ORATORIOS


This article by John Angell James was originally
published in the 'Evangelical Magazine' January, 1835

"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain." (Exodus 20:7)

As that kind of public amusement which bears the name of oratorio is already very prevalent in this country, and is likely if we may judge from appearances to become still more so, and as many professed Christians attend oratorios, and others are in some doubt about them, I propose, in this paper, to examine the question, "Whether their lawfulness can be sustained by an appeal to the word of God?" I say by an appeal to the word of God; for this, of course, must be regarded as the only tribunal before which the question can be decided; and if condemned by Scripture, there lies no further appeal, and the fact of their sinfulness is ascertained once and forever.

An oratorio, as the word is now employed, signifies a sacred subject set to both vocal and instrumental music, and performed by a hired band of professional musicians before a diversified assemblage of people brought together—not for worship, but for amusement. An oratorio is frequently associated, at what is termed a "musical festival," with balls operas and miscellaneous concerts.

I. Now I will first consider the oratorio with all its appendages as it is performed at a musical festival. Take, for instance, the celebrated one recently held in Birmingham. The following is a description of it: "The oratorios of David, of the giving of the Law from Mount Sinai, of the Messiah, and of the Last Judgment—were followed in the evenings by miscellaneous concerts, a fancy dress ball, and parts of two operas at the theater."

There may not be exactly the same subjects, or the same arrangements at all musical festivals, but the difference is so slight as not materially to alter their character—there is always the same mixture of what is sacred and what is worldly in them all.

I shall adduce here one or two passages of Scripture by which to test this practice; and the following, among many others, will suffice: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do—do all to the glory of God." "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord." "Come out from among them, and be separate, and touch not the unclean thing." "Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire." "Guard your step when you go to the house of God. Better to draw near in obedience than to offer the sacrifice as fools do, for they are ignorant and do wrong. Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few." (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2) "This is the Lord's declaration. I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My word." (Isaiah 66:2) "Therefore, you should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, May Your name be honored as holy." (Matthew 6:9)

I now ask the question, "Is the oratorio glorifying God? Is it serving him with reverence and godly fear? Is it, or is it not, taking his name in vain? Is it using sacred subjects for the purpose for which they were revealed—or converting them into a public amusement?"

Some, perhaps, may challenge me for a definition of the term amusement. I give it—a gratification of the senses and imagination apart from true religion; an entertainment of the same class, and resorted to for the same purpose, as miscellaneous concerts, balls and dramatic representations. That oratorios are considered as belonging to this class is evident from their being usually associated with them. Can it be right then to convert the most solemn and sacred topics of revealed truth—into a mere worldly amusement, a gratification of sense, imagination, and taste—apart from devotion?

A very deep, and, at the same time, a very correct impression is sometimes produced by the first view of a subject, even before the mind enters upon any rigid analytical examination of it—the heart being often, on moral questions, in advance of the judgment, and ready almost instinctively to pronounce its decision before the mind confirms the sentence by the slower process of logical deduction. Let anyone, then, who pretends to a reverence for the Divine Being, and who trembles at his word, view the following association of subjects:

The Giving of the Law from Sinai.

The History of David, the type of Christ.

The Redemption of the world by Christ.

The Last Judgment.

A Concert of Music, Songs, Glees, etc.

An Opera at the Theater.

Othello.

A Fancy Dress Ball.

What a strange and shocking mixture of subjects! What incongruous associations! Enough, one would imagine, to shock common sense, to say nothing of the feelings of piety!

But let me now change the usual form of announcing these performances, and suppose a placard stuck up at all corners of the town to this effect: "During the following week will be exhibited by men-singers and women-singers, and performers on musical instruments, hired on purpose for the amusement of the people of this town and neighborhood, a representation of the incarnation, sufferings and death of the Son of God for the salvation of lost souls, as set to music by Handel. In addition, the company will be entertained by a musical representation of David's History, of the Giving of the Law from Mount Sinai, and of the Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to Judgment—all set forth by all the power of the grandest harmony. In the evening of each day, except the last, the pleasures of the public will be augmented by a miscellaneous concert; and the whole will be crowned with the amusing scenes of a Fancy Dress Ball."

This is in substance the announcement, paraphrased I admit, which is usually made of approaching musical festivals. Is this for the glory of God? Is this reverencing the Most High, and trembling at his word? What! this association of David and Shakespeare; Moses and Handel; the Messiah and Braham; Mount Sinai and the theater; the gaieties of the ball-room and the terrors of the Last Judgment! There is something almost irreverent, something very offensive to the delicate sensibilities of piety, in putting upon paper, or reading these matters in combination! What then are the realities of the performances themselves!

What, may it be conceived, would be the emotions of Moses, the servant of the Lord, in witnessing those scenes at which he trembled, set forth in music for the amusement of a mirthful assembly! Or, with what sentiments may it be supposed the Son of God beholds the scenes of his suffering life, atoning death, and final appearance in judgment, blended with all the hilarity of a musical festival, and sung by graceless men and women—for the entertainment of the multitude! Let those whose spiritual vision is not quite obscured by their musical taste, compare the scenes of an oratorio when "the Messiah" is being performed—and those of the house of God when the Lord's supper is celebrated—and remembering that the subject is the same in both, let them ask if both can be right? Is that same cross on which the Savior loved and died rightly appropriated—when it is used both for the purposes of devotion and amusement? True it is, that while the soul is held entranced by the magic spell of melody, or subdued by the solemn and overwhelming power of harmony, the attention may be as fixed, and the feeling may be as deep of its kind as during a sermon or a sacramental service; but no sooner has the melting solo died away in silence, or the exciting chorus been hushed, than all these delusive appearances of unreal devotion are lost again in one universal scene of gaiety and fashionable vanity!

The subject of the "Messiah," as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, is given for the purpose of bringing men to repentance, faith and salvation; to be the great means, through faith, of overcoming the world with all its lusts of the flesh, lusts of the eye, and the pride of life; to give a death blow to the love of the world in the heart of man; and to subjugate the senses and the imagination to unseen and eternal things. While in an oratorio, the cross of Christ, instead of crucifying us to the world, and the world to us, is employed as an amusement to add new attractions to earth, and to yield new gratifications to sense, and thus to make man more effectually the captive of that world—of which he should seek by faith to be the conqueror.

An attempt will be made perhaps to evade the force of this by affirming that the oratorio, though associated with fashionable amusements, is in itself something different from them; that it is a devotional exercise, and is eminently calculated to produce devotional feeling. But it may be asked, even on the supposition that this is true, whether it is not a very incongruous mixture of the mirthful and the devout; the vain and the solemn. Think of a person melted by the touching strains of "The Messiah" in the morning, and fluttering through the dance in the evening. Is there not something profane in such an association? But, after all, is it true that there is any real devotion to Christ, produced by an oratorio in the generality of those who attend it? In whose minds? Certainly not in theirs who are not usually and truly devout. We are sometimes indeed told that it is impossible to be otherwise than devout during the performance of Handel's sacred music—and that those who are susceptible of pious emotion nowhere else, who never weep, nor even feel under a sermon—are penetrated and softened by the pathos and the grandeur of his enchanting strains. This certainly is a very correct representation; but at the very same time is a very complete condemnation of that spurious devotion which is produced by the oratorio; for, in fact, such piety begins and ends with the sounds that awaken it! But is it real piety?

The religion of the Bible is an abiding principle, the effect of truth believed upon the mind, the heart, and the conscience—and not a vain pleasurable emotion produced by fine sounds appealing to the ear and to the imagination. The greatest profligate in all the assembly, yes, a deist or an atheist, is conscious of the same kind of 'devotional feeling' at such a time—as many who are professed believers in Christianity. It is almost impossible, I admit, for anyone, however abandoned he may be to error or vice, to avoid being rapt into ecstasy, or incited to tears—under the magical power of the strains which are uttered on such occasions. But is this devotion? No! It is nothing but an excitement of our animal or our imaginative nature! For only observe the consequences of this excitement. Does any devout impression remain after it? Does any godly principle appear to have been implanted or strengthened by it? Is there a disposition felt by the mirthful multitude to come out and be separate from the world? Do they feel an increased disposition to read the Bible? Was it ever known that the tears shed during the performance of "The Messiah" induced one fair weeper to abstain from the ball in the evening? Or have the terrors felt at the performance of the "Last Judgment" induced any one to forego the pleasures of the dance? Are the churches more crowded than usual on the Sunday following a musical festival? Are the communicants multiplied at the Lord's supper?

On the contrary! Is not the truth rendered powerless and unattractive when stripped of the 'decorations' with which it is invested by the composer and performer of sacred music? The sermon that illustrates, yes, even the gospel that narrates, the sufferings of "the Messiah," are very dull things after the oratorio that has set them forth with all their fascinations and exquisite sounds.

It may be truly affirmed, therefore, that the devotion awakened by these means is of precisely the same kind and class of feelings as the compassion excited by a novel or a tragedy, a mere play upon the passions, which subsides as soon as the cause which produced it is suspended; and which, in fact, so completely exhausts the energies of the soul by the excitement of the imagination, as to leave no disposition to attend to the sober realities of life, the dictates of conscience, and the ordinary calls of duty. Nay, the mischief goes further than this—for a great delusion is foisted on the human mind in reference to a subject, which it is of infinite consequence should be kept as clear as possible from all mistake or confusion—I mean the nature of true devotion. Let the mere excitement of 'carnal feeling' be once supposed to constitute true religion, or religious emotion—and then, the man who can weep before a picture of the crucifixion, or while listening to a moving religious poem, or a touching strain of sacred music—will persuade himself that whatever may be his lack of holy principle, or whatever his sinful excesses—he has a 'spark of religion' still lingering in his soul, which may yet be fanned into a flame, and a feeling of piety which proves that he is not really as bad as he seems to be; and that he is a hopeful character, though not a godly person.

II. Some pious people, who do not scruple to attend these performances, allege, in justification of their conduct, that they are able to 'separate the good from the bad'—and, leaving the ball, the miscellaneous concert, and the theater, to the votaries of worldly pleasure—go only to the performance of sacred music, where, they affirm, they enjoy, if they can trust their own consciousness, as sublime devotion as they experience in any of the stated ordinances of religion. This defense, certainly, seems to imply that such people consider the strange mixture of the sacred and the mirthful which usually characterizes a musical festival, to be improper; that they do not approve of "The Messiah" and the "Dress Ball" being blended together in the same general entertainment.

Then, I ask them, Why do anything to countenance it? Why give the sanction of your example, in any way, however remotely, to such a shocking profanation? True, you do not go to the ball, or to the theater—and thus may seem to bear your testimony against them. But you help those who make the amusements, to bring about their schemes—by your money and your presence. You are a partaker in their sins! You join in some measure in the desecration. The musical festival, in their estimation, is a whole; and you, by patronizing a part, are considered as patronizing the whole. And there are also other reasons which ought to deter you from attending even the sacred part, if indeed any can be sacred, of these fascinating amusements; I mean such as relate to the performers; who will come to be considered presently, as presenting a distinct and strong objection of themselves.

But let me examine a little this 'plea of devotional feeling' in reference to the pious, as I have already done in reference to the mirthful and the worldly. Is it, after all, so clear as you have taken for granted—that you are on such occasions the subject of highly-raised devotion? Have you ever had the inclination, or indeed the leisure, to analyze your feelings at such a time? If so, are you sure that the excitement of the moment was the effect of clear and impressive views of the truth? You are aware that devotion consists of affections kindled—not by sensible objects—but by truth. That your emotions at an oratorio are strong and pleasurable, and may be devotional, to a certain extent, so far as you contemplate at the time a scriptural truth, I admit. But I question whether there is so much of the sacred as you imagine. And even if there were, it would not prove that the means are legitimate.

It may be supposed, that in the case of devout Catholics, much of the same kind of devotional feeling has been excited by 'holy pictures' and crucifixes, but this does not establish the propriety of such aids to devotion. If the oratorio were restored to its original form, and were to come out as a sacred opera to be performed, not in the theater, but in the churches, doubtless there are some good people who could really have devotional feeling excited on such occasions by sublime sentiment united to sublime music; but this would not prove the propriety of such feelings. The circumstance then of the pious emotion that is supposed to be enjoyed, or that in some minds may to a certain extent be enjoyed, is an insufficient defense of these attractive amusements; since they are not a means of grace commanded by the word of God, and are usually conducted in a manner directly opposed to it; they are not intended to the glory of Jehovah, neither designed for this end, nor actually accomplishing it. But, they are intended for the multitude—as a mere entertainment, by which sacred things are shockingly desecrated.

Moreover, as it is at any rate, a matter of doubtful propriety to attend such performances, (by far the larger part, I may say an overwhelming majority, of truly pious people, and of those generally the most spiritual, whose senses are exercised to discern between good and evil, being opposed to them,) it becomes a question, whether a professor of true religion ought not, in a case of mere gratification of taste, to give up his own preferences. I am quite aware that the 'opinion of the majority' does not decide the right or wrong of any question; and of that everyone should be fully persuaded in his own mind. Still however when it is not a doctrine, but a practice, that is in question, and a practice too, that has so much in the way of personal gratification to plead for its propriety—the views of pious people on the subject should have great weight with us.

Not only are their minds surprised and grieved by what they conclude to be a great impropriety, but some who are young and weak in the faith are likely to be led astray into more questionable and sinful matters. The apostle's reasoning, expostulation, and example, seem to be very much in point here. "But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble." (1 Corinthians 8:9-13)

Suppose then a weak brother hears of your going to an oratorio in a music-hall or a church—he will be emboldened to go a step further, and go to hear the same performance in a theater, and, going there first for an oratorio, he may be led to go there afterwards for a play, and fall into the temptations which abound in such places. Or, perceiving that you go to the sacred music, he will go to the profane. Or, observing you mixed up with worldly people in one amusement, he may feel emboldened to go a step further, and mix up with them in another.

So far as your own character is concerned, it seems to be a letting down of the strictness of Christian circumspection. And, in a world where such an unfavorable influence is perpetually produced by engagements and occupations into which we must enter, it is by no means desirable to increase the danger by voluntary and unnecessary temptations! It is at any rate but a very small sacrifice for any Christian to make—to give up his 'entertainments' for Christ's sake. And though we are not certainly, in default of greater demands upon our ease and comfort by the circumstances of the age in which we live, to go in quest of uncommanded sufferings, or to mortify ourselves by uncalled-for privations—yet we should manifest a willingness to deny ourselves in all matters of doubtful propriety.

III. I now go on to show the impropriety of oratorios, even when unattended, which they sometimes are, by the usual appendages of other worldly amusements, as, for instance, the one exhibited not long ago Westminster Abbey, and more recently at Exeter Hall. There were no balls, no theatrical representations, no amusements, songs, and glees; no, nothing but sacred music. Here, then, is the oratorio by itself, and what is there to object to this? I answer, nearly all that may be objected to a musical festival. I ask again this question, For what purpose is this 'sacred music' performed? It is for amusement! Purely for amusement! Is it, then, done, for the glory of God--to convert the most solemn and sacred topics of divine truth into a source of public entertainment? No! It is done to draw people together to hear the sufferings of the Messiah set forth for much the same purpose as they are called to be entertained by a dramatic representation of the sorrows of Hamlet or Romeo!

That this is not overstating the matter I will prove by referring to a report of, and some comments upon, the performances at Exeter Hall, and which are thus given:

"For Unto Us a Child Is Born," and the "Hallelujah," were rapturously encored! Mrs. Kuyvett charmed the audience in "I Know That My Redeemer Lives." Mr. Phillips, in the bass songs, especially, "The Trumpet Shall Sound," was admirable. Mr. Hawkins sang, with exquisite purity of voice and style, "He Was Despised and Rejected of Men." And moreover, the anthem, 'Worthy Is the Lamb,' was received with cries of Bravo! Bravo! Encore! and clapping of hands!

Christians, Christians, you who love and adore the Savior! You who look through your tears of penitence to His cross for pardon and eternal life; is there not in this enough to rouse to hallowed indignation all the piety you have in your very souls? "Oh, it is an amusement of worldly, sinful, and dying men—which is fitted to make angels weep!" Is it to be wondered at that the sufferings of a dying Savior do not impress the hearts, awaken the consciences, and melt the souls of sinners—when these topics are thus converted into a subject of public entertainment for the gratification of the lovers of pleasure, music and of song? How can a real Christian patronize such profanation?

Is it not, also, a very strong presumption against the propriety of these performances, that the public are not yet agreed upon their proper locality, their appropriate place of performance? Some consider that places of worship are desecrated by them. But how can this be, if they are religious services? Where should devotion be cultivated, if not in the house of God? This, then, is a plain admission that they are purely matters of amusement. Others think, on the contrary, that they are improper everywhere but in a church. Some people see no impropriety in their taking their turn, as they really do, at the play house, with 'Pizarro,' 'the Stranger,' 'the Hypocrite,' and 'Tom and Jerry'.

But I now advance to a very strong proof of their impropriety which is deduced from the character of the performers. Should there be any people who still contend for oratorios on account of their devotional tendency, even though they admit this is not their professed design, yet what will they say of the 'profanation of such sacred topics' by many of whom it is not defaming them to say, that they are far removed, not only from saving religion, but even from morality. The conduct of the great body of professional singers, performers, and actors, is far from being moral. Exceptions there are doubtless, and I would in charity hope not a few. But I speak of the many—of the generality of the performers. Let any one think who are the performers of any orchestra—whether at Drury Lane or in our Cathedrals, or in any of our music-halls—at the time of the performance of an oratorio. There will be found Jew, Papist, profligate—men and women of any religion, or rather of no religion—all uniting in singing, for amusement, the most solemn and sacred themes of revealed religion! All joining in singing "Worthy Is the Lamb!" "Hallelujah!" "The trumpet shall sound!" Imagine a Jew or a profligate singing, "I Know That My Redeemer Lives!"

Such profane people—performing one night at the theater—a little while after in a cathedral; at one time impersonating the heroes and heroines of the stage—at another time the church of Christ in its hopes, and the Son of God himself in his agonies; on one occasion harrowing up the feelings of the audience with a profane piece of immorality in the play-house—and at another thrilling them in the house of God with the words of prophets and apostles set to music! Can this be right? Can it be proper to employ these people, to hire them, to give them large sums of money—for an act in which they profane the name of God? Even if we admitted that the audience were rendered devotional by the performance—can we say this of the performers?

Think of the scenes of levity and mirth which occur during the seasons of training and rehearsal—when they are taught to perform their parts with the precision necessary to give effect to such services. What an unhallowed familiarity is then acquired with those subjects, which made the hearts of prophets and apostles tremble as they touched them with the hand of devotion, and in the spirit of pious awe! What a continued breach of the third commandment is going on! What a hardening process is carried forward in the hearts of those people in reference to true religion! By their very profession as performers, they are taught to trifle with sacred things. Is there any hope of their ever profiting by the doctrine of salvation which their very occupation leads them to sport with, and desecrate as a source of gain? Can any Christian who has a tender conscience, encourage his fellow-immortals thus to harden their hearts against the impression of the only truths that can be essential to their salvation?

I shall be told, for it is the usual reply, that by these remarks I condemn the practice of many of our ministers and congregations, who introduce selections of sacred music into their public worship. It is no matter to me whom or what I condemn, except as a matter of regret that there should be so much that calls for condemnation. The only question to be asked is this, Is my argument against oratorios Scriptural? I do condemn, most severely condemn, the practice which, I lament to say, is becoming increasingly prevalent, and therefore increasing the sins and the stains of Christian worship, until there is reason to fear we shall soon err on this point as widely as the Church of England, of converting the sanctuary into a place and season for Sunday concerts.

I am indignant and ashamed at the follies of some of my brethren in the ministry, who, either to indulge the whims and tastes of their choirs, or to draw a larger congregation to the 'offering-plate'—hire singers of all characters, and from all quarters, to come and treat the audience with a display of sacred music. Placards are to be seen at every corner of the street, and in almost every shop window, announcing the coming performance; the names of the performers, the number and kinds of the instruments, and the fulness of the band. And, to complete the enormity, these performers either dine or sup together at a tavern, on the Sunday when the concert is to be held, and come, some of them, in a state that can be easily imagined, from the scene of their gluttony and drinking—to that of their devotion, or, rather, of their amusement—in the house of God! In these statements I do not, in one particular, or in one degree, exaggerate! All this, and worse than this, has taken place in my own neighborhood, and in other places, again and again! Oh, shame and scandal upon religion! Oh, shame and reproach upon the men by whom these things are patronized! It is high time that the protesting and indignant voice were raised! It is high time that this 'torrent of profanation', which in some places threatens to roll over the simplicity and spirituality of Christian worship, were arrested. But to what is all this to be traced? To the oratorio—of which it is a lame and a humble mimicry.

Instead therefore of attempting to justify these things, or stopping the course of my argument, lest it should doom these practices to destruction, I am anxious that it should sweep them all away in its course, as things that are utterly contrary to true religion. Still, however, it will be said that after all, bad as these things are, they are not quite on a level with the oratorio, inasmuch as they are, professedly at least, introduced into the worship of God, and intended to be a part of it. It is, however, only pretense—and adds the crime of 'hypocrisy' to that of 'profanity'—and is, at the same time, not only a desecration of sacred things, but of sacred times and places also.

Let the matter, then, be fully, fairly, and dispassionately examined; let all our love of music, and our delight in the concord of sweet sounds, be put out of the question; and let us ask if it is right thus to convert pious subjects—subjects that enter into the most solemn and sacred part of religion, into a source of worldly amusement? Or if it is right to gratify our taste, or even excite what we may suppose to be devotional feeling, by encouraging ungodly people to profane, by their very profession, and for hire—the holy name and revealed truth of God?

If it is wrong in itself, the wrong is not, cannot be made right, by devoting, as is usually done, the profits of the service to some charitable purpose. This is a very common, though certainly not a very scriptural or logical argument. What will become of the hospital, or the dispensary, it is asked, if the oratorio be given up? I answer, support it in some other way; for even charity must not be supported by sin! Musical festivals have done little in the way of producing pious or charitable feelings, if those who countenance and attend them will not give their property for the relief of the necessitous, unless they can have value received for it in musical gratification and entertainment.

I now leave the whole matter for the serious, candid, and prayerful consideration of those who have been in any doubt about this matter; adding only one or two general remarks. Of what tremendous consequence is it that nothing should be done to trim down true religion. We should not reduce the only subject which can rescue the souls of men from hell, and raise them to heaven—to a mere entertainment! Of what tremendous consequence is it that nothing should be done to hide from men their own immortality, and help them to go merrily and thoughtlessly upon their eternal destiny! And, even in reference to professing Christians—how indescribably important is it that their own deadness to the world, the life of faith, spirituality, and heavenly-mindedness, should not be hindered by any unnecessary mixture with the world, and resort to worldly amusements—and that their example should not be given to aid the destruction of the souls of their fellow-immortals!




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