Singing Schools

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Church music among the Protestant groups was at its lowest ebb in the early 18th century. The Puritans sang only metrical versions of Psalms and possibly used no more than a dozen tunes, the Quakers sang not at all, and the Mennonites used the old hymns and slow monophonic tunes of the Ausbund. One of the earliest texts for teaching music was written by Thomas Walter of Roxbury, Mass., entitled The grounds and rules of music explained, and published in 1721. The book used shaped notes and bar lines.

Nathaniel D. Gould in Church music in America explains how singing schools were organized in the New England states in the latter part of the 18th century. When the singing had become insufferable in a given church interested members of the congregation would form a committee to secure subscribers to underwrite a singing school. Then a teacher was selected and a place of meeting. According to Gould, this was frequently located in the village tavern for want of a better place. Instruction consisted of the simple elements of notation and vocal exercises. Gould lists 115 singing schools which he taught between 1799 and 1844.

Lowell Mason (1792-1872) was a musician with a talent to write, to teach, and to arrange singable tunes for church and school. He was founder of Boston Academy of Music and director of the Handel & Haydn Choral Society. He, with George J. Webb, had music festivals and short courses for singing class teachers that were attended by large numbers. In New York City William Bradbury and Joseph Holbrook were also promoters of school music and singing classes. Singing classes were found everywhere in the United States after the early part of the 19th century.

The earliest music enthusiast among the Mennonites was Joseph Funk, born in Berks County, PA, in 1777. He with his wife moved to Virginia, where he built a log cabin by the spring where the town of Singers Glen is now located. He introduced music in the schools where he taught, and was recognized as a leader of singing schools. The crowning work of his life was the publication of his collection of Genuine church music in 1832. With the fourth edition the name was changed to Harmonia Sacra. This was the great book of the early Mennonite singing schools. These schools were often community gatherings rather than a church-sponsored effort and were not held in the church, but usually in the school.

In 1875, the Mennonite Publishing Company, Elkhart, IN, published a new book for singing schools, the Philharmonia, compiled by Martin D. Wenger of Virginia, which contains 37 lessons on music theory. All the tunes in this book have four-part harmony. The singing class teachers of the last quarter of the 19th century should be given credit for the style of music used in the Mennonite Church (MC) churches today. Besides Martin D. Wenger there was also Christian H. Brunk of Virginia who traveled widely among the Mennonites organizing Sunday schools and teaching singing. J. F. King of Orrville, Ohio, was a teacher and publisher of two singing class books, Silver star and Singer's joy. Abram B. Kolb of Elkhart, IN, and Aaron C. Kolb of Kitchener, ON, gave much of their time and talent to the development of good singing in the Mennonite churches. Chauncey King of Wayne County, Ohio, and Simon Hartzler of Cass Co., Missouri, USA), spent many years teaching singing classes among the Amish Mennonite churches of Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. The work of Joseph W. Yoder, Belleville, PA, will long remain a dominant influence in the singing of the churches in the "Big Valley" and the Mennonite churches of the Franconia, PA, district.

It was not until late in the 19th century or early 20th century that singing classes were permitted to be held in the churches. During the years from 1906, when John D. Brunk came to Goshen College to inaugurate the Music Department, until his health would not permit, he was a firebrand for better hymns and hymn singing in the Mennonite Church churches. He was an excellent teacher and a well-trained Christian musician. His book, Educational vocal studies, was written and compiled for singing class use in the church. He opened each session with a devotional period; next a review and practice on points taught in previous lessons. He used a blackboard to present the new theory, then turned to Educational vocal studies for exercises and songs illustrating the point discussed; finally turned to the Hymnal for songs bearing on the new theory just taught. He closed the session with one or two good hymns for interpretation, in order that he might close on a high spiritual plane as well as a high musical experience. In the 1950s singing classes were still held in some Mennonite congregations, though not as commonly as earlier. In the East they sometimes closed with a public program at which heavier music may be sung.

Additional Information

Harmonia Sacra website

Lowell Mason Papers in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University.[1]

Lowell Mason biographical sketch

Author(s) Walter E Yoder
Date Published 1958

Cite This Article

MLA style

Yoder, Walter E. "Singing Schools." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1958. Web. 2 Oct 2023.

APA style

Yoder, Walter E. (1958). Singing Schools. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 October 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 533-534. All rights reserved.

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