Worship Tradition

The 1852 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church voted to delete what traditionalists of the day called the “landmarks of our Zion” from the Discipline. Lining hymns, seating men and women separately, eschewing musical instruments, plain meeting houses, free seating, etc., had been physical markers of American Methodism. They would be replaced with instruments, choirs, (rented) pews, family seatings, hymnbooks, and more elaborate architecture, all physical markers appealing to progressive contemporary tastes and more familiar to us. But, not everybody got the memo.

On the last day of my recent trip to attend the Seventh Historical Convocation of the Commission on Archives and History, also the Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the Historical Society of The United Methodist Church, at Oklahoma City University in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, members of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference led the way in the Native American setting. We visited the Citizen Potowatami Nation Cultural Heritage Center, the Seminole Nation Museum, and the Salt Creek United Methodist Church.

At the Church, we had a magnificent meal (feast, really), and met with the Muscogee (Creek) con- gregation, along with members of nearby Choctaw and Seminole churches. The Salt Creek sanctuary harkened to the 1840’s, with a mourner’s bench, small communion table and baptistery, center pulpit, preachers’ chairs, and small platform railing. The congregation continues separate seating (women and children on the right, men on the left), and a form of hymn lining. Until a few years back, there were semi-permanent living quarters encircling the Church for members who traveled from a distance, and a cow horn summoned the folk to worship (Pastor Nelson “Scottie” Harjo shared the elders’ teaching that, when the horn sounded, you stopped and remained still so as not to “disturb the air” while people were called to worship).

There is even a shape note hymnal, Heavenly Highway Hymns, a “modern” adaptation with a penchant for country Gospel of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Yet here I found the chorus “Blessed Be the Name” serving to carry Charles Wesley’s “O, For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
“O, for a thousand tongues to sing/blessed be the name of the Lord
The glories of our God and King/blessed be the name of the Lord.”

    “Blessed be the name, blessed be the name,
    blessed be the name of the Lord.
    Blessed be the name, blessed be the name, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
    “Jesus the name that charms our fears/blessed be the name of the Lord.
    Tis music in the sinner’s ears/blessed be the name of the Lord.”

As I read this odd, choppy way of rendering Wesley, I realized I was looking at a probable survival of “the wandering chorus.” These were choruses in the early 1800’s that could be added to standard hymns (in this case, the first and third lines of most common meter hymns). Talk about the past not even being past.

These ways of worshipping were very important many years ago, even as they remain very important to congregations like Salt Creek United Methodist Church today. They are liturgy, which means the “work of the people.” Pastor Harjo described the way in which they helped people feel close to God, so much so that he recalled Church members who leaned back, closed their eyes, and sang as if in prayer.
I was struck by how rich and varied our United Methodist worship tradition was and is, and grateful again for the many ways that we are able to praise God in our worship at Trinity United Methodist Church. The work of the people, our liturgy here at Trinity, reaches out to people with very different tastes and needs Sunday by Sunday.
Look around as you worship. See the joy that people experience when their hearts are touched, their spirits moved, and their minds challenged by different parts of the service. Concentrate on those parts of the liturgy that speak most to you. And, if you put your head back, close your eyes, and sing as if in prayer, I promise I will not think that you are asleep.

Pastor Dan

Switch to mobile version