Home Up Synan Hunter Riss King Underwood View




A Paper Delivered at Orlando '95, July 28, 1995

A conference sponsored by the North American Renewal Service Committee

Richard M. Riss

"Singing In the Spirit" has a wide range of meanings. In the ZONDERVAN DICTIONARY OF PENTECOSTAL AND CHARISMATIC MOVEMENTS, Donald A. Johns has pointed out that in I Corinthians 14: 13-19, Paul seems to equate singing in the Spirit with singing in tongues (p. 788). On the other hand, in the same reference work, Delton L. Alford refers to singing in the Spirit as "spiritual or spirited singing" (p. 690), in contrast to "communicative or impactive singing," or what Paul refers to as singing with the understanding.

The primary sources suggest yet another definition, which was approximated quite nicely by Donald Hustad in his article,

"The Historical Roots of Music in the Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Movements" (THE HYMN: A JOURNAL OF CONGREGATIONAL SONG 38 [January 1987], p. 7). He describes the typical setting in a Pentecostal or Charismatic worship service, in which, while people are in the attitude and posture of worship, somebody might begin to utter musical sounds, "either with or without recognizable words. In a few moments many have joined their voices, with no particular effort to match each other in pitch or in word, though the overall effect will be harmonious. It is as if the strings of a huge Aeolian harp have been set in motion by the wind of the Holy Spirit. The strangely-beautiful sound rises in volume, lasts for a longer or shorted period, and then gradually dies away."

Hustad's description bears a certain degree of similarity with what some early Pentecostal sources call "the heavenly choir," the "heavenly anthem," or the "angelic choir." The comparison of "singing in the Spirit" with the breath of God upon an Aeolian harp was used by Frank Bartleman in his book on Azusa Street (HOW PENTECOST CAME TO LOS ANGELES: AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING, 2d ed. [Los Angeles: By the Author, 1925], p. 58), where he wrote, "The spirit of song given from God in the beginning [of the Pentecostal movement] was like the Aeolian harp in its spontaneity and sweetness. In fact it was the very breath of God, playing on human heart strings, or human vocal cords. The notes were wonderful in sweetness, volume and duration. In fact they were ofttimes humanly impossible. It was 'singing in the Spirit.'"

There is a certain supernatural dimension to singing in the Spirit as it is described by Bartleman which is not as pronounced in most other worship settings, even where singing in tongues or prophetic singing might be evident. It is this special, unusually miraculous music of the heavenly choir which will be the primary topic of this paper. Historically, the heavenly choir often seems to have been evident whenever there has been an unusual move of the Holy Spirit in an awakening or a revival, or else wherever there has been a local divine visitation associated with the ministry of a particular individual. Heavenly singing has been heard on certain occasions during the Second Awakening in America (1801), the Welsh revival of 1904-1905, the Pentecostal revival in its earliest years (1903, 1906-1908, and 1913-1916), the Latter Rain revival (1948-1949), and the mid-1990s revival (1995). The heavenly choir has occasionally accompanied the ministries of Evan Roberts in 1905, Maria B. Woodworth-Etter during 1913-1916, Aimee Semple McPherson in 1917 and 1918, Kathryn Kuhlman in the early 1930s, and Rodney M. Howard-Browne in 1995.

The Aeolian Harp was also mentioned in a description by George Lloyd of the heavenly music that he heard during a camp meeting held in Philadelphia by Aimee Semple McPherson in 1918: "Oh, the precious, heavenly music! Who can in any way describe it? We could only compare it to an Aeolian harp with its rising and falling cadence, and its sweet, blended harmonies, only far sweeter and more pure in tone than the finest pipe organ, for this was the Holy Ghost playing upon God's great instrument not made with hands. Glory to Jesus!" Accounts similar to this can be found in much of the literature describing this phenomenon. The Aeolian harp was a box equipped with a number of strings of equal length, tuned in unison and sounded by the wind. This analogy was useful because this instrument was not played by human hands, and the sound produced was somewhat ethereal, or other-worldly. The fact that the wind played the Aeolian harp provides a good analogy, since the Holy Spirit is likened to the wind in the Scriptures, which after all use the same word for both "wind" and "Spirit" in the original languages.

In the literature describing the heavenly choir, there is also frequent mention of the pipe organ. Describing meetings in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on October 24-31, 1948, James A. Watt wrote: "Heaven's very strains filled the whole church. It was as a mighty organ, with great swelling chords, and solo parts weaving in and out, yet with perfect harmony." A. W. Otto described something similar at a convention held by Maria B. Woodworth-Etter in Long Hill, Connecticut (near Bridgeport), during June of 1913: "The nearest thing to which I can compare it is a complete band of skillful Italian violinists playing the most sacred music that could be imagined, combined with the mellow tones of a pipe-organ, and this is but a very poor description of what my ears heard."

People who have heard the sound of the heavenly choir often indicate that it simply defies description. Here are some relevant quotes: "The fact is, unless heard, it is unimaginable and when heard indescribable" (R. B. Jones, describing events during the Welsh Revival); "No words can describe it, the quality of voice, the compass hitherto unknown, the absolute harmony though half a dozen voices were singing together, now swelling out into a grand oratorio, then sinking into softest whispers" (Mrs. Elizabeth V. Baker and Co-Workers, CHRONICLES OF A FAITH LIFE, 2nd ed. [Rochester, N.Y.: Elim Tabernacle, 1924], pp. 136-138, describing their summer convention in June, 1907 in Rochester, N.Y.).

Here's a description of the rising and falling of the heavenly music: "It began on the right side of the audience, and rolled from there over the entire company of baptized saints in a volume of sounds resembling in its rising and falling, its rolling and sinking, its swelling and receding character, the rolling waves of the ocean when being acted upon by the wonderful force which produces the tides" (Otto on Woodworth-Etter). Others have described it as "marvelous," "extemporaneous," "spontaneous," "unimaginable," "heavenly," "inexplicable," "like a great oratorio of angelic voices," "a flowing forth of celestial harmony," "the harmony of heaven," "the very melody of heaven," "supernatural," or "humanly impossible."

According to the witnesses, in what way was this music supernatural, or humanly impossible? For one thing, it could not be reproduced, or imitated. Frank Bartleman wrote that "the 'new song' was altogether different,