I grew up in a church tradition that required strongly valued a cappella worship, believing it was the New Testament imperative for worship.  A cappella singing helped me to develop a strong singing voice and distinguish/understand the intricate harmonies of the human voice.  And though I eventually learned to appreciate other forms of worship, I still find the traditions of voice-only worship speak best to the roots of the language of my heart.

A few years ago, Alden asked me to join him in attending a group of Sacred Harp singers in St. Louis.  After attending on a few occasions, I became hooked on this style of singing and have begun to experience a network of people nationwide who have preserved this singing, because they too, find a beauty in this simple, “ancient” worship.

Sacred Harp (a.k.a. Fasola, Shape Note Singing) was an 18th century tradition originating in the singing schools of New England through the work of William Billings and other hymn writers like Isaac Watts.  Because many church-goers were not musically trained, the notes were shaped (Fa So La Mi) to assist people in learning the pitch spacing between notes.   The tradition quickly spread to the rural American South, which redefined the tradition and preserved it for many years.  Minor chords and the pentatonic scale became a significant part of the southern tradition (influenced by the music of West African slaves).

Though somewhat similar, Sacred Harp differs from the gospel hymns of my upbringing in several ways: chilling minor/pentatonic chords, bass and alto lines that cover more than two pitches, and a melody that wanders through the sections.

It is with Sacred Harp that I have begun to gain a better vision for the nature of the Trinity.  Unlike traditional a cappella music which contains a distinct melody with supporting parts, Sacred Harp has a melody that emerges from the parts.  No one part carries a melody, and if you were to sing each part as a solo, it would rarely sound extraordinary.  But when all of the parts are put together, something beautiful emerges, that could not be contained/reflected in any single part.  This, I believe, is the image of the Trinity.  The Trinity is not a supporting cast under a performer, but a synergy that emerges from equal parts.

With the Trinity, we see the communion of God.  This is the same communion that we strive for in intentional community.  Intentional community is not a reflection of any one person, but a new creation flows out from individual parts.  The harmonies that merge in community are reflected in the charisms (or melody) of that community — these are the gifts, or signs that emerge from the sum of the parts, not any one person, but the work of the Spirit in the world.

And thus, with the discovery of Sacred Harp, I have begun to lay aside the notion that the Trinity is a concept that cannot be understood or beneficial to the Kingdom of God.

Just a few of my favorite Sacred Harp tunes from YouTube:

AfricaCobb, HallelujahBoulderSt. Thomas, Idumea, Botanical Garden