The chorister (Vorsänger) was the song leader for the hymns sung in the worship of the Anabaptist-Mennonite congregations in all countries before the introduction of the (reed or pipe) organ. The origin of the office is lost in antiquity.
In the Swiss congregations and their descendant groups, the office was in essence a voluntary one, but once assumed, was retained for life. Usually there were several in a congregation, who took turns. In early days in Eastern Pennsylvania and daughter settlements, it became customary for the choristers, usually three to seven in number, to sit around a table in the front of the meetinghouse, a custom which is still followed by the Old Order Mennonites of eastern Pennsylvania. Later the choristers sat in the front benches. Not until the 1920's did choristers in the Mennonite (MC) congregations arise and face the congregation while leading, or use gestures to mark the time. After this transition the chorister, almost never the minister, selected and announced the hymns, although in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, for instance, in the 1950s it was still customary for the minister to announce the hymn sung before the sermon. In the earlier days the chorister sometimes "lined" the hymns; i.e., he read each line of the hymn before the congregation sang it. This custom, not uniquely Mennonite, probably arose because of the lack of hymnbooks. In the 1950s the Mennonite (MC) congregations elected their choristers, sometimes at the annual business meeting, for a one-year term. In earlier times the tuning fork was used to get the right pitch, now the pitch pipe. The Conservative Amish Mennonites, and the Church of God in Christ Mennonites, and other conservative groups do not use musical instruments in their worship but have congregational singing led by the choristers, in contrast to other Mennonite groups who have accepted the organ or piano or both, even though some continued the use of choristers along with the instrument.
The Old Order Amish Mennonites have no officially appointed choristers. Any brother of the church who has the ability and the informal training necessary to lead in the singing of the difficult tunes handed down orally from generation to generation, may at the proper time in the services announce the number of a hymn and lead it. He does not rise nor does he sit in a special place as he leads the hymn. He always begins the verse alone, the congregation not falling in until the second note.
In Holland most if not all the congregations formerly must have had a chorister, known as the voorsinger or voorzanger. Small congregations had one chorister, larger congregations two or more. Among the Groninger Old Flemish and the Old Frisians the chorister used to choose the hymns which were to be sung; in the other congregations he led the singing of the hymns, which were announced by the preacher. In some congregations the Psalms were sung regularly, beginning with Psalm 1 and finishing with Psalm 150, and then beginning again with Psalm 1. In 1620 the chorister of the Flemish congregation at Leiden was instructed that he should omit the Psalms of vengeance (Le Poole, 20). After the introduction of organs (about 1775) the chorister became superfluous, strictly speaking, but still held his office, and in a few congregations the chorister stood before the pulpit leading the singing until the beginning of this century. The chorister, who usually was chosen for life, customarily received a small salary, especially in city churches; in some cases he also read the opening Scripture.
The institution of choristers was taken along when the Mennonites moved from Holland to Prussia and from Prussia to Russia, 1789-1820. Since the choristers were chosen by secret ballot, just as were the ministers and the deacons, this position was held in high esteem. For this reason it was desired by many church members. In church, as well as at festivities in the homes, the choristers occupied a place of honor. They entered the church before the ministers. As a rule there were several choristers in one congregation, at times even four or five. The first chorister would call out the first line and the number of the first song. He would also start the song, whereupon the other choristers and then the whole congregation would join in. During the second song the ministers entered.
This custom was adhered to in most churches of Russia for more than a century. It was not until the last few decades before World War I that the first musical instruments were introduced into the churches. Although the choristers remained in their position, their service decreased in importance. Where well-trained choristers, usually using tuning forks, led the singing, the song was started on the right pitch, otherwise the pitch was not always satisfactory. On the whole, however, it was remarkable how the choristers, who received no special musical training, still made good progress in this art of leading the singing, mainly through devoted practice.
When the Mennonites, in the seventies of the last century, immigrated from Russia to the United States and Canada, they transplanted into their new homeland the practice of appointing choristers. Since the Mennonites who settled in the United States from Russia as a whole were more progressive than those settling in Canada, the musical instrument and the choir largely replaced the chorister in their churches. This trend beginning in the late 19th century was completed by the end of the first quarter of the 20th century.
In Canada, on the other hand, the use of choristers prevailed much longer. This was especially true of the group which is usually called the Old Colony Mennonites. Here the choristers still hold their position of importance, and choirs and instruments are unknown. The Mennonites who came to Canada from Russia in the 1920's continued the practice of choristers in so far as they organized independent churches, but here also the musical instruments is gradually displacing the chorister. In South America, where the Mennonite immigrants from Russia in 1930 and after lived in closed settlements, and in Mexico, the practice of having choristers has also continued.
The congregations of original Swiss-South German background in the General Conference Mennonite Church. no matter how remote the background, retained the chorister much longer than those of Prussian and Russian background. In the congregations of Swiss-Alsatian-Amish background, such as Eden (Moundridge), choristers were elected, usually three. The office was quite an honor and there was some friendly rivalry. They also served as choir directors. In the congregational singing, the choristers took turns in leading the hymns. They sat in front, announced the hymns, lined them, and led out, and were always a little ahead of the congregation. In the Eastern District Conference choristers in the 1950s still held an important and honored position in most of the congregations although churches now depend on the choir and the instrument to lead the singing.
The Hutterite Brethren, like the Old Order Amish, have no officially appointed choristers. The minister chooses the hymn, announces it, and then reads the first line. Any brother of the church who has the ability and informal training necessary to lead in the singing of the tunes handed down orally may then lead the hymn. After the first line is read and sung, the minister reads the second line, which is then sung. This routine is followed to the end of the hymn. The chorister does not stand or sit in a special place and no musical instruments are ever used. These practices have been followed without change for many generations.
Poole, Lodewijk Gerardus le. Bijdragen tot de kennis van het kerkelijk leven: onder de Doopsgezinden, ontleend aan het archief der Doopsgezinde gemeente te Leiden. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1905: 20.
See also J. G. de Hoop Scheffer. Inventaris der Archiefstukken berustende bij de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente te Amsterdam, 2 vols. Amsterdam, 1883-84: v. II, nos. 800-806.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 565-566. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Rempel, John G. "Chorister (Vorsanger)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1950. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C464ME.html.
APA style: Rempel, John G. (1950). Chorister (Vorsanger). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C464ME.html.