Heavenly music

Hans Rollmann
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Exactly 233 years ago today, on Nov. 4, 1774, Jane and James Noseworthy each dictated a letter to their friend John Stretton in Harbour Grace.
They addressed their letters to Rev. Laurence Coughlan, founder of Newfoundland Methodism. By the combined efforts of local merchants, Gov. Shuldham and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Coughlan had been forced out of Harbour Grace and was living in England as a minister, supported by Selina, Countess of Huntingdon.
The letters of this couple are remarkable, not for their social observations or literary merits, but for their accounts of a shared experience that other visionary individuals have encountered throughout history - the phenomenon of "heavenly music," which broke in on the couple suddenly and transformed their ordinary lives in 18th-century Conception Bay.
"About six weeks past, on a night, when in bed," writes Jane Noseworthy, "suddenly I heard the most charming music in the world; no tongue can express the divine harmony of it; and when it first began, I thought, as it played, it expressed these words, 'All your Sins forgiven.'"
These words were repeated along with the distinctive music, which Jane heard as "Psalm and Hymn tunes." Sometimes, the music played "exceeding soft; then again it raises, and plays exceeding loud; sometimes the treble and tenor parts play alone; then the bass strikes in, and accompanies them; in short, no tongue can describe the delightful harmony of it."
The effect of the music on Jane was thoroughly uplifting and enraptured her. She believed it to be a supernatural summons "to be with Christ, to join this heavenly music, in singing the praises of my God, and the Lamb for ever and ever."
When Jane first told her husband James about this supernatural iPod, he could not believe it and considered her experience simply "idle tales."
Three weeks later, however, James, too, began to hear the music.
"It is my constant attendant," he wrote, "while I am awake; in what place so ever I am, it is with me continually."
Jane, who had been reared in New England, had some musical education and could identify clearly different parts, while James judged the concert in his head simply as being "different from all other music that I ever heard." For him, it resembled the sound of an organ, although he had never heard one and had to rely on what he had been told by those who had.
"The sounds are many and various," James wrote to Coughlan, "the tunes, which are Psalm or Hymn tunes, 'with many a preamble sweet,' are truly heavenly."
Only a short pause in this celestial concert would cause him a great feeling of dejection. From the intensity and singular sweetness of this musical experience, James concluded that he might soon be liberated from his earthly body, the music representing an orchestrated prelude to heavenly bliss.
The merchant and Methodist lay preacher John Stretton, to whom the Noseworthys dictated their letters, found the experience so astonishing that he added a somewhat apologetic postscript to each of their letters.
"You know I am not very credulous," Stretton wrote to Coughlan about Jane's experience, "I have asked so many questions and been so minute in my inquiry, that I at last believe it is the very truth."
Whatever may have caused this heavenly music to enter the heads of an 18th-century couple in Conception Bay, nothing in their letters leaves the impression that they were mentally unbalanced. Rather, we may legitimately add them to the chorus of religious visionaries for whom, throughout the ages, the heavenly and earthly spheres have merged.
Ernst Benz, the late religious historian and phenomenologist in Marburg University, devoted an entire chapter of his scholarly study of visions to the "connections between earthly church music and heavenly music," which, he wrote, "are self-evident to the visionary: he identifies in a naÏve manner Divine service on different planes, the lower and the upper church, this all the more as the earthly and heavenly church form together the one holy church."
The historical record shows that such auditory phenomena were heard by monks and nuns, mystics and saints, Catholics and Protestants. Association of the angels with music gave rise in the Greek Church to the notion that church music was communicated by angels to liturgically receptive ears on Earth.
Jane and James Noseworthy heard their heavenly harmonies after intense conversions during Coughlan's revival in Conception Bay in the period of the First Great Awakening.
Not many of us may ever share the musical experience of the Noseworthys, yet the music they heard strengthened their faith, brought what they believed to be supernatural comfort, and anticipated already in the here and now their future participation in the heavenly chorus.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious
studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at hrollman@mun.ca?

Organizations: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Marburg University, Greek Church

Geographic location: Conception Bay, New England

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