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The June 30, 1849, edition of The Presbyterian, published in New York and Philadelphia, records the report of the Committee on Congregational Singing to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Old School (Dr. William Swan Plumer was on this committee). It is a fascinating read, particularly on what it has to say about the topic of choirs in relation to congregational singing. We quote the section in full:
While, in some places, as yet, singing in public worship is conducted by a precentor, or a choir, and the congregation generally join their voices in other places, a select choir performs the singing, with little or no assistance from the great body of the congregation. We are free to say that we consider the latter practice as very undesirable, at the least. It results, in some cases, from the too frequent introduction of new tunes, which are repeated so seldom, and at such long intervals, that the congregation has no sufficient opportunity to become familiar with them and this is one important reason of the dislike which is occasionally felt toward new tunes, otherwise unexceptionable. But the disuse of congregational singing arises, also, from the fact that as the more cultivated and skilful singers are apt to be collected in the choir, there is not only a corresponding diminution of the number of singers in the body of the congregations, by the transfer of voices which formerly rose from various points in the assembly, but an increased diminution is effected, because other persons, who now miss the leading voices, by whose vicinity they were encouraged to sing, have now ceased to sing at all; and at length, if the singing of the choir happens to be very excellent, the pleasure of listening to it supersedes what ought to be the pleasure, and is the duty, of following it and uniting with it; and in the end, the mass of the worshippers sit completely silent.
We do not object to choirs. They are eminently useful as leaders. The evil alluded to is not necessarily to be remedied by disbanding them. There is a more excellent way of supplying the defect. We do not insist that it is the duty of all to sing. We think rather that it is the duty of some persons not to attempt to sing in public worship. Such are the incurables in voice and ear. But, at the same time, far more persons than now attempt to sing, may, can, and ought to qualify themselves for an edifying use of their voices in praising God in his courts. And, before we too soon conclude against choirs, as the cause of the disuse of congregational singing, a little inquiry into the habits of the people, in regard to this matter, may disclose a reason or two, which make greatly against some of those who complain of the evil. In the first place, is it not a fact that people generally do not pay sufficient regard to the excellent recommendation in the Directory, (chap. 4, Sec. 2,) to "cultivate some knowledge of the rules of music, that we may praise God in a becoming manner, with our voices, as well as our hearts?" What can be expected from indolence on this point, but the dissonant marring of "becoming praise," which no man has a right to produce, or an unseemly silence, which no man has a right to relapse into, until he has made a fair, but fruitless effort to learn to sing. Secondly, let us inquire how much of this evil is to be attributed to another evil probably lying back of it: is there not reason to believe that singing in family worship has fallen into general desuetude? Where this exercise is neglected, not only does family worship lose one of its sweetest elements and attractions, with all its soothing and elevating influences, but the young are deprived of one of the most likely and important means and aids for acquiring the taste, the practice, and the skill, which fit them to join in the praises of the Lord's house, with advantage to themselves and others. The operation of these two causes appears to us to be so obvious, that they need only to be indicated in order to suggest the remedy. On this point, proper care must be exercised by pastors, elders, and heads of families. Let them co-operate in promoting the cultivation of sacred music in families, in singing schools, in Sunday schools, in singing meetings, and even in the week-day schools: and let the officers of the church take the supervision both of the instruction of their people, and especially the youth, and of the whole department of the singing in public worship. Thus much will be done to correct any undue innovations by precentors and choirs, and to secure that co-operation of choir and people which is most desirable and practicable. This combination is attainable in entire consistency with a style of church-music, such as is demanded by the dignity of the service and approved by good taste, and with the edification of the people and the greater glory of God. Otherwise, it may well be feared that the work of " praising God in his sanctuary" will be monopolized by a very few persons; and it will be no sufficient apology for the indolent worshiper, that he is ready to objurgate "singing by Committee," and "praising God by proxy," while, in contrast with his own remissness, the zeal and pains which strive to rescue the singing of God's praise from utter neglect and contempt, are worthy of all commendation.
The committee’s report can be read in full here (1849 Old School General Assembly Minutes, starting at page 390).