Article MT014

The Past Returns to the Present:

Archaic British hymn-singing practices survive in London's West Indian churches

At the end of 1644, the Westminster Assembly of Divines, whose mission was to reform the church along Calvinist lines, collectively wrote the Directory for the Publike worship ...  published the following year.  Among its directives is one pertaining to psalm singing (only versified psalms were to be permitted, no hymns):

"That the whole congregation joyn herein, every one that can read is to have a Psalm book ...  But for the present, where many in the Congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the Minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other Ruling Officers, do read the Psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof."
In practice this meant a designated person, called precentor in Scotland and clerk in England, would call out the words of one or two lines before they were to be sung.  Although the term 'read' was used, this usually meant a sing-song formula which was unrelated melodically to the actual tune.  Eventually the practice of 'lining out' psalms and later hymns became common in Scotland and at least in the rural parishes of the Church of England.  During the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this increasingly archaic practice died out in England and lowland Scotland.  It still survives, however, in certain parishes of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Hebrides where Gaelic is spoken, but especially in the Free Church of Scotland and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in Skye, Lewis, Harris, and North Uist.  Its survival depends on the maintenance of the Gaelic language however, for English psalms are not lined out.

Lining out, however, did not die out.  It lives today both in North America among black Baptists and white Appalachian-area Baptists and in the English-speaking West Indies, especially Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.  How this came to be is a long story - too long for here - but it is safe to say that the performance practice was first transmitted to the American colonies by the early seventeenth century and then taken to the West Indies by freed American slaves: probably to Jamaica in the 1780s and to Trinidad around 1813.  The practice, however, did not survive among the mainline, historical churches.  In Jamaica, 'Native Baptist' churches were started in 1783 by George Liele, a freed slave from Georgia.  Because the newly-converted slaves had retained some traditional African religious practices, these eventually reasserted themselves.  During revivals which swept the West Indies in 1860 and 1861, Africanisms were prominent in churches generally known as 'Revival Zion' (sound clip - lining out 'Diadem' - Revival Zionists - Jamaica), and such churches still maintain the use of lined hymns (as well as livelier 'choruses') within a syncretistic theology and worship pattern.  In Trinidad and St. Vincent groups known as Spiritual Baptists evolved out of traditional African religion blended with Christianity.  They are commonly known as 'Shouters' in Trinidad and 'Shakers' in St Vincent.  For much of the twentieth century until around 1960 the Spiritual Baptists were proscribed, being permitted to worship only as long as they did so in the reserved manner of the 'London Baptists'. (sound clip - 'I Heard the Vioce of Jesus Say' - Spiritual Baptists - Trinidad).  Since the laws banning them were lifted, they have thrived, though primarily among people of the lower economic strata.

Because there is a significant West Indian population in England, particularly in London, we sought to find Spiritual Baptist and Revival Zion churches during a field trip in July and August 1987.  Finding a Spiritual Baptist church proved easy because many such churches are called 'Mt x'.  The phone directory revealed Mt Zion Spiritual Baptist church on Hazel Road, London NW10, near the Kensal Green tube station.  Founded in August 1962, by Rev G G Noel from Trinidad, the church today is led by Noel and Mother Olive Wonder, who is from Jamaica.  Although a relatively small congregation, it is the largest and oldest of a group which includes congregations in Slough, Kingsbury (London NW10), Oxford, and Huddersfield.  While Mt Zion now worships in a converted store building of its own, in earlier times they borrowed or rented halls or even the main nave of Anglican churches.

The worship service, which begins at 1 pm on Sundays, lasts between three and four hours and includes much singing.  Songs can be divided into two basic categories: hymns and choruses.  The hymns are found in tuneless hymnals, primarily Hymns Ancient and Modern (used by the Church of England) and the Redemption Hymnal (an evangelical collection first published in 1951).  Another popular source has been American Ira D Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos, first published in 1873 during a Dwight Moody crusade to London.  Since few have copies of the books, the hymns are usually sung from memory with the words lined out.  What is interesting, then, is that the lining out custom was exported to the American colonies from whence it was sent to Jamaica and Trinidad, and has now returned to England, although in an obscure kind of church.  Among Spiritual Baptists the line is usually chanted, but it may be given out in fragments and is squeezed into the break between the end of one line and the beginning of the next.  Some of the commonly used hymns include:

Lord, in this thy mercy's days (HA&M 94)
O Lord, turn not thy face from me (HA&M 93)
I heard the voice of Jesus say well as American evangelical hymns such as:
What a friend we have in Jesus
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
There shall be showers of blessings
The choruses are transmitted orally, and few can be found in printed sources. Some of them include:
Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds?
Soon and very soon we are going to see the King
No stone in the river
Choruses tend to have a livelier beat than the more sedate hymns, and tambourines especially may be used. (sound clip - Carol singing in the streets of Kensal Rise - Mt Zion Spiritual Baptist Church)  In both cases the melody is accompanied by simple part singing, often in parallel thirds.  Melodic musical instruments are not found in the islands, but at Mt Zion there is a small electric organ which cannot really be heard during the singing.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Spiritual Baptist singing, however, is not the lining out or texture but a performance practice known as 'doption' from the Adoption of the Holy Spirit.  A complete explanation of 'doption' would require more space than is available here.  Suffice it to say that members may travel spiritually to higher planes via sound.  During an extended period of withdrawal into the 'mourning' room when the newly baptised learn astral travel and thereby gain the knowledge of the church and their place in it, they also acquire a spiritual instrument.  During particularly heightened periods of singing, individual singers may travel to these planes via the sound of their individual instruments.  During this time their singing may first change to instrumental syllables, such as 'bim' and 'boom', and eventually change to rhythmic breathing and hyperventilation.  Thus singing can be both an expression of an altered state and also help achieve it.  Doption may occur during the singing of a hymn as people 'ketch the power' (the spirit) or it may become so strong that songs immediately turn into doption and even sermons may alternate between periods of speech, sometimes chanted, and periods of doption.

We visited Mt Zion church on two occasions.  The first time the service remained at a fairly low emotional level, with much ordinary singing, but near the end, when Mother Olive was laying on hands during the altar call, it became apparent that one lady was infected with the devil and an exorcism took place, extending the service to four hours.  On the second visit the emotional level was higher, and the young man from St Vincent who preached continually alternated between speaking and doption, all done in an apparently altered state of consciousness.

Mt Zion is in most ways, especially practice, like a Spiritual Baptist church in Trinidad, though the physical surroundings differ.  They meet in a store front church rather than a free-standing structure.  In london, the membership comes from many islands - Trinidad, St. Vincent, Jamaica, Dominica, Barbados, and even Nigeria - rather than from among the populace of a single village.  At least one Caucasian English woman has become a member.  Baptism by immersion takes place at Bognor Regis on the coast near Portsmouth.  Nonetheless, it is easy to forget where you are and feel you are back in the islands.

Finding a Jamaican Revival Zion church proved far more challenging.  To start with, their names are more varied, and consequently the phone directory was of no use.  Secondly, since the churches are difficult enough to find even in Kingston Jamaica, they are that much more difficult to find in a city like London where they are an insignificant minority.  Our search took us to the Brixton Market where we felt someone would be able to help us.  We were disappointed to find that no one could identify such a church for us.  In desperation we asked the police, who it turned out were aware of a 'Jamaican' church on Shakespeare Road.

The Mt Hermon Church of God Assembly, led by the Rev V Graham, meets in a former garage on Sunday evenings about 6 pm.  But without having talked to Rev. Graham it would not have been apparent that this church had Revival Zion roots.  Graham explained that when Jamaicans first came to London they had to borrow or rent halls in other churches.  Some of their practices were deemed unacceptable by mainstream churchmen, and in order to be allowed to continue, they modified their worship towards a conservative form of Pentecostalism, added piano, and virtually abandoned the altered states of consciousness that occurred during the visitations of spirits back home in Jamaica.

Like the Spiritual Baptists, Revival Zionists sing both hymns and choruses.  Their hymns were usually drawn from one of Dr Isaac Watts' collections, although Hymns Ancient and Modern is now used due to the scarcity of Watts, along with Sacred Songs and Solos.  Hymns are usually 'tracked', which means lined out.  But in Jamaican practice it is usual to read the line and not chant it, although there are exceptions.  At the Mt Hermon Church of God Assembly some hymns are still tracked but also accompanied on piano.  Choruses in Jamaica are loudly accompanied by two drums, a bass drum beaten with a single stick, and a snare drum (called 'rakkeling drum') played with two sticks.  The patterns are relatively simple, in European style rather than African.  In London there are no drums, only piano.

Rev Graham reported that most Jamaican churches with Revival Zion roots had become as mainstream as his is, but there are evidently a few which may retain more of the Jamaican traditions.  In order to find these and other such churches, one must find the first church - that will lead you to the rest.  Unfortunately, we lacked the time to follow through and consequently cannot comment further on the British tradition of Revival churches.

The question is often raised whether Revivalists have any relationship to the Rastafarians - also from Jamaica, and whose theology is often expressed in reggae music.  In Jamaica, Rastas and Revivalists evidently have little use for each other, although in earlier times (1950s) the Rastas used Revival hymns and choruses, even with 'tracking', in their rituals.  Since that time they have developed their own music, derived from African sources, and evidently no longer sing Revival choruses.  Revivalists have no use for Rastas, who are dismissed as ganja-smoking dropouts from normal society.

Obscure as these churches are, they have brought at least one extinct singing practice back to the English - lining out hymns.  While the custom will certainly remain restricted to West Indians and therefore have no influence on the people who originally invented the practice, it is nevertheless an interesting and archaic musical phenomenon which has followed a circuitous route from the British Isles through North America and into the West Indies before returning to its source.  That it is so easily recognizable is testament to its basic survival even in radically different contexts.


A Directory for the Publike Worship of God Throughout the three Kingdoms of Scotland, England, and Ireland (Edinburgh: Evan Tyler, 1645), pp. 64-5.

Terry E Miller - 12.2.98

Article MT014

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