Today we move from praising the resurrection of Our Lord, to consideration of another moment of praise, that when the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel's Messiah is struck up, usually at Christmastime. Kudos to Paul at Beside the Point for finding this intriguing piece of musical history.
In an article entitled "Unsettling History of That Joyous ‘Hallelujah’" the NY Times details a story of the apparent anti-Semitic roots of the "The Messiah". I found the piece quite thought-provoking, not just for the apparent Christian-Jewish theological debate, but also for the role of the rise of deism in the genesis of the work.
As a traditionalist Christian, Jennens was deeply troubled by the spread of deism, the notion that God had simply created the cosmos and let it run its course without divine intervention. Christianity then as now rested on the belief that God broke into history by taking human form in Jesus. For Jennens and others, deism represented a serious menace.
Deists argued that Jesus was neither the son of God nor the Messiah. Since Christian writers had habitually considered Jews the most grievous enemies of their religion, they came to suppose that deists obtained anti-Christian ammunition from rabbinical scholars. The Anglican bishop Richard Kidder, for example, claimed in his huge 1690s treatise on Jesus as the Messiah that “the deists among us, who would run down our revealed religion, are but underworkmen to the Jews.”
Kidder’s title says it all: “A Demonstration of the Messias, In Which the Truth of the Christian Religion Is Proved, Against All the Enemies Thereof; but Especially Against the Jews.” Jennens owned an edition from 1726, and he appears to have studied it carefully. Kidder’s work reads like a blueprint for “Messiah.”
So, the Christian fundamentalists of the day linked the deist movement to Jewish influence. This is a topic that would be fascinating to follow-up. The influence of deism over the US founding fathers is undeniable, and it is somewhat refreshing to realize how clearly strong Christians of the day saw this threat. And it is really compelling to ponder how those who sang "The Messiah" so many years ago would have assigned much more specific and powerful meaning to the words we today just "sing along with."
What better means to comfort disquieted Christians against the faith-busting wiles of deists and Jews than to draw on the feelings and emotions of art over and above the reasons and revelations of argument?
“Messiah” does exactly this, culminating in the “Hallelujah” chorus. At Scene 6 in Part 2 the oratorio features passages from Psalm 2 of the Old Testament set as a series of antagonistic movements that precede excerpts from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation set as the triumphant “Hallelujah” chorus: type and antitype, prophecy and fulfillment.
Another intriguing angle on the story weaves in the role of John Newton of Amazing Grace fame, and his 1786 book “Messiah: Fifty Sermons on the Celebrated Oratorio of Handel”. Fifty sermons?! That's a lot of material...
At the root of the issue, really, is the significance of the central difference between Christians and Jews...was Jesus the Messiah, or not?
These issues were a matter of life and death, says Jennens’s key guide, Kidder’s tome: “If we be wrong in dispute with the Jews, we err fundamentally, and must never hope for salvation. So that either we or the Jews must be in a state of damnation. Of such great importance are those matters in dispute between us and them.”
Quite sobering to see how fundamental to salvation the issue was considered then, and how that difference is downplayed now in these days of political alliance. What was once considered fundamental Christianity is now attacked as anti-Semitism (or anti-Islam, or anti-Buddism, etc.) Interesting that they didn't worry about that as much back then, and how enthusiastically they celebrated the risen Messiah in musical flourishes of victory...celebrations that the NY Times today clearly sees as misguided.