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Ghostly Echoes: A Eulogy

Posted By Caleb Stegall On October 2, 2009 @ 8:22 am In Politics & Power,Region & Place | 11 Comments

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JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS. October is here, the chill wind blows, leaves are on the ground, so it must be time to talk about ghosts.  This essay first appeared in the Covenanter Review Vol. 17, No. 1, Summer 2008.  I reprint it here as something of a response to and engagement with Ted McAllister’s excellent, yet in my view problematic reflection here, as well as with some comments of Alasdair MacIntyre here.  Ted has taken the step of explicitly couching the historical interpretation of America’s past in religious hermeneutical terms, i.e., an American canon, an American Bible, and the attendant interpretational difficulties and controversies that always surround “people of the book,” or, as the case may be, “people of the constitution.”  As such, this essay is, I think, a fitting contribution.  It deals expressly with a very particular theological and cultural issue arising out of the Scottish Presbyterian experience, and readers unfamiliar with that tradition–all but three of you I am sure–may find the finer theological points confusing.  But I reprint the essay here for its broader implications for how a particular community (political or religious, or both) reads its own past and experiences its own decay.  My study of this particular tradition, which is my own after all, can serve, or at least I intended it to serve, as a case study for exactly the kinds of questions Ted is asking and MacIntyre is describing when he talks about the “failure of politics.”

Ghostly Echoes: A Eulogy

I.

The great bulk, if not the entirety, of contemporary literature in Reformed and Covenanter circles concerning the subject of psalmody approaches the issue in theological terms, as a question of moral rightness or correct exegesis of history and sacred texts.  Without denying that these approaches can be appropriate, it is curious that the practice of Presbyterian psalmody, and particularly of Covenanter psalmody, has rarely elicited discussion of perhaps its core character, which is primarily social in nature.  That is, psalmody as a practiced art is a ritual of worship which carries a potent social authority to create a particular kind of spiritual economy which defines a particular “People of God.”

In today’s parlance psalmody is a “worship distinctive.”  A great deal of self-understanding is lost, however, in that euphemism.  And while much effort has been expended defining and defending Covenanter distinctives, virtually no study has been done trying to understand how and why distinctives work in the first place.  This essay attempts to remedy this by considering the practice of Covenanter psalmody in its historic, communal, and social dimension.  This may strike some as an odd approach to a subject they have always held to be theological or exegetical in nature.  Consider, however, the ways our understanding of marriage, for example, would be impoverished if we focused exclusively on its legal character and entirely ignored its social importance as formative of its members, its progeny, and the wider community.  Similarly, should we fail to understand the communal nature of psalmody we are left with a substantially weakened and wholly inadequate account of this great Covenanter “distinctive.”

II.

Paul Tillich wrote that history is “dominated by one problem, to have a society which is guided by a present reality of a transcendent divine character … to have the holy present.”[1] In her important study of the English and Scottish Reformations, Debra Shuger notes that during any reformational moment, a key aspect will be the attempt to relocate the manifestation of the “holy” or the “present reality of the transcendent” in society.[2] “Viewed one way, Protestantism represents a denial of the need for visible, institutional holiness. In opposition to Catholics like Sir Thomas More who stressed the visibility and continuity of the Roman church, Protestants tended to redefine the ‘holy, catholic, and apostolic church’ of the Creed as the invisible church of the predestined. Thus the church could not be identified with any specific historical church: it was not an institution but ‘the whole multitude of the faithful.’”[3] From this phenomena Tillich derived what he would famously call the “protestant principle” which he defined as a “living, moving, restless power” which advances the “protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality.”[4]

The Covenanters in Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries were no exception to this basic reformational trend.  They were iconoclastic strippers of the alter.  They rejected virtually every cultural manifestation of the holy or transcendent, from the transcendent authority of the English Crown to the actual church buildings themselves.  As the Covenanters developed as a particular “People of God” they were confronted with this conflicting need to deny the symbols of their adversaries any transcendent efficacy while at the same time preserving or establishing new symbols and sites of the holy.  In other words, of prime importance for the Covenanters was figuring out how, as a movement founded in iconoclastic fervor, to socially consolidate on-the-ground gains and reestablish an effective succession of new symbols and practices of truth and right order across the generations.

Covenanters accomplished this by relocating the holy ground in two things: first, in scripture, and second, in a highly regimented and traditional social structure that orbited around a particular identity with several very distinctive social markers.  Included among these markers were the Scottish nationalism of the various political covenants, the economic interdependence of a pre-industrial agricultural community, and the social solidarity of a persecuted and oppressed minority.  Within this political, economic, and social context, one practice and ritual stands out as exemplary for its ability to symbolically and compactly reflect this shared identity to one another and to the outside world—a cappella psalmody.[5]

The psalms are the spirituals of a once enslaved people who are still, by turns, on the run, oppressed, and besieged.  The psalms cry out for deliverance, they call down the wrath of the Lord upon their enemies, they cling with tenacious ferocity to the promise that their line shall not perish from the earth, they speak lyrically of generational faithfulness and its attendant blessings, and they audaciously place their hope in the unseen world of the spirit to overcome the seen reality of sword and chariot turned against them.  As with the development of the American negro spiritual hundreds of years later, the practice of a cappella psalmody lent itself perfectly to Covenanter existence—furtive worship gatherings in hiding during the “Killing Times,” communal singing while working the fields, and the soulful lament and exuberant praise of a people dispossessed of everything but their own voices.  Thus, in both form and substance, a cappella psalmody was a remarkably effective and authoritative bond among Covenanters.  As a communal art and confession, the practice defined and consolidated the fullness of the Covenanter identity as a particular, historical “People of God.”

It is this historically particular, corporate act which consummates Covenanters as members of one people that I am referring to as “Covenanter psalmody”—something real and tangible which is set apart and distinct from any externalized defense, rationale, or justification for it.  The rationales may be good and even necessary, but the rite and ritual is where the authority of Covenanter psalmody “takes.”

III.

During the 18th Century, as Covenanters began to emigrate in large numbers to America and the New World, their historic identity began to be tested and strained in new ways.  In short, the Covenanters—like many traditional European groups—ran headlong into the ethos and pathos of America, what one commentator has called a desire for endless fresh starts.[6] America was the Protestant principle writ large, and whether Old World Protestant communities could survive in the New World they had begat was very much in question.

The point of the problem was that much sharper in the Covenanter context because their symbols and social markers were so perfectly attuned to and representative of their Old World experience.  During the slow transition which occurred between, say, 1800 and the 1940s, as the Covenanters went from a poor, rural, agrarian, politically and socially outcast people to increasingly mercantile, middle class, (sub)urban, and politically and socially connected people, the symbols of Covenanter identity began to “leak.”  That is to say, the symbolic significance of Covenanter psalmody and indeed its entire function as a symbol illuminating the community’s corporate identity became opaque over time.  Like a darkening pane of glass, the meaning of and beyond Covenanter psalmody grew harder and harder to see as each passing generation became further removed from the original experiences that had engendered the ritual—both its meaning and authority—in the first place.

For example, communal worship through a cappella spirituals loses its capacity as a compact carrier of social identity when its context shifts from the fields to the factory, or, even worse, the office.  Key to understanding the “bleeding out” of Covenanter identity is understanding that this is not mere nostalgia for a bygone era.  It is no coincidence that the fallout from this transition over the last seventy-five years has been a decline in the Covenanter church: fewer congregations, fewer members, fewer missionaries, and most dramatically, fewer Covenanter adults who were once Covenanter children.  This is because as vitally important social symbols such as a cappella psalmody leak truth, they likewise leak authority.  In other words, they lose their stickiness; their ability to bind the allegiance of successive generations to the truth, identity, and memory they carry.  This is the way peoples die.

IV.

To illustrate let me turn to one Covenanter writer’s poignant grappling with these problems in a story still familiar to us: Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Irving was born in 1783 of strong Scotch Covenanter stock into a family of aspiring New York merchants.  His father’s stern and austere Presbyterianism remained a heavy influence on Irving throughout his writing life.  In 1819 he published a collection of essays and stories—including both Rip van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow—which would make him the most famous American author of his generation.

As the 19th Century in America got underway, scientific rationalism and deism were dominant.  They were also the natural result of the process, begun during the Reformation, of repeatedly relocating the ground of transcendence in society.  By that time, people began to suspect whether the transcendent and holy existed at all.  This “disenchantment” of the world was a dominant spiritual posture and gave rise to a loose school of artists and writers who sought to incorporate European romanticism and spiritualism in an American context by depicting the natural world as the locus of an “almost real” supernatural presence.  From the transcendentalism of Emerson to the naturalism of Thoreau to the landscapes of the Hudson River School, these artists all reflected the experience of people who have been stripped of every last alter; who have given up any reasoned or objective claim to transcendence—they become haunted.  Washington Irving was perhaps the first and most explicit of these artists, inventing as he did the modern genre of “ghost stories.”

His greatest ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, concerns the gangly and awkward schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, without a doubt the most celebrated Covenanter in all of literature.[7] It would be incorrect to claim Sleepy Hollow as an allegory of Covenanters in the New World.  It is something at once less and more: the literary outworking of a man who is dealing in an ambient way with the changes wrought on his own identity.

Ichabod Crane is a Scottish Presbyterian, a Covenanter, who has moved to the village of Sleepy Hollow, a Dutch enclave in the Hudson River Valley, to take the position of headmaster at the village schoolhouse.  He is a bachelor, hardworking, and presented as someone who is honest and good yet socially awkward and, at times, insufferable.  Significantly, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic Irving gives Ichabod is that of a psalm singer.  He is never without his handy pitch-pipe and he moonlights as a voice coach teaching some of his Dutch charges how to sing the psalms.  Notice Ichabod’s position: he is alone, yet intent on joining the community of Sleepy Hollow; he is a teacher of others’ children, yet has none of his own; he is the representative of empirical rationalism who nonetheless, Irving is clear to tell us, has an earnest belief and interest in witches, ghosts, and spirits.  With Ichabod Crane, Irving evokes the melancholy and ambiguity of Covenanter identity as it endured the transition from Old World to New World.[8]

As the story unfolds, Ichabod becomes engaged in a romantic contestant for the hand of the young Dutch heiress of Sleepy Hollow.  His rival is Brom Bones, the strapping Dutch boy, Sleepy Hollow’s most eligible bachelor, who is given all the dynamic qualities of the New World itself—opportunism, optimism, high-spirits, independence, and rugged individualism.  Brom Bones desires nothing more than to see the back of Ichabod Crane.  He torments Ichabod with an escalating series of taunts, pranks, and social embarrassments.  Tellingly, at one point, Bones trains his dog to whine in a manner intended to mimic and mock Ichabod’s incessant Psalm singing.[9]

Ichabod is steadfast, however, and will not be driven out of Sleepy Hollow so easily.  Brom Bones is forced, finally, to capitalize on Ichabod’s lingering Old World fascination with spirits and ghosts.  At a youthful fireside party, Bones regales the huddled gathering with the tale of the Headless Horseman, a specter haunting the woods around Sleepy Hollow.  Later, while riding home from the party, Ichabod is accosted by none other than the ghost of the Headless Horseman (who is in fact Bones himself) and flees Sleepy Hollow in terror, never to be seen again.

Irving provides two explanations of Ichabod’s fate, both equally true.  The first account comes from a farmer who visited New York City and tells the residents of Sleepy Hollow that Ichabod Crane is alive and well, living as a member of the merchant class in the city following a career in the law and politics.  The second account is told by “the old country wives” who are “the best judges of these matters” who “maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means.”  Irving concludes:

The school-house being deserted, soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue; and the plough-boy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

With this final passage, Irving suggests that in the New World, psalmody—the clearest social identifier of Covenanters—may itself become one of the ghosts haunting the demythologized American scene as its practitioners become cut off from the experience and membership of their forbearers.

V.

Sleepy Hollow raises a key question: as traditional Old World identity markers are threatened by such distancing and encounters with the pluralism of other forms—like Brom Bones’s whining dog—how should those threatened respond?  With Ichabod Crane, Irving gives us a poignant example of the danger of what I will call an “over articulated” reaction.  That is to say, Ichabod’s Old World commitments are turned against him causing him to flee in favor of the worldly consolations of mercantile success and the reduction of his Old World identity to a ghostly inhabitant of old wives’ tales.

The authentic posture of a member of a community towards his community is one of those natural and deeply human things that may easily become highly unnatural and potentially turned against itself when it becomes articulated.  Nothing will kill a friendly fellowship faster than incessant and explicit talk about “the community.”  The problem is especially acute within traditional, Old World economic, cultural, and religious communities in a highly mobilized, mechanized, and pluralistic state in which they become conscious of what they have lost or are rapidly losing.  Attempts to compensate, renew, or restore often only increase the problem of over articulation.

As the great political philosopher Eric Voegelin has said, a “human society,” such as the Covenanters, “is not merely a fact, or an event, in the external world.”  In other words, it does not exist by dint of external controls or boundaries drawn from some allegedly objective and explicit vantage.  Rather, “it is as a whole a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning” by the succession of people who “bear it as the mode and condition” of their existence and identity.  Those who bear the Covenanter cosmion as a particular community of whom it has been said “you will be my people, and I will be your God” experience their “little world” as more than a happenstance, more than a theological choice, and even more than a boundary obeyed; they experience it as “their human essence.”[10]

Most Covenanters rightly resist when they sense a declining or weakening commitment to Covenanter psalmody.  Their complaint communicates something true and wise.  But it is shadowed and obscured by the false habit of thought evidenced by the common substitution of the theological phrase “exclusive psalmody” when what most Covenanters really mean to protect and defend is the practice of Covenanter psalmody.  In other words, the real complaint has very little to do with theological boundaries.  Rather, the real complaint, the real truth and wisdom at work within the complaint, is the perhaps inarticulate sense of losing a socially authoritative identity which might bind one’s children and one’s children’s children.  This wisdom need not be set against the theological truth in question.  It merely penetrates beneath and behind such questions, rendering them at best, irrelevant, and at worst, a matter for seminarians which is little remarked upon outside such rarified air.

The practicing art of psalmody in the context of being a Covenanter in a healthy community of Covenanters means lighting up a whole “little world” or cosmion that is binding.  Membership in that cosmion is what makes one a “true Covenanter.”  Obscuring the wisdom of the complaint with externalized and objectivized defenses of exclusive psalmody leads inexorably to the mistake of thinking that merely by singing psalms a cappella we might fortify and restore the lost or receding world.  But this has becomes transparently false in practice as the full ironic tragedy of over articulation becomes apparent; rituals descend into mere ritualism and the final death of the cosmion is hastened by those who thought to defend it.

Let me put my central claim as succinctly and clearly as possible: exclusive psalmody as a theological defense and rationale is not the same thing as Covenanter psalmody, the act and symbol it purports to defend.  Whatever its merits as a theological position (and this essay has no quarrel with that position), a commitment to exclusive psalmody can never perform the function of Covenanter psalmody, namely, to create a cosmion, to wield the communal authority necessary to bind a particular People of God.  The church that expects such things will crack under the weight and strain of it.  The cosmion will evaporate like a wisp in a New England wood leaving behind only haunted formalists on the one hand and disenchanted liberals on the other.  Neither group retains the social capacity to do the necessary work of restoring the lost cosmion.  It is my fear and lament—hence the eulogy of the title—that Irving has finally proven prophetic and that the communal practice and art of Covenanter psalmody has disappeared as a living location of the holy and transcendent capable of consummating a people.  What remains is, instead, a ghostly echo that haunts us with the tragic knowledge of all that we have lost.


[1] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought from Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, ed. Carl Braaten (New York, 1967), pp. 154-55.

[2] Debra Shuger, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance (University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 121-22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era (University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 140.

[5] The Covenanters were not the only group to revive the practice of psalmody during the Reformation era.  Calvin himself advocated psalmody and other reformed groups, notably the Dutch Reformed, began with a strong commitment to psalmody.  See, e.g., J. Kortering, “Psalm Singing: A Reformed Heritage” available at http://www.prca.org/pamphlets/pamphlet_37.html.   Other reformed practices of psalmody, however, differed significantly from Covenanter psalmody.  For example, Dutch Reformed psalmody was never exclusive.  See, e.g., Council of Dordt, Church Order, Article 69 (1618-19).  Perhaps for this reason, Dutch and other continental reformed bodies more quickly adapted to the practice of hymnody during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in America.  Moreover, Dutch Reformed and other continental forms of psalmody were rarely practiced a cappella as organs and other instruments were quickly put into use by these ecclesial bodies.  See, e.g., Bret Polman, “A History of Music in the Christian Reformed Church” (Grand Rapids, July 18, 1979) (Following the publication of a new Dutch Psalter in 1773, “organ accompaniment to congregational singing was the rule.”) available at http://www.calvin.edu/worship/about/crc/polman.php.

[6] Steven Tonsor, “A Fresh Start,” collected in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity ed. Gregory Schneider (ISI 2005), p. 129 (In America, “the notion of a ‘fresh start’ takes on the proportions of a national purpose.”).

[7] All quotes and descriptions from Sleepy Hollow taken from Washington Irving, The Sketch Book (New York, 1819).

[8] Though there is no space here to develop the point, it is also instructive to consider Irving’s genius in naming his fading Covenanter character Ichabod.  For “Ichabod” was the iconoclastic call of the Covenanters against every form of “popery” and “tradition of men.”  See, e.g., Walter Scott, Redgauntlet (Edinburgh, 1824) (Scott’s Covenanter novel set during the Jacobite revolution of 1745, in which one Covenanter “did nothing for six days but cry out, ‘Ichabod, Ichabod, the glory is departed from my house!’ and on the seventh he preached a sermon.”).  See also, e.g., Thomas Sproull, “The Duty of Social Covenanting,” (Pittsburg, 1841) (Sproull was the pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg.  He wrote: “It is time for those churches that have been long indifferent to their duty [to the national covenants of Scotland] to awake.  Will they too slumber till the day of wrath overtakes them? … Such churches may well be called ‘Ichabod.’  Tekel is written upon them.”) available at http://www.covenanter.org/TSproull/dutyofsocialcovenanting.htm. In Sleepy Hollow, Irving thus recognizes that those who build on a foundation of “Ichabod” may ultimately find themselves torn down by the same standard.

[9] It is also significant that Irving provides a Dutch-American setting for Ichabod Crane’s demise.  Clearly, psalmody is no longer practiced widely in Sleepy Hollow as evidenced by Ichabod’s having to instruct the Dutch children in its practice.  Moreover, contrasting the Americanizing Dutchman Brom Bones with the more traditional Scotsman, Ichabod Crane, cannot help but elucidate the formative power of Covenanter psalmody vis-à-vis other forms of already dissipated reformed psalmody.

[10] Eric Voegelin, New Science of Politics, Collected Works vol. V (University of Missouri Press, 2000), p. 109.


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