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The American Church Dictionary and Cycopedia

Surpliced Choir

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When the body of singers of the Church service is composed of boys and men they are vested in cassocks and surplices or cottas and given a place in the Chancel. This is a very ancient usage in the Church of God, reaching back to the Temple service at Jerusalem. In the description of that service given in 2 Chronicles 5:12 and 13 we read: "Also the Levites which were the singers, all of them of Asaph, of Heman, of Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, being arrayed in white linen . . . stood at the east end of the Altar . . . praising and thanking God." In this whole passage we see the original of those surpliced choirs by which the same Psalms of David have been sung in every age of the Christian Church.

The surpliced choir has always been a feature of the Anglican Church, peculiar to it as a national custom. And as the American Church is the daughter of the English Church, having derived from her all her great treasures of devotion and beauty in worship, so she, too, employs the vested choir and encourages its use. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the first mention of a surpliced choir in America is in connection with old St. Michael's Church, Charleston, S. C. In the history of this parish may be found the following interesting reference to the vested choir: "In 1798 there was a bill for 'washing the surplaces (sic) of clergy and children.' A little earlier the Vestry requested the Rector to entertain, at their expense, six of the boys on Sunday as 'an incitement for their better performance of the service'; and in 1807 the organist was requested to have at least twelve choir boys."

Thus as early as the end of the Eighteenth Century the music of the Church was rendered by a surpliced choir in a Southern parish. For some reason vested choirs were given up in the American Church and for many years little or nothing was heard of them. But after a while when the Church here got more thoroughly established and began to put on strength we find that its growing devotion demanded the restoration of the vested choir. This demand became so general that to-day there are very few parishes in which the music is not thus rendered. This is not to be wondered at, for it is found by actual experience that the surpliced choir of men and boys, numbering from twenty to sixty voices according to the size of the parish, is better suited to render the Church's music, more in keeping with the Church's devotions and more inspiring and helpful to the congregation. Many a parish has thus been lifted up, strengthened, the services made more attractive and the attendance at them increased, because the music rendered in this manner becomes thoroughly congregational, such as the people themselves can join in and make it their own.

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Bibliography Information
Miller, William James. Entry for 'Surpliced Choir'. The American Church Dictionary and Cyclopedia. 1901.

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