the content of the words, one
may conclude that this is a meeting where an encounter with God (an ultimately ineffable
concept) is paralleled to death (an ultimately ineffable experience).
Hear #6, Cuba 401.
The lyrics that constitute The Sacred Harp hymnal contain multiple themes but
chief among them is death. It is significant to note that singers frequently express the
belief that their lyrics and tunes were directly inspired by God. While not revered as
authoritative as the Bible, The Sacred Harp hymnal holds a comparable place. Sacred
Harp singer Lonnie Rogers speaks to this while explaining why singers frequently
describe “feeling” something when they sing: “We feel like God inspired those people
who wrote these songs—that’s why we feel something. Man is very little in this world
when you get down to what man can do.”31 It is significant to consider the weight singers
place on these lyrics and, as Rogers suggests, the words contain God’s own inspiration to
Within this lyrical tradition, there are at least two angles by which death is
presented. Here I have termed these two angles “death-in-sin” to demonstrate the
statement of original fallen-ness and “death-to-sin” to suggest humanity’s choice to
change this state by accepting yet another death—the death of Jesus Christ. The Sacred
Harp appropriation of this theology suggests that, ultimately, death is nothing to fear
because immortality is promised to Christians. The uniqueness of their portrayal of death
lies in part in their refusal to soften any element of it. Since conversion is the aim, this
determination to speak plainly is understandable.
Death for the unsaved results in separation from God and eternal torture and is
rightly to be feared. Death to sin is made possible by Jesus Christ’s death and then saves
the unsaved. Therefore, death after salvation is not to be feared. Sacred Harp singers then
join in the Pauline tradition of taunting: “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is
Hinton, Awake, My Soul.
your sting?”32 Death that results in separation from God, the death-in-sin in which all
people are born and the fate of non-Christians for eternity, is death’s greatest power.
Death-to-sin, however, that is made possible by Jesus’ death and subsequent redemption
of all who believe undermines death’s greatest power by casting death as a pivot which
turns the saved from earth to eternity with God.
When William Billlings published The New-England Psalm-Singer in 1770, he
included a hymn by George Whitefield entitled “Ah! Lovely Appearance of Death” at the
close of the book, in which the “appearance” of death is welcomed.33 Death in The
Sacred Harp does not simply mean the end of a human life, however. The uses of the
word are multiple. I will now discuss these two distinct notions of death, death-in-sin and
death-to-sin, both of which are tied inextricably to the death of Jesus Christ. Afterward, I
will consider two specific instances of the Sacred Harp experience: 1) the Memorial
Lesson and 2) leading the singing from the Hollow Square. I will then consider
implications of both on the conversionary emphasis of the community.
From the Genesis account of sin and death to Paul’s proclamation that “the wages
paid by sin is death,” an atmosphere of death as payment for sin was established in the
Bible and adopted by the evangelical traditions from which Sacred Harp derives.34 Sacred
Harp’s “Eureka,” presents one common view of the mortal life in The Sacred Harp:
“Soon will this mortal life be o’er/ this body moulder into dust/ naked my soul will stand
before God that’s holy, pure and just/ Its standing doom of bliss or woe/ Will from the
The New Jerusalem Bible, I Corinthians 15:55 (New York: Random House, 2002),
New Jerusalem Bible, Romans 6:23.
Great I Am receive/ Up to the realms of glory go/ Or in hell’s torments ever live.”35 Such
elements of sober recitation of the fate of the dead are commonplace in the music of The
Sacred Harp and mirror an awareness of the nearness of death. In “Sons of Sorrow,”
Sacred Harp singers relay this belief: ”Ye sighing sons of sorrow/ Learn with me your
certain doom/ See all nature fading, dying/ Silent all things seem to mourn/ Life from
vegetation flying/ Calls to mind the mould’ring urn/ Learn with me your fate tomorrow/
Dead, perhaps laid in the tomb!”36 Of all the themes Sacred Harp songwriters could have
captured they chose again and again to write about death.
The solemnity of the Sacred Harp lyrics should not be interpreted as despair,
however. The solemnity is intentional and it is pointed, but it is not despairing. Sacred
Harp singers’ confrontation with death occurs with a certainty that it is something that
has been “overcome” by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.37 Death is a barrier to God
that Christ has destroyed. Earth’s discomforts are assuaged by the promise of eternal
bliss. Consider “The Child of Grace,” in which the singers declare, “This earth . . . is not
my place, I seek my home in heav’n/ A country far from mortal sight/ Yet O, by faith I
see/ The land of rest, the saints’ delight/ The heav’n prepared for me.”38 When taken as a
whole, the lyrics of The Sacred Harp deliver a bold affront to death by way of complex
and multivalent uses of the word.
Sacred Harp is not novel in its multivalent appropriation of the word “death.”
Neither is it novel in its emphasis that it is not death itself that limits life, but the fear of
Cooper, W.M. The B.F. White Sacred Harp (Troy, Alabama: the Sacred Harp Book
Company, 1949), 378.
Kerr, Fergus Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity,(Notre Dame,
Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 1997), 124.
death. Paul S. Minear, in Death Set to Music, addresses the New Testament’s treatment
of death: “Only in relatively few instances do the nouns and verbs for dying bear the
medical definition as their primary denotation.”39 Instead, Minear insists that writers of
the New Testament “perceive that the fear of death is a greater enemy than death itself
[and] seeks deliverance from that fear as more desirable than deliverance from death.”40
It is the individual who has the choice of assuaging that fear by considering his or her
own fate after death.
It is instructive to note that Sacred Harp lyrics remained largely unchanged from
previous centuries. While the majority of American music merged with the importation
of “sweeter” 19th century European tunes, Sacred Harp did not. The incessant reference to
the details of Jesus Christ’s moments of dying, death, and the ensuing death of all who
are now alive did not diminish. Many who preferred gospel considered Sacred Harp
unnecessarily visceral and morbid. In the middle of evangelical movements to portrayed
humanity in more positive lights, this community refused to comply. Death remained at
the forefront of their hymnology. Though not unique in its presence, death as it invades
the Sacred Harp singings is unique in its persistence. There is in this a constant reminder
that the line between life and death is thin and the consequence of un-preparedness for
death is eternal.
The most visceral hymns often describe Jesus’ death and its implications for the
believer. “The Fountain of Life,” for instance, describes, “A fountain filled with blood/
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins/ And sinners plunge beneath that flood/ Loose all their
Minear, Paul, S. Death Set to Music (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 8.
guilty stains.”41 Lyrics of “The Crucified Savior” declare that Jesus’ death was
intentional, a result of an active will. There is also an active will in each individual.
Consider these lyrics: “On the cruel tree Christ hath died for me/ Sing that Jesus died for
me.”42 In the Sacred Harp song, “Calvary,” the singers place themselves at the very
instant of Jesus’ death: “I see One hanging on the tree/ I see One hanging on the tree/ I
see One hanging on the tree/ It inspires my heart/ I love to think of Calvary/ It inspires
my heart/ By faith I see His bleeding side/ It inspires my heart/ By faith I hear those bitter
groans/ It inspires my heart.”43 The individual, then, “present” to Christ’s sacrifice, has a
choice to accept or reject the sacrifice as redeeming him or her from sin. All who become
aware of this theology are “invited to think, not of how Jesus fitted into the conditions of
[their] life and time . . . but rather of how [they] are affected by having to share [Christ’s]
life and time.”44 The Sacred Harp’s perception of human’s participation in the event of
Jesus Christ’s death lends a direct control over their eternal fate: God created humans
with choice. (They chose to sin and died as a result.) Jesus Christ had a choice. (He chose
to die for the redemption of every human.) Consequently, every human has a choice.
(The decision to accept Jesus Christ’s death “defeats” death. The decision to reject it
secures an eternity defeated by it.) Then death, potentially the greatest of human fears, is
recast as an opportunity to express the greatest of human decisions and provides a way
for the greatest of divine interventions. Nothing less is at stake at each Sacred Harp
In Awake, My Soul, singer Rodney Ivey speaks of his early childhood familiarity
with Sacred Harp and of his adolescent rebellion against it. He describes his rebellion this
way in an on-camera interview: “I was wild . . . like some o’ these country singers, [with]
drinking and women on my mind.” Ivey does not go into detail, but summarizes by
casting this rebellion as a time in which he was distant from what should have been close.
He describes a draw he felt in mid-life to return to Sacred Harp singings and here he
speaks of his conversion experience. He describes the process this way: “I got to singin’
more ‘n’ more ‘n’ more and I finally realized.” What, exactly, he “realized” Ivey does not
describe. He ends that statement declaratively. His next sentence begins, “I received the
Lord in my life and that helped me see the way to go.” He affirms that he has been
singing consistently since his conversion and offers by way of explanation: “The words
just sorta changed me.”45 Ivey is referencing the entire Sacred Harp experience, though,
and not simply a reading of the words alone. In words they are certainly death-centered;
in their rituals, as well, Sacred Harp singings point to death’s pervasive presence and
individuals’ need to be prepared for it.
III. “Rituals of the Hollow Square:” Memorial Lesson and Leading
The Hollow Square will be considered in light of two rituals: firstly, the Memorial
Lesson that is delivered from this space and, secondly, singers’ experiences of leading the
singing from the square. These rituals point to a trust the singers have that God will be
present in the words and rituals of the singing and that the singers will be changed
Hinton, Awake, My Soul.
Hear #20 Farewell Anthem
Sacred Harp singing is structured in the following sequence: five minutes of
opening greeting, hours of singing, a one hour break for dinner, a five to ten minute
Memorial Lesson, hours of singing, and a brief prayer in closing. The Memorial Lesson,
which falls at the point of the meeting in which a sermon would in a standard Protestant
church service, serves some of the same purposes. Both are meant to proclaim and to
instruct. Instead of a lengthy prepared sermon, however, the Memorial Lesson is a brief
eulogy, followed by a recitation of names of singers who have recently died. Two
elements are typically emphasized in this lesson: 1) gratitude to those who have led the
way in the Sacred Harp tradition and 2) a reminder that those who are currently alive will
soon join them.
Richard DeLong gives the Memorial Lesson at the Henagar-Union singing
recorded in Awake, My Soul. He matter-of-factly reminds other singers why they have a
Memorial Lesson: “This is the time we pause in the singing to remember those who were
here a year ago and who are passed on.” In this Lesson, DeLong passionately states: “I
might not know much but I know one thing—that when this crowd right here gets to
heaven and gets with the saints that’ve gone on before . . . we’ll be a singin’ there won’t
be no questions about it.” He cries as he speaks. Several singers, as the camera pans to
the crowd after the singing recommences, have tear-streaked faces. The Lesson, as
DeLong summarizes, honors those lost, expresses grief at the loss, expresses anticipation
of one day joining the “saints that’ve gone on before,” and reminds anyone not prepared
to do so that they have a decision to make. In the activities of the Hollow Square as in
Sacred Harp lyrics, the Sacred Harp fellowship points to death.
In Awake, My Soul, Hinton consistently highlights the transference of Sacred
Harp heritage from one generation to the next. In the documentary, many of the singers
speak of beloved singers who have passed on. Some speak of singing in honor of them or
of singing as a way to feel close to them. One singer recalls that her father’s dying wish
was that she continue singing Sacred Harp music throughout her life. She recalls that near
his death he said: “I hadn’t ever asked you for anything, but I’m gonna ask you for
somethin’ now. Don’t ever stop singin.’”46 Some singers interviewed also spoke of their
own coming deaths. Raymond Hamrick, one highly respected Sacred Harp singer and
composer, spoke of the significance he hoped Sacred Harp singing would play at the time
of his death. Hamrick recalls telling his children that there is a particular Sacred Harp
song he composed he wanted sung at his funeral. Hamrick relays his belief that at his
own funeral, as he put it, “I’ll be listenin.’” Because of that fact, he adds that if the
singing was “not goin’ to be done right—you can forget it.”47 Hamrick specifies that he
does not simply want a “handful” of singers at his funeral. At least fifty are required to
produce a full sound, i.e., to be “done right.” If that is not possible, Hamrick makes
allowances for gospel. Hamrick is recalling the familiar belief among Sacred Harp
singers of a Christian fellowship that includes not only those on earth, but also those
“who have gone before.” In Sacred Harp theology, the line between the living and the
dead is only thinly imagined.
It is not only the declaration of the theology contained in the lyrics of Sacred Harp
that is significant in the Sacred Harp experience. It is also the experience created by the
structure and the sound itself that is significant. There is something about the
combination of elements in a Sacred Harp service to which Hamrick alludes. It is
something singers often describe “moves” them and singers typically attribute this to the
presence of God. Singers relay that this presence is particularly strong in the Hollow
Square. In Hamrick’s conception of his own funeral, his body would be in the place of
the Hollow Square with all singers singing toward his casket. He, in the presence of God,
would “be listenin,’” and the quality of sound was significant as it would be the mediator
for the proclamation of the truth in the words and then God’s reciprocal communion.
By all accounts, the experience of Sacred Harp singing from within the Hollow
Square is one that is difficult to describe. When singers attempt to relay their experiences,
they frequently suggest that it cannot be articulated at all; rather, it has to be experienced.
When a description is offered, it typically tips into language pointing to the surreal.
Richard Ivey speaks of leading from the square: “It’s like the ground is shaking under
you. I feel that sometimes I’m going to be lifted up by the ground that’s shaking under
me.” Hinton, in Awake, My Soul suggests that the Hollow Square serves the role of the
biblical Holy of Holies as a space, “where God is especially present.”48 Several singers
speak of being fearful at the prospect of leading, insinuating that the fear was not only
due to the responsibility of leading others but of an expectation of God in that space.
Singers consistently speak with respect at what could transpire there. Joyce Walton
recounts: “I led at Muscadine, Alabama, and my knees shook so I could hardly stand up.”
Richard DeLong suggests that one cannot “hear” Sacred Harp as all, “until you step into
that center square and hear those four parts hit you full force because those singers are
not singing for a concert or a chorus or to entertain somebody.” DeLong asserts that the
Hinton, Awake, My Soul.
singers are singing to, and simultaneously being moved by, God. Charlene Wallace
speaks of her experiences, also pointing to the ineffability of it: “When you really get
involved in it and get where you can direct, when you hear all that sound coming from
below you, it’s unbelievable.” Jim Carnes summarizes the mysterious experience of
leading from the Hollow Square: “There’s really nothing to compare with it.” DeLong
speaks of those who would disbelieve the experience. To these people he suggests: “Go
experience it and have those goose chills run up and down your neck when it’s ‘bout
ninety-five [degrees] inside and then you’ll know what brings these people back.”49 By
these accounts, the experience of leading from the Square is one that must be experienced
as it cannot be relayed otherwise. With this confidence, Sacred Harp singers allow
anyone of any faith to lead the singing, trusting that, once he or she has chosen to step
into the Hollow Square, that individual may then be “moved” by God. This reference to
moving is, for Christian singers, a move in an experience of a God they have already
accepted. For non-Christians, it is a move toward that God they have previously rejected.
Unlike cousin evangelical communities, Sacred Harp singers trust to the mediated
experience they create instead of proselytizing directly. When I asked Hinton if anyone is
welcome to lead from the Hollow Square, he verified that anyone is invited to lead the
singing from this space. Hinton then asserted that singers, if they themselves understood
what was at stake, could not be impartial about the presence of non-Christians among
them. There is no desire that non-Christians stay away from the Sacred Harp
community—on the contrary, Hinton expressed the hope that non-Christians would come
and join their fellowship by converting to Christianity and continuing to proclaim its
truths in song.50 Sacred Harp singers’ mode of conversion is not preaching but a trust in
the truth revealed in the lyrics and an experience of God mediated by the music. This is
especially true when the music is lead from the Hollow Square as the individual has
already made a choice to step into this sacred space.
Marini comments on the openness of the Sacred Harp community: “It is telling
that song has been the medium through which such disparate partners have found
common rituals for their respective styles of appropriating the sacred.” He then cites
Shelbie Sheppard: “We are sharing our lives and what this music means to [us] when
[we] share it with other folks. If we have any mission in life, the scripture says not to hide
your talents under a basket.” In this sentence, Sheppard links reference to a “mission in
life” to “talents” that she is expected to share. She offers no transition between the two,
but links her ability to sing as a “talent” that assists her in performing her “mission.”
Sheppard is keenly aware of her own spiritual context, one that translates these scriptures
into a commission to usher others into communion with God. She is, in this sense, a
missionary who shares what she has determined to be a great truth by singing about it. It
is not about the talents as much as it is about the mission, an emphasis Marini inverts.
Marini claims that, “it is telling” that Sacred Harp is the medium by which people with
diverse spiritualities “appropriate the sacred.” But he does not explore exactly what it
tells. If he did, I suspect the subtle missionary mode of the community would be difficult
Hinton, Talk at Georgia State University, March 2007.
Non-Christians are welcome at Sacred Harp singings. That is clear. But they are
not simply welcome just as they are. Sacred Harp singers hope that non-Christians will
encounter God through the singing and be moved to convert. Conversion in this
community is not initiated by fiery sermons, religious publications, or missionary
pressure from members. Even the subtler rituals that mark inclusion in most American
churches, such as Eucharist and Baptism, are absent. Instead, an environment is created
in which music is intended to mediate a revelation of God and subsequent conversion to
Christianity. To Sacred Harp singers, then, religion is not simply “a matter of personal
faith” as Marini claims. Rather, religion is a very specific set of faith claims and
ultimately the means by which individuals prepare themselves for eternity. Those who
are Christians have every desire to see those who are not make this all-important
conversion from eternal death to eternal life.
Those in the broader academic study of religion may consider Marini to be an
example of one who privileges a particular scholarly agenda over the discernment of the
agendas of the community studied. If scholars fall into this category, they then run the
risk of perverting any claims they make afterward. Particularly in matters involving the
definition of religion, the emphases of the community members themselves should be of
primary importance. Only after a community’s priorities have been ascertained should a
scholar proceed with analysis and interpretation. The significance of Marini’s subtle
scholarly misinterpretation lies in his assumption that the Sacred Harp community views
religion as “a matter of personal faith.” Consequently, in his analysis thereafter, singers
are made to conform to a model of generic spirituality and the community is entirely
colored by this. Marini’s assumption is proven inaccurate in light of the community’s
own definition of religion. Intricacies of historical complexity are lost as the community
is set as an example of contemporaneous spirituality. The maverick nature of Sacred Harp
is watered down to fit a current scholarly conception of commonality and openness. What
is lost is the vitality of a community that has always been a bit anarchic and
anachronistic, largely impervious to the acclaim or disdain of onlookers. A careful
investigation into Sacred Harp reveals that this community and the scholars who write
about it, as Jim Carnes proposes, may simply have different priorities.
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