“Promiscuous Singing” in Bolton

by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in the Bolton Community News, February 2000)

I recently came across an account of a major controversy that was raging when Bolton was being established. It illustrates not only how much times have changed, but also the power of words and of our imaginations.

It was John Hammet who published an essay in 1739 titled "Promiscuous Singing No Divine Institution." "Having neither Precedent nor Precept to support it, either from the Musical Institution of David, or from the Gospel Dispensation. Therefore it ought to be exploded, as being a humane Invention, tending rather to gratify the carnal...."

The reaction of some church congregations to promiscuous singing was described by Cotton Mather in a letter to Thomas Hollis in 1723: "Numbers of Elder and Angry People, bore zealous Testimonies against these wicked Innovations, and this bringing in of Popery. Their zeal transported some of them so far that they would not only use the most opprobrious terms and call the Singing of these Christians a worshipping of the Devil, but they also would run out of the Meetinghouse at the Beginning of the Exercise."

"Promiscuous singing" was not always done with just one’s spouse. Sometimes men did it together in the back pews. Sometimes it was done by men and women in front of their children. Harmonious "promiscuous singing" was considered such an abomination, and such a departure from the straight and narrow, that it was debated in Hartford. Nathaniel Chauncy stated before the General Association at Hartford, Connecticut, in 1727, that it was known that there was a "sure and certain Rule" for singing and further that there were ill effects caused by the neglect of this Rule. "In case there be various Rules, they must lead to differing Ends to be sure, differing, in proportion to the difference there is in the Rules or Means. And this shews [sic] it can’t be a matter of indifference how we Sing: Because that various Rules, or various Means lead to various Ends."

From the earliest settlements of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, singing in churches was performed without accompanying music and frequently used lining-out. Lining-out consisted of someone who led by singing each line, which the congregation in turn repeated. That practice was the solution to the early problems of illiteracy and a shortage of hymnbooks. The tunes were personalized according to the leader’s interpretation and abilities. The hymns gradually became unrecognizable from church to church. In the 1720s, when Bolton was founded, lining-out was still in use in most churches in New England, even though there were then plenty of hymnbooks available and literacy was perhaps even higher than it is today.

But there were still some people who remembered that singing could touch the heart and be beautiful and harmonious all at the same time. Just as the opponents of regular harmonious singing exaggerated and called it promiscuous singing, the advocates of regular harmonious singing argued that the awful sound of lining-out could induce spontaneous miscarriages.

"I am credibly inform’d, that a certain Gentlewoman miscarry’d at the ungrateful and yelling Noise of a Deacon in reading the first Line of a Psalm: and methinks if there were no other Argument against this Practice (unless there were an absolute necessity for it) the Consideration of its being a Procurer of Abortion, might prevail with us to lay it aside" (James Franklin, New-England Courant, February 17/24, 1724).

The debate of regular harmonious singing (promiscuous singing) versus line singing (spontaneous miscarriage-inducing singing) was decided by vote within each congregation. Harmonious singing was the choice in Bolton from the start because it was taught at Yale. The debate of music in worship broke out again in the latter part of the 1700s on the questions of whether choirs would be allowed, and whether instruments or organs would be permitted. Democracy and tolerance prevailed. Other controversies arose in Bolton, such as the use of the wicked invention of the pernicious, perfidious, bouncing rubber ball, which induced idleness, startled cattle and horses, and broke numerous windows.

Then came the "Second Great Awakening" and tolerance of other religious groups, including the very first evangelical crusade in all of New England, which happened in 1805 on property owned by the Bolton Land Trust near Shoddy Mill Road.