Among my earliest memories, I recall singing a mealtime blessing with my extended family. I remember marveling at the harmonies coming from all the big people around me and wondering, When will I get to do that? As I got older, it seemed obvious that singing in four-part harmony was part of my Mennonite musical heritage.
Even as four-part harmony connects some of us to a deep sense of community belonging, it is important to acknowledge that this style is not as naturally “Mennonite” as it might seem. Indeed, this four-part harmony represents only a fraction of Mennonite musical practice around the world. Though generalizing about Mennonites’ musical practices may be difficult, it is still remarkable that many North American Mennonites have adopted four-part hymnody as a practice of their European-Anabaptist heritage.
How far back does Mennonite four-part harmony go? It’s tempting to think that it reaches back to Mennonites’ Reformation-era origins. In reality, some early Anabaptists were skeptical of singing. In 1524, for example, early Swiss Anabaptist leader Conrad Grebel admonished reformers to avoid liturgical singing altogether! Those early Anabaptists who did sing likely did so in unison. The Ausbund, a collection of songs by Anabaptist prisoners at Passau (Germany) between 1535 and 1540, includes no musical notation, and the printed texts would have been sung to well-known popular melodies.
Many European immigrants, including Mennonites, brought practices of singing plain melodies from memory to the New World. Over generations, these practices developed into a very slow, heterogeneous way of singing, often incorporating new notes and ornamentations. Beginning in the 18th century, however, Christian leaders in New England began to preach against this disorderly way of singing.
The American singing school movement emerged from this push to reform. Teachers and publishers in the United States developed shape note systems to educate singers on reading musical notation and singing in harmony. Virginia Mennonite publisher Joseph Funk was one leading figures in this movement during the 19th century; he published the popular Harmonia Sacra (first ed., 1832). Funk’s instructional songbooks helped introduce many American Mennonites to four-part harmony.
When did this style of singing come to be “traditionally” Mennonite? After the First and Second World Wars, identifying with past musical traditions helped Mennonites grapple with rapid societal changes. While compiling the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal, for example, editors were concerned about the infiltration of the popular American gospel hymns. In response, they chose songs that rooted the book in past Mennonite traditions. After the release of the Hymnal, and in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Mennonites began to adopt the new language of Mennonite “ethnic identity” to think about their identities. In these contexts, four-part harmony took on new meaning as a practice of Mennonite ethnoreligious heritage.
So why sing in four-part harmony? These traditions always emerge in specific social and historical moments and are sustained by the value systems of people in the present. Your personal answer probably has as much to do with you today as it does with Mennonites of the past, and that’s okay!