In an unusual case in 1873, the N.C. Supreme Court applied the principle of the separation of church and state. It ruled that the courts had no place implementing church discipline and overturned a lower court’s ruling that fined William Linkhaw of Lumberton one penny for disturbing the peace.
“Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands.” — Psalm 66:1
“Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob.” — Psalm 81:1
“O come, let us sing unto the LORD: let us make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.” — Psalm 95:1
“With trumpets and with sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.” — Psalms 98:6
“Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.” — Psalm 100:1
Ever been told that you sing flat? I have, and then recited one of those verses as a lighthearted defense. (Yes, the criticism occurred in church, and I thought my reply might resonate.) Admittedly, I am not the next Andrea Bocelli. But something tells me that my lack of tonal perfection sounds far more pleasant than did William Linkhaw’s singing.
On any given Sunday in Reconstruction North Carolina, Linkhaw, more than likely, could be found in the local Methodist church in Lumberton. There, he belted out hymn tunes with commendable and genuine fervor. But there was one problem: the good Methodist sang poorly — or rather egregiously.
The problem had three components. One, Linkhaw’s singing, to many, sounded like a deafening holler. Two, his voice apparently wavered across notes (and no doubt, key changes), to where a definitive tune was indiscernible. Three, his voice could be heard long, long after the music leader had stopped counting the beats of the final measure.
Even so, Linkhaw enjoyed singing and considered volume a gift. He also believed it a duty to maximize his talent and seemed disappointed that others avoided such vigorous worship. Other church members should sing wholeheartedly like him.
To silence Linkhaw yet still incorporate hymnody into worship, the preacher, Neill Ray, canceled singing and started reciting hymns from the pulpit. But such a practice couldn’t last very long. Eventually a schism occurred in the congregation. Some laughed at Linkhaw’s dreadful singing; it exasperated others. Without charity, the latter took him to court for disturbing the peace.
Daniel I. Russell presided over the district case in 1872. (He later became the last governor of North Carolina during the 19th century.) Witnesses for the defense included Linkhaw, and witnesses for the prosecution included the minister.
After he heard both sides, the judge needed more evidence to determine how to rule, so he asked
Linkhaw to sing. Linkhaw obliged, and for his performance, he heard guffaws in the jury box, from the judge’s bench, and, well, across the entire courtroom.
After hearing Linkhaw’s fervent yet awful hymn singing, Russell fined him a penny for disturbing the peace. Linkhaw rightfully appealed the decision. The next year, the state Supreme Court, as historian H.G. Jones writes, determined that “Linkhaw’s singing caused a disturbance of considerable proportion” and concurred with Russell regarding the Robeson countian’s lack of musical talent.
Yet the court concluded that Linkhaw participated in religious services that were not exclusive and his singing was not meant to offend. Therefore, the court overruled Russell and upheld the principle of the separation of church and state.
Matters of church discipline, said the justices, should not be a concern of the courts.