Choirs, singing groups organized to render special numbers of music at regular church services and other meetings, are only recent in the Mennonite Church, beginning probably about the end of the 19th century. They have, however, become a regular part of the Sunday morning service, supporting the congregational singing and rendering anthems or special hymns, among certain groups in North America, such as the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, the United Missionary Church, and the Evangelical Mennonites, although not among the more conservative groups such as the Mennonite Church (MC), the Amish groups, etc.
Since choirs commonly require musical accompaniment, they have been introduced for regular Sunday services only in congregations using reed organs, pipe organs, or pianos in worship, except in Russia where choirs came in long before musical instruments. They have been unknown for this purpose in any Western European Mennonite groups, although in Switzerland, South Germany, and France, choirs have been in use since the early 20th century in a few places, particularly in Switzerland and nearby Alsace and France, to sing at special occasions, not in the regular Sunday services. In Holland and northwest Germany they were unknown in the mid-20th century, although organs were used. Among the Mennonite Church (MC) of North America, choruses (the word "choir" was distinctly avoided because it is thought to savor of professionalism, though this implication is not necessarily true) have been organized in various congregations since World War I, largely as the result of the influence of the church colleges, where a cappella chorus singing was strongly promoted, and whose choruses for many years made annual tours, giving programs in various areas of the constituency. Quartets were also quite common in this group, singing at special occasions. In the conservative Lancaster Mennonite Conference of this group, however, special music of any kind, chorus or other, was still forbidden in the meetinghouses in the 1950s. The same policy was followed in all the more conservative Mennonite and Amish groups in North America.
The historic emphasis upon congregational singing and simplicity of worship was a strong restraining influence against the introduction of special music, particularly by choirs, in Mennonite churches. The older pattern of a lay, untrained, and unsupported ministry was almost always accompanied by a nonliturgical form of worship without choirs. The strong sense of equality and brotherhood often expressed itself in opposition to emphasizing the special service of a certain few in corporate worship, as well as against paid professional services. Paid choirs were unknown in Mennonite churches anywhere in the 1950s, although paid choir directors were to be found in some General Conference and Mennonite Brethren congregations.
The attitude of the reformers toward the use of special music, choral and instrumental, in worship was determined by their concept of the church and the nature of the church service. The emphasis upon the preaching of the Word and the response of the congregation, coupled with the priesthood of all believers as over against the special functioning of the priests and clerical assistants, and the opposition to liturgy, particularly in Latin, resulted in a strong emphasis upon congregational singing and opposition to clerical or lay choirs in the regular worship, which continued to the present day. During the first Protestant century choirs were practically unknown. The Reformed churches in particular insisted upon a simple nonliturgical congregational worship. Zwingli even rejected all music and singing at the outset, as did Conrad Grebel (letter to Müntzer, 4 September 1524). However, this was a rejection of liturgy rather than of congregational singing. -- HSB
The use of the Choralbuch with notes or ciphers among the Mennonites of Danzig, Prussia, and Russia followed the introduction of the organ and piano among the Mennonites of Prussia (see introduction to Choralbuch, 1898). This Choralbuch was originally used for congregational singing, but also for choirs as stated on the title page. Evidently these choirs originally did not participate in the regular Sunday morning worship service. This was a later development. The Choralbuch (anthology of tunes) of H. Franz, whose collection in manuscript form was begun in 1837, is evidence that there was a movement at the beginning of the 19th century to improve the traditional singing by means of special groups and training in schools using four-part and unison singing. This reform of singing started by Franz and others in schools gradually found its way into the homes. Choirs were organized and transformed the traditional somewhat corrupted singing, using melodies from the Choralbuch. This process continued throughout the 19th century until choirs and their participation in the worship became generally accepted among the Mennonites in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.
The time when this happened, the songs used, and also the gradual acceptance of the choir can be gathered from various sources. Originally the music and the songs for this purpose were copied by individuals. Numerous copies of these handwritten books, dating back as far as the middle of the 19th century, have been brought to this country by the immigrants of the 1870s and have found their way into the Bethel College Historical Library. Difficulties encountered during the introduction of the choir into Mennonite communities are vividly portrayed by J. H. Janzen, Aus meinem Leben (37-39). But most of the Mennonite congregations in Russia introduced the choir, not only to sing at special occasions, but also in regular worship services. Today the choir as an aid in worship is accepted by all Mennonites coming originally from Russia and Prussia and residing in United States, Canada, and South America , with the exception of such conservative groups as the Old Colony Mennonites and the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. In addition to the programs given during the Sunday worship annual song festivals have been popular for many decades, the best known being those of the Kansas and the Manitoba Mennonite communities, in which 20 to 30 choirs take part. All Mennonite colleges and schools have choirs. In 1952 the Bethel College choir made a trip to Europe, singing in many Mennonite congregations in Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, as well as at the Fifth Mennonite World Conference. Few congregations in the 1950s, however, had choirs which were permanently a part of the Sunday morning worship and sat regularly in choir seats facing the congregation, as was common in American Protestant churches.
See the various articles on singing and music in the April issue of Mennonite Life, 1948. -- CK
Choir singing was introduced early among the Mennonite Brethren in Russia—about 1870-1875. The Mennonite Brethren groups who emigrated to the United States in the 1870s took the practice with them. Songs used were mostly out of Ernst Gebhardt's Frohe Botschaft (Germany), which was very popular. The use of these songs both in the congregational services and in homes, even at work in the fields, contributed much to the rapid spread of the Mennonite Brethren movement as had Luther's songs in the Reformation period. Young people especially were attracted by the singing of these songs. Since the population of the villages was often mixed Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren, after some time village choirs were formed in which all took part, although the Mennonite Church did not introduce choir singing into the Sunday services as early as the Mennonite Brethren did. The songs for these village choirs were customarily hectographed locally. Ultimately the Mennonite Brethren congregations came to use mostly Born's Liederperlen for their choirs. In the last years before the Revolution both the village choirs and the congregational choirs served as a good bridge for better relations between the two groups, since the song festivals were often held jointly in the churches. In Russia all groups, both in schools and choirs, used the number notation system (Ziffern), which was a great improvement over the congregational singing from hymnals without notes. Instruments were never used in Russia in the Mennonite Brethren services, nor in the Mennonite churches. The one exception was the Mennonite church in Gnadenfeld. Even in the homes, it was only in the last years before the Revolution that a few reed organs appeared. When the Russian groups, both Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonite, came to North America in the early 192's they soon adopted the American system of notation and the use of instruments as well. -- BBJ
See also Choirs, Canada
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 563-564. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S., Cornelius Krahn and B. B. Janz. "Choirs." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 20 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C4619.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S., Cornelius Krahn and B. B. Janz. (1953). Choirs. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C4619.html.