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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, not of human composition. It [could] . . . not be successfully counterfeited. The crow cannot imitate the dove." It sounded more like some unknown musical instrument than a human voice. A. W. Otto wrote that "It did not at all appear like human voices, but seemed much more like the tones of some wonderful instrument of music, such as human ears never before heard."

There was perfect harmony despite the fact that the music was totally unrehearsed. "Such blending of tones, such perfect harmony of sounds, such musical strains, my ears never before heard, and I never expect to hear to again in this world under any other circumstances, not even from the most perfect band of music which human ingenuity can provide, and yet all these sounds were produced by a company of people which had that day gathered from all over the continent of North America, very few of whom had ever seen each other" (A. W. Otto). "They sang so perfectly, so harmoniously, so artistically as no trained choir could sing.

Their intonation was sure, with no deviation of pitch." (Mrs. N. A. Fell, "The Word Made Life," in Mrs. Elizabeth V. Baker and Co-Workers, CHRONICLES OF A FAITH LIFE, 2nd ed. [Rochester, N.Y.: Elim Tabernacle, 1924], pp. 96-97.) Many of the singers were untrained. In the periodical, WATER OF LIFE, describing the Woodworth-Etter Meetings at Englewood Gospel Tabernacle in Chicago on October 10 through November 10, 1914, an anonymous author wrote: "Untrained voices joined with a purity of tone and harmony surpassing that of expert vocalists." But even more extraordinary was that, not only were some of the singers untrained, but some of them were ordinarily unable to carry a tune at all. Describing one occasion in the fall of 1913 at the Upper Room Mission in Los Angeles, Ruth Carter said, "even those who ordinarily were hardly able to carry a tune sang like opera singers. Then it blended into such harmony, without a discordant note. It was what we called the 'heavenly choir.'"

Also surprising was that all of this was effortless. George Lloyd wrote, "we were in the Spirit and were singing the New Song without any effort on our part." Along similar lines, Alice Reynolds Flower wrote of her own participation in it at Azusa Street on March 28, 1907, that there was "no effort, no self-consciousness--just the flowing forth of celestial harmony."

Another frequent comment has been that the listener had never heard anything like it throughout his or her entire lifetime. Frank Bartleman wrote, "such singing I have never heard before, the very melody of Heaven," while Hattie M. Duncan observed that "they were singing in the Spirit such harmonies as I had never heard on earth, ascribing to Jesus glory, honor, majesty and power." This was as true for musicians as it was for others. Writing of meetings held by Maria B. Woodworth-Etter at Oakland, California in 1915, Carrie Judd Montgomery wrote, "one lady who was herself quite a musician, who had never heard anything of the kind, said afterwards to me with surprise and pleasure, 'I think some angels must have been helping.'"

The singing was also characterized by an "amazingly complicated depth of harmony" (George R. Hawtin, describing meetings in Edmonton, Alberta on October 24-31, 1948). A. W. Otto wrote, "it was not simply the singing of four parts of music such as we do when we sing hymns . . . there is no telling how many parts [were] being sung, . . . it seemed to me there must have been scores of them." Yet, every component part was said to have fit together perfectly.

The range of pitch was exhaustive, and nearly impossible by human standards. A. W. Otto wrote, "sometimes the sounds would rise to the highest possible pitch for human voices to utter on the one hand, while at the same time . . . [there were sounds] that went down to the lowest notes which could be sounded on a good organ." People felt that they were hearing sounds that could not be uttered by the human voice. "It did not at all appear like human voices, but seemed much more like the tones of some wonderful instrument of music, such as human ears never before heard" (A. W. Otto).

Rhythmically, everything was perfectly together. "There is such perfect order and timing as the mighty chords swell and roll that one is forced to concede that there is an unseen conductor" (George R. Hawtin).

Witnesses of the heavenly choir have also reported hearing the sounds of heavenly instruments. Describing a camp meeting at Petoskey, Michigan during July of 1914, Maria B. Woodworth-Etter wrote: "Two or three different times I asked the people to answer me honestly, in the fear of God, if they did not hear different instruments of music from the platform. The sounds were not given on instruments but by the Spirit. I knew they had heard it. I asked all who had heard the heavenly music, or instruments, to rise in the presence of God. Men and women rose up here and there, clear to the back of the tent."

Heavenly instruments could also be heard during the manifestation of the heavenly choir at Rodney M. Howard-Browne's winter campmeeting at the Carpenter's Home Church in Lakeland, Florida, on January 10 and 13, 1995. After viewing a videotape of the relevant portions of this campmeeting, Julia Blackmore wrote, "I also heard church bells quite clearly at different times. It was altogether lovely. There also seemed to be instruments. I heard a stringed instrument and a bugle or trumpet sound, and other sorts of musical tones but not identifiable."

Many people have compared the heavenly music to the singing of angels or angel choirs. David Matthews wrote of some of the singing during the Welsh Revival in 1905 that "it seemed as if an angelic choir had come from heaven to drown earth's sorrows in a sea of song." Aimee Semple McPherson wrote of her meeting in Pleasant Grove, Florida, in 1917, that "heavenly music filled the place, and angel choirs were heard." The November, 1906 issue of THE APOSTOLIC FAITH indicated that "bands of angels have been heard by some in the spirit and there is a heavenly singing that is inspired by the Holy Ghost." Maria B. Woodworth-Etter wrote that during January and February of 1916 at her meetings in San Francisco, "the angelic host were heard singing by a number of saints, the most marvelous music." Joan Mattia wrote of the Rodney Howard-Browne meetings that she attended in January of 1995, "I heard them singing during an extended period of singing in the Spirit that lasted about 30 or 35 minutes. Rodney mentioned that he heard angel choirs singing. The intensity of the singing in the Spirit was what caught my attention. It was full and harmonious and vibrant. . . . There was a bell-like quality to the sound. . . . I felt I had been given a glimpse of heaven."

E. L. Tanner wrote with respect to one of the last few days of a campmeeting in Malvern, Arkansas in the summer of 1913 that, "as they sang, my wife and I, as well as the whole congregation, heard a separate and distinct choir of voices blending perfectly with those of the singers before us. The sound of music and voices came in from the front, then swelled to fill the entire large tent above our heads, and finally lifted to fade away in the distance. It was truly heavenly and not of this earth." A similar lifting, or fading, of the sound of the heavenly choir was recorded by Juila Blackmore in her description of this manifestation at the Rodney Howard-Browne meetings: "As the choir gradually lessened, there was a sense that the sound was not actually lessening, but it was moving away."

In some of these cases, people have also seen visions of angels. At a convention in Rochester, NY, in June of 1907, one person reported that "all during that wondrous song service, he saw an angel standing on the platform with a harp in his hands leading that heavenly choir. Whether he closed his eyes or held them open, the vision was the same, the majestic presence of some mighty angel with white flowing drapery, folded wings and seraphic countenance leading God's people forth in triumphant anthems of mighty praise." In her description of the July 1914 campmeeting in Petoskey, Michigan, Maria B. Woodworth-Etter said that "Jesus was seen by many of them standing or walking in their midst."

Angels were seen even by skeptics. Stanley Frodsham wrote of meetings that took place under the auspices of Mary A. Arthur in Galena, Kansas, in 1903-1904 that "one night when we were in a tent meeting the Holy Spirit was manifested in heavenly song. . . . The tent was filled with angels and these were seen even by sinners."

The heavenly choir was considered to be an indisputable demonstration of God's power and majesty to saints and sinners alike. It was miraculous, to the point of being an irrefutable sign to those who did not believe. Frank Bartleman wrote that the heavenly chorus "brought a heavenly atmosphere, as though the angels themselves were present and joining with us. And possibly they were. It seemed to still criticism and opposition, and was hard for even wicked men to gainsay or ridicule."

The heavenly atmosphere to which Bartleman referred here would bring with it an ecstatic joy, filling a person's entire being. Lloyd Westover wrote with respect to meetings at Wings of Healing Temple in Portland, Oregon, during late February and early March of 1949: "The Spirit began to fall. The huge congregation was soon singing in the Spirit. THE HEAVENLY CHOIR. Oh! The ecstatic joy that filled my whole being." Alice Reynolds Flower wrote along similar lines: "Having been one of that group I can still feel the thrill as, for the first time, from my innermost being heavenly music poured forth like strains through the pipes of some great organ. No effort, no self-consciousness--just the flowing forth of celestial harmony like a foretaste of divine rapture." William H. Durham wrote in THE APOSTOLIC FAITH (February-March 1907), "I have attended many large holiness camp meetings and conventions, but I never felt the power and glory that I felt in Azusa Street Mission, and when about twenty persons joined in singing the 'Heavenly Chorus,' it was the most ravishing and unearthly music that ever fell on mortal ears."

Nelli A. Fell wrote of her feeling of nearness to heaven when the heavenly choir was manifest at a Convention in Rochester, NY, in the summer of 1907: "It was the nearest to heaven I had ever been, and the glory could never be described. This singing continued for hours, and the glory of it has never died out. With the new song came the new tongue with its glory and power. Only those who have entered into the experience can understand the depths or the meaning of it all." James A. Watt wrote of a 1948 meeting in Edmonton: "Heaven's very strains filled the whole church." Maria B. Woodworth-Etter wrote of her own meetings in Petoskey, Michigan, "it was as if heaven had come down." When writing of the heavenly choir at the Woodworth-Etter meetings at Oakland California in 1915, Carrie Judd Montgomery wrote, "a lady (almost a stranger to me) said over the phone: 'I never expect to be as near heaven again while on earth, as I was in those meetings.'" Writing of a videotape of Rodney Howard-Browne's campmeeting in January of 1995, Patti Richey said that "it was heavenly and so deep into the realms of Heaven that my head couldn't even touch it! I noticed that these voices didn't breath. . . . They had constant life and didn't require breathing to sustain life. . . . As Rodney said in the video, Heaven coming down--a taste of eternity."

The unexpected nearness of heaven to earth during such times was accompanied with a tremendous sense of the presence and glory of God. Here are some relevant quotations: "The sense of the immediate presence of God was overwhelming" (Mrs. Elizabeth V. Baker); "A holy stillness and a spirit of awe settled over the audience; they knew that God was in the midst" (Maria B. Woodworth-Etter at Petoskey, Michigan); "When the last quivering note died away a hush fell upon all. It seemed impossible to move or speak, and we were loath to open our eyes or come back to earth again. The saints dispersed on tip-toes. We had been in the presence of the Omnipotent King of kings" (Aimee Semple McPherson in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Sunday, November 10, 1918); "The shouting and the heavenly singing of the people, with its attendant cloud of glory, so filled the tabernacle that at times the priests and the Lord's ministers could not minister" (Aimee Semple McPherson in Los Angeles, December, 1918).

When there is a manifestation of the heavenly choir, singers become oblivious to their surroundings, lost in adoration. "There were several hundred present, and all seemed oblivious to everyone else as they worshipped. The sacred Presence was so real that one after another the people stood to their feet, hands upraised, eyes closed, lost in worship" (Ruth Carter, describing a meeting in the Upper Room Mission in Los Angeles in the fall of 1913). Listeners and participants alike become filled with holy awe and adoration. "I have seen love and worship flowing out to the Lord in many meetings in the past, but never before have I witnessed, and experienced, such intense worship and praise. . . . It filled me with such holy awe, worship and praise to the Lord, that before I was able to realize the fact fully, the Holy Ghost led me to join in that heavenly song of praise with the rest" (A. W. Otto).

The effects of such manifestations have been quite remarkable. The heavenly choir moves peoples' hearts. James A. Watt wrote: "Those who heard it some blocks away said that it did something to their souls that no power on earth had previously touched." THE APOSTOLIC FAITH reported that at Azusa Street on Christmas day, 1906, people were "melted to tears in hearing this singing. It is the harmony of heaven and the Holy Ghost puts music in . . . voices that are untrained." Phoebe C. Bent reported that when Aimee Semple McPherson played the piano in the Spirit at the 1918 Nation Wide Camp Meeting in Philadelphia, "strange, and sometimes weird heavenly chords were struck, that never man could produce in the natural--chords that struck to the very soul." At another meeting of Aimee's in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on November 10, 1918, "some heard wondrous music, while still others cried out to God as He searched their hearts and showed them things with which He was not pleased; the piano was played under the power and the heavenly music flowed forth in a stream of melody."

In the fall of 1918, the sound of the heavenly choir brought about the conversion of an agnostic musician who happened to be walking by the Upper Room Mission in Los Angeles, pastored by Elmer Fisher. The sound of the music attracted him into the church building. Ruth Carter wrote: "He had been walking along the street below the open windows of the hall when he heard singing. He stopped to listen--such harmony, such blending of chords he had never heard. Whatever could it be, he wondered. Finding the stairway he came up to this large auditorium, seating himself beside our friend. He sat entranced until the music ceased. Then a conversation something like this followed:

"'What is this?'

"'This is a gospel meeting.'

"'But who taught the people to sing like that?'

"'No one taught them. It is God.'

"'But how did they learn such harmony?'

"'They did not learn it; it was given by the Holy Spirit.'

"The stranger could not understand it, but sitting in that hall with God's presence so real, he felt there must be a God. The singing he had heard had some supernatural quality. It would take God to do that. Under deep conviction he yielded his life to God. It is possible that no preaching could have convinced him of his need as the Holy Spirit did that afternoon through a congregation yielded to Him."

As this story indicates, the heavenly music has a tremendous power to attract people. David Matthews wrote of the Welsh revival: "Such marvelous singing, quite extempore, could only be created by a supernatural power, and the power of the divine Holy Spirit. No choir, no conductor, no organ--just spontaneous, unctionized soul-singing! An irresistible attraction, resembling a tremendous magnetic force, drew us inside the vestry."

Here are some other quotations describing the effects of the heavenly choir: "Such music silenced every thing, and attracted the attention of all. It was most heavenly. None could ever be tired of hearing it" (John Rogers, describing an event at Cane Ridge in August of 1801); "The windows of Heaven were opened; sinners were saved, believers baptized with the Holy Ghost" (Aimee Semple McPherson in Los Angeles, December, 1918); "Special healings were wrought: deaf heard, blind saw, cancers were healed, and sick bodies made whole. Sinners were saved, and the precious blood of Jesus availed in it all" (James A. Watt in Edmonton, October, 1948).

One very important effect of the heavenly choir seems to have been to produce creative gifts in people, enabling them to write beautiful poetry and music. Elizabeth V. Baker wrote: "A beautiful result of this baptism of song is the gift to write poetry, and hymns with music, which remains with us. Perhaps a dozen of the choicest hymns which we sing in our public worship were given with the music at different times as this power of song would rest upon some of our number. Those who had never written anything of the kind before were enabled to write as under an inspiration far beyond their natural ability." Indeed, it is probably safe to say that a large proportion of the songs and choruses of the Holiness, Pentecostal, Latter Rain, and Charismatic movements were given through people who had experienced the type of baptism in song to which Mrs. Baker refers during a time of a manifestation of the heavenly choir.

For example, Rick Joyner has written: "Much of the contemporary style of worship that is now attributed to either the Pentecostal or Charismatic movements actually had its origin in Wales. . . . One of the great contributions of the Welsh revival was the new spontaneous form of worship called 'singing in the Spirit' that was to become a signature of the Holy Spirit's presence for decades to come." Of course, this is only partly true. Every manifestation of the heavenly choir has brought about a new impetus for this form of worship.

For example, the manifestation of the heavenly choir at Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, in October of 1948, during the Latter Rain revival played a large part in inspiring many of the worship songs that were birthed from that time onward. George Warnock wrote of it that, "from that day forth scriptural song became part and parcel of ministry that came when the body came together."

The type of worship that ensued during the Latter Rain movement was described by Bill Hamon as "praise flowing up and down like rhythmic waves of gentle ocean breezes and then rising to a crescendo of melodious praises. . . . In the 1950s, the praise service would flow continuously from thirty minutes to three hours. Most Charismatics of the 1960s and 1970s came into the Latter Rain type of worship."

Many of the Scripture songs and praise choruses that later gained wide currency among Charismatics were originally products of the Latter Rain movement and were written by such people as Phyllis Spiers (who was associated with Sharon Bible School in North Battleford, Sask., and later with Elim Bible Institute in upstate New York), Rita Kelligan (also of Elim), and many others.

Marion Meloon wrote that it was Rita Kelligan who, at a fall convention at Elim Bible Institute in 1949, developed a gift of setting Psalms to music. She wrote: "This convention . . . marked the beginning of Psalm-singing as we know it today, through the ministry of a blind sister on Elim's staff--Rita Kelligan. This gift developed over succeeding months and years, giving us the rich heritage that forms part of the charismatic renewal worship today." The convention at which this took place was a Latter Rain convention, and may well have been another setting at which the heavenly choir became manifest, since this frequently occurred in Latter Rain conventions after the meetings in Edmonton in October of 1948.

The practice of setting the Scriptures to music became quite widespread during the Latter Rain revival. Ray Jackson contacted the movement in its early years and brought it to New Zealand, where David Schoch, Rob Wheeler and others passed it on to such people as Dave and Dale Garrett who later influenced the Charismatic movement with the "Scripture in Song" renditions of various parts of the Scriptures.

The Praise and Worship (P&W) Movement which swept through many traditional churches in the 1980s and 1990s had its roots in the Charismatic movement and its antecedents. Most P&W songs were originally sung among Charismatics. At the outset of the Charismatic movement, one of the first distributors of music tapes of this genre was Maranatha! Music of Laguna Hills, California. Later, a 1985 conference at Duquesne University sponsored by the International Worship Symposium, an organization which had its roots in the Latter Rain movement, may have influenced Gerrit Gustafson and others to form Integrity Hosanna!

Music, which almost immediately became one of the most important sources for praise and worship choruses. If the heavenly choir has not been the only setting in which "singing in the Spirit," has occurred, it can at least be said that it is the most concentrated and supernatural setting in which this form of worship has taken place, and that the heavenly choir may well have been the primary source of inspiration for most of the free styles of worship in music that have flowed out of the Holiness, Pentecostal, Latter Rain, and Charismatic movements.