Congregational Song in the Worship of the Church: Examining the Roots of American Traditions | William L. Hooper


“The Hebrew people were not the first to worship, but they were the first to worship Yahweh,” writes William L. Hooper in his book Congregational Song in the Worship of the Church (x). Hooper is the former dean of the School of Church Music at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, long-time worship pastor, and prolific author on church music and worship. Some of his other writings include Church Music in Transition (1962), Ministry and Musicians (1982), and Worship Leadership for the Worship Leader (2007). Additionally, he has written several instructive books on music theory fundamentals and numerous church music cantatas.

In this latest work, Hooper provides a chronological survey of church worship through congregational song in which he asserts the voice is the “primary instrument used in worship” and has been from “ancient times until the present” (273). The author limits the scope of this book to the use of the voice in corporate worship. The book outlines how worship evolved to its twenty-first-century state in America by looking at each period through the lens of the people, events, and ideas formative to congregational song in worship.

Hooper devotes a chapter of the book to each of the commonly accepted periods of church history. He organizes each chapter around three main questions:


  1. How and why has song been used as a sacred ritual activity in worship?
  2. Who and what determines when and how a song is appropriate for worship?
  3. What were the biblical and theological criteria that inform the discussion? (ix)


First, this book excels in answering two of the author’s organizational questions for the book—the how/why and the who/what of congregational song. For example, chapter two, “Congregational Song in the Old Testament,” begins by depicting the instruments the Israelites used as they came out of Egypt. Next, it describes the practice of old covenant worship. The chapter describes the Hebrew canticles, the order of worship, major feasts, instruments, musicians, and the prophet’s musical role (50–57). Subsequent chapters apply this level of detailed exploration to the early church, Reformation, the English tradition, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the twentieth-century American tradition. Whether briefly highlighting the wind or string instruments of Old Testament worship or differentiating between the various types of gospel music, Congregational Song gives the reader a comprehensive view of the crucial figures and ideas that formed each significant period of western church history.

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Second, Hooper argues effectively that congregational song is a “ritual action” to be viewed similarly to “prayer or Scripture reading” (ix). He shows the church gathered and sang in each of the periods of church history. And at the end of each chapter, he invites the reader to reflect on these practices and consider how these periods and their particular issues relate to modern worship practice. However, Hooper does not answer with the same detail and purpose the last of his organizational questions given in the preface.

The book’s premise is that a historical survey of congregational song can help the reader understand how American worship traditions developed. While giving ample historical context to periods of music surveyed, the book leaves the reader without a clear understanding of what overarching biblical principles and methods should govern congregational song. The author does not promise to give any sense of “finality” in response to every question raised (x). Instead, Hooper concludes that the final answer to these questions remains “elusive” in determining what songs are appropriate for worship or what the theological context should be in deciding what songs are used in congregational worship (274). Furthermore, this book begins with a prehistoric, non-biblical origin of worship practice. While this view may be growing in popularity, it remains a controversial topic. By starting here, Hooper causes some unnecessary distraction from his otherwise strong historical overview. The reader must then decide how to process the author’s analysis in light of this foundational issue.

When church music and worship today seem to undervalue or ignore historical worship practice, this book provides a useful entry point towards understanding this essential practice and its implications. Congregational Song in the Worship of the Church offers a historical survey of past church worship practice that would benefit seminarians, college students, and interested readers.

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Jarrod Richey