Historical Perspectives on Worship Wars: “A Patent Thing A-Squealin’ Over Me!”

o3VgU8iI am the very worst sort of bibliophile. I will not only judge, but will even buy a book based upon its cover. During my early twenties – when I was a young, poor grad student (who nonetheless had more disposable income than a happily married father of four) I began collecting late nineteenth century books with hand painted covers. Beautiful books!  Bookbinding was once an art.  Sometimes I got around to reading those books, one of which was a collection of poems entitled Farm Ballads, written by Will Carleton and printed by Harper & Brothers Publishers in New York in 1873.  The poems are wonderful if you have a taste for that period and the art.  But one in particular has always fascinated me: The New Church Organ.

To modern readers, this poem will have a very “Lake Woebegone” feel to it, and though it is obviously a humorous caricature it does prompt some valuable reflection.  So, for all of you who have some opinions on what is and is not seemly in worship (that means all of you!), please take a moment to read this poem.  Although it is a bit longer than my typical posts, it offers several thoughts for this side of heaven to those who are willing to think along with our poet.

Since polyphony (singing two different tones at once to produce harmony) was first introduced, folks have argued about church music.  Nearly all of those debates have been void of any solid biblical or theological substance – they tend to come down to personal taste and preference.  I hope this poem offers you an encouragement to be sympathetic to those whose tastes and preferences are different from yours.  Be sensitive to those who feel “crowded out” by changes in worship.  But also, when you are feeling crowded, dare to “bid farewell to every fear” and boldly wade into church music that is new and unfamiliar to you.  Whatever you do, “do it as unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23), “make a joyful noise” (Psalm 98, 100), and “Let us praise God together!” (Psalm 34:3).

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas



by Will Carleton

They’ve got a brand-new organ, Sue,

For all their fuss and search:

They’ve done just as they said they’d do,

And fetched it into church.

They’re bound the critter shall be seen,

And on the preacher’s right

They’ve hoisted up their new machine,

In everybody’s sight.

They’ve got a chorister and a choir,

Ag’in my voice and vote;

For it was never my desire

To praise the Lord by note!

I’ve been a sister good an’ true

For five-an’-thirty year;

I’ve done what seemed my part to do,

An’ prayed my duty clear;

I’ve sung the hymns both slow and quick,

Just as the preacher read,

And twice, when Deacon Tubbs was sick,

I took the fork an’ led!

And now, their bold, new-fangled ways

Is comin’ all about;

And I, right in my latter days,

Am fairly crowded out!

To-day the preacher, good old dear,

With tears all in his eyes,

Read, “I can read my title clear

To mansions in the skies.”

I al’ays liked that blessed hymn –

I s’pose I al’ays will;

It somehow gratifies my whim,

In good old Ortonville;

But when that choir got up to sing,

I couldn’t catch a word;

They sung the most outlandish thing

A body ever heard!

Some worldly chaps was standin’ near;

An’ when I see them grin,

I bid farewell to every fear,

And boldly waded in.

I thought I’d chase their tune along,

An’ tried with all my might;

But though my voice is good an’ strong

I couldn’t steer it right;

When they was high, then I was low,

An’ also contrawise;

An’ I too fast, or they too slow,

To “mansions in the skies.”

An’ after every verse, you know,

They play a little tune;

I didn’t understand, an so

I started in too soon.

I pitched it pretty middlin’ high,

I fetched a lusty tone,

But oh, alas! I found that I

Was singin’ there alone!

They laughed a little, I am told;

But I had done my best;

And not a wave of trouble rolled

Across my peaceful breast.

And Sister Brown – I could but look –

She sits right front of me;

She never was no singin’-book,

An’ never went to be;

But then she al’ays tried to do

The best she could, she said:

She understood the time right through,

An’ kep’ it with her head;

But when she tried this mornin’, oh,

I had to laugh, or cough!

It kep’ her head a-bobbin so,

It e’en a’most came off!

An Deacon Tubbs – he all broke down,

As one might well suppose;

He took one look at Sister Brown,

And meekly scratched his nose,

An’ looked his hymn-book through and through,

And laid it on the seat,

And then a pensive sigh he drew,

And looked completely beat.

And when they took another bout,

He didn’t even rise;

But drawed his red bandanner out,

An’ wiped his weepin’ eyes.

I’ve been a sister good an’ true,

For five-an’-thirty year;

I’ve done what seemed my part to do,

An’ prayed my duty clear;

But Death will stop my voice, I know,

For he is on my track;

And some day I to church will go,

And never more come back;

And when the folks get up to sing –

Whene’er that time shall be –

I do not want no patent thing

A-squealin’ over me!

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