Soul Competency: Through the lens of Worship Art

The position of soul competency is arguably the most important Baptist distinctive among a range of core beliefs that Southern Baptists hold in common with the evangelical community. E. Y. Mullins defined soul competency as follows: “The sufficient statement of the historical significance of the Baptist is this: The competency of the soul in religion. Of this means a competency under God, not a competency in the sense of human self-efficiency.”[1] Of particular interest to students of worship are the implications of soul competency to the church as a worshiping community. Some have argued for example that the notion of soul competency was inherent in the impassioned appeal by American Founders, particularly Baptists, in their call for religious freedom in the First Amendment. One could argue that soul competency is the high mark of viable answers to the question of religious freedom among all religious responses to the political state from the Reformation to the Enlightenment to the present.

The pieces included in tonight’s concert represent best practices at critical junctures of ever-expanding freedoms in worship practice, beginning with the Protestant Reformation. For example, the Tallis settings are a fascinating offering in the midst of a quickly emerging Reformed English Church. The title might suggest something akin to Burgeois’ Psalter, associated with Calvin’s leadership, yet these Psalm settings are distinctly English. And one could argue more incarnate in their practical appeal to English 17th century senses. Bach’s Cantatas are fully matured worship settings that have moved well beyond the emergence of the German chorale as a response to the reign of Latin texts in Western worship. It would be hard to argue that any Protestant composer exceeded Bach in the combination of rich theology and high art. Brahms takes up the Bach mantle in the Romantic period pressing the utter limits of harmonic text painting as an extension of Bach’s melodic text painting. In the case of Bach and Brahms, the religious art is timeless and noteworthy among all Protestant works of art conceived up to that point and thereafter. Ironically, this golden age of Lutheran Christian art was increasingly moving toward rationalism, which tends to place the congregation in the role of a “public” that is addressed through moralistic teaching.[2] Although hymn singing was still prominent during Bach’s era, the increasing importance of high art through the cantata perhaps lent itself toward reflection and increasingly less passionate participation. Certainly, by the time of Brahm’s sacred choral settings in Vienna, late 19th century, “traditional ritual and music” was “often more a habit than a conviction,”[3] no matter how exquisite his motets.

But if one were to look across the Atlantic at about the same time Brahms was writing some of the greatest art music known to man, a little blind lady was busy composing some of the greatest hymn texts ever to be embraced by the Evangelical church. Our Methodist friends are quite glad, I’m sure, that we could do no better than to celebrate the hymn texts of Fanny Crosby as a high mark of Evangelical, Revivalist writing. Although Fanny was not an expositor of the theological concept of soul competency, her emergence and accomplishment is an ideal example of the impact of the concept of soul competency in the evangelical church, particularly in America. As much as liberal theologians seek to find a voice for women from the humanities to the sciences, one need look no further than Evangelicals in America for a people who first championed a woman’s soul competency before God as a proclaimer of truth. While       Southern Baptists in particular are sometimes criticized for their position on women in a lead pastoral role, they have quietly provided a framework for generations of female proclaimers of the Word through song.

Similarly, the African-American spiritual and later the Black Gospel genre became pictures of soul freedom. And again, Baptists play a critical role in the 21st century with African-American pastors who call their communities to account for their souls before God and by extension call their communities to break from the enslavement of a system of poverty of the soul, mind, and body. Thus, our concert will end with a tribute to Moses Hogan.[4]


[1] E.Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion, ed. C. Douglas Weaver (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, rev. ed. 2010), 64.


[2] Hans-Christoph Schmidt-Lauber, “The Lutheran Tradition in the German Lands,” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, ed. Geoffrey  Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 408.


[3] Conrad L. Donakowski, “The Age of Revolutions,” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, ed. Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 383.


[4] Woodward originally presented Elijah Rock with the Pascagoula High School Choir in New Orleans in 1999 at     Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Moses Hogan, who died in 2007, graciously agreed to work with the Pascagoula High School group.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: