Scotland, Psalms, and the Garden of Good and Evil
If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? (Psalm 11:3)
The psalmist warns of a time when the "foundations" are destroyed, when the principles upon which a civilization is based are eroded and give way. The civilization of Scotland was a great civilization. "Britannia ruled the Waves" for several hundred years, and Scotland played an important role in British world dominance. What were its strengths? What were its foundations? Scotland's greatness, we may argue, was based on the distinctives of old Scotland's national character. The Old Scotsman (and woman) was industrious: a harder working people could not be found; thrifty: the tight-fisted Scot is famed the world over for pinching pennies; devout: Scotland's Calvinism was a serious religion and produced a serious, humble, Sabbath-keeping, Psalm-singing people; and principled: the Scots are proverbial for their stubborn, unbending, uncompromising ways; they would argue over hair-splitting differences, and then endure exposure, starvation, torture, and death to defend their understanding of right against wrong.
The Anglican historian James Anthony Froude, in his lecture on "The Influence of the Reformation on the Scottish Character" (1865) said that rarely have any people "thought more about right and wrong" than the Calvinist Scots. This is an important key to understanding them. He notes their industry, thrift, hatred of waste and ostentation, and stress upon honesty and integrity and traces these qualities to their roots in Presbyterianism. In Robert Burns' "The Cotter's Saturday Night," the evening is concluded with father-led family worship, including Psalm-singing and Scripture reading, culminating in parental prayers for their "little ones." Burns, otherwise a critic of Scotland's austere religion comments,
From scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs,
That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad...
‘An honest man's the noblest work of God,'
J.D. Douglas, in an essay entitled "Calvinism's Contribution to Scotland" tells the story of a committee of conciliatory Episcopalians sent by Archbishop Leighton in an attempt to win the defiant Covenanters over the cause of conformity. They found, says Douglas, that the common people were more than a match for them. As Bishop Gilbert Burnet reported,
We were indeed amazed to see a poor commonalty, so capable of arguing upon points of Government, and on the bounds to be set to the power of princes, in matters of religion: upon all these topics they had texts of Scripture at hand; and were ready with their answers, to any thing that was said to them. This measure of knowledge was spread even among the meanest of them, their cottagers, and their servants... As soon as we were gone, a set of those hot preachers went round to all the places in which we had been, to defeat all the good we could hope to do. They told them, the devil was never as formidable as when he was transformed into an angel of light. (John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, p 230)
Scotland's Calvinistic civilization produced an unusually large number of heroic figures. We think of John Knox spending time as a galley slave on a French warship, and rising from that hell to blast his trumpet against "that monstrous regiment of women," the monarchs Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I. We think of Andrew Melville challenging the claims of royal absolutism of James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England). When asked of a written protest that he had submitted, "Who dares subscribe these treasonable articles?" Melville answered, "We dare," wrote his name, and was followed by others. At one point Melville took King James by the sleeve calling him "God's silly vassal," and told him with what McNeill calls "vehement emphasis," "King James is the subject of King Jesus...You are not the head of the Church" (The History and Character of Calvinism, p. 306). We think of the legendary Jenny Geddes, who in 1637 when Charles I attempted to impose Episcopacy on Scotland, picked up her stool on that first Sunday when the presiding priest read from the Prayer Book and threw it at him yelling, "Popery, Popery," thereby starting the movement that resulted in driving the English out of Scotland, signing of the National Covenant, and eventually the English Civil War. We think of Richard Cameron and his 21 fellow Covenanters who in 1680 declared war on Charles II, an act of defiance which he paid for with his own life. The struggle against the Stuart monarchy was long and hard, and as J. A. Froude asks, "where...could the poor Scotch people have found the strength for the unequal struggle which was forced upon them?" He answers his question as he asks it: "except in an intense, burning conviction that they were maintaining God's cause against the devil" (Douglas, p. 229). Nor were these battles inconsequential. In the battle for religious freedom, and the independence of the church from state control, the Scots led the way, ultimately defeating the Stuarts when James II was removed from the throne and William and Mary crowned king and queen in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 winning freedoms of which we are the grateful heirs.
I would like to go on now to illustrate the devout and dogged national character of old Scotland in a more anecdotal fashion by peaking at Scottish Psalm-singing. The distinctive form of church song coming out of the Reformation was metrical Psalm-singing without musical accompaniment. One should not think that this practice was eccentric in itself. The Psalms have been the dominant "hymnal" of the Church since the time of Christ. Indeed the Councils of Laodicea (360 A.D.) and Chalcedon (451 A.D.) prohibited "the singing of uninspired hymns in a church, and the reading of the uncanonical books of Scripture" (Canon 59) (The Psalms in Worship, pp 112, 166). Their exclusive use seems to have been the practice of the orthodox over against the sects, and is apparent in the writings of the church fathers including Tertullian, Basil, Athanasius, Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom. Moreover, the whole Christian church sang without instruments until the 9th Century, when, for the first time, musical accompaniment was permitted in the Catholic Church. But instruments were never accepted in the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) church. Among the intellectual leaders of the church, all of the church fathers, and the three greatest theologians in the history of the Christian church, Augustine, Acquinas, and Calvin opposed the use of musical instruments. The Reformed churches merely restored this practice of the primitive church.
Exclusive Psalm-singing itself is not the place where we find Scotland's distinctiveness. It is rather in the almost fanatical lengths to which the Scots would go to ensure that their convictions on the matter not be compromised.
The romance between Scotland and the Psalms began in the middle of the 16th Century when Scottish refugees in Geneva were first exposed to Calvin's Genevan Psalter (1551). A Scottish version of this, commonly referred to as the first Scottish Psalter, was published in 1564. The enthusiasm with which this work was greeted can be gauged by a contemporary description of the return from exile of the Edinburgh minister John Durie in 1582. At Gallowgreen Durie was met by a crowd of 200.
But ere he came to the Netherbrow their number increased to 400, but they were no sooner entered by they increased to 600 or 700, and within short space the whole street was replenished even to St. Geiles Kirk; the number was esteemed to 2,000: At the Netherbow they took up the 124 Psalm, ‘Now Israel may say', and sing in such a pleasant tune in four parts, known to the most part of the people, that coming up the street all bareheaded till they entered into the kirk, with such a great sound and majestie, that it moved both themselves and all the huge multitude of the beholders... with admiration and astonishment.
This first Scottish Psalter included considerable metrical variety (some 30 different meters) and retained most of the Genevan tunes. It was published with music and the quality of the singing it inspired can be judged by the spontaneous four-part singing described above. It was not superseded until the 1650 when the second Scottish Psalter was published. This new work greatly reduced the metrical variety (only six difference metrical types), providing a version of all 150 Psalms in common meter (22.214.171.124), and only 14 alternate non-common meter versions. This made it possible for the musically illiterate to sing the whole Psalter with one tune. Millar Patrick in his work, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody (Oxford University Press, 1949) describes the importance of this:
The people needed simplicity in the verse as well as in the music, and while to us the excessive use of Common Metre in the new version seems a thing to regret, not least because it banished from use the most splendid of the Reformation melodies, there can be no doubt that one of its chief attractions to those for whose use it was first intended was its large use of the ballad-metre familiar in their traditional songs. The Psalms in that simple metre were easy to memorize, and it became possible to draw upon a wider range of portions because the tunes used were few and suitable to the great majority of them. (114)
Soon after the publishing of the 1650 version Scotland was to enter into what history calls the "Killing Times," a time of terrible persecution for refusing to conform to Charles II's Act of Uniformity (1662), which imposed the Prayer Book and Episcopacy upon Presbyterian Scotland. No less an observer than Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) believed that suffering of the "Covenanters" in their resistance to Episcopacy at this time was worse than that endured by any people at any time in the history of the church, even the early church, and even that on the Continent through the Inquisition. Miller Patrick comments,
It (the 1650 Psalter) was a godsend, a coming just then, when the Killing Times were not far distant; for when the sufferings of those bitter times arrived, it had won its place in the people's hearts, and its lines were so deeply imprinted upon their memories that it is always the language thus given them for the expression of their emotions, which in the great hours we find upon their lips. You can imagine what it would be to them. Books in those days were few. The Bible came first. The Psalm-book stood next in honour. It was their constant companion, their book of private devotion, as well as their manual of Church worship. In godly households it was the custom to sing through it in family worship. Thus, in the story of John Goodall we are told that in certain lines of a psalm, used as ‘his ordinary in his family worship', he discerned what he took to be the finger of God pointing to the impending fate of his enemies. ‘His ordinary' means the portion which fell to be sung on that particular day, as he pursued his custom of singing straight through the Psalter in the devotions of his household. The new version was only eighteen years old when the Killing Times began, yet nowhere in those times...do you hear any echo of the old one' invariably it is from the new that those who resorted to the Psalms to sustain their souls in hours of anxiety and peril, drew the language of strength and consolation: it was there that they found a voice for the faith, the patience, the courage, and the hope that bore them through those dark and cruel years. (Patrick, 114,115)
But the dominance of common meter settings worked to the disadvantage of the quality of the singing overall, as the tendency became to limit the number of tunes used. In addition, because of "hard times," the original printing of the 1650 version did not include the music. Not until 1666 was an edition published with music, but even this included only 12 tunes. Over time, tradition being what it is, the inevitable occurred. History speaks of the "tyranny of the 12," the resistance to the use of any tunes other than the 12. For over 100 years these dozen tunes were used with no additions: Old Common, Kings, English, French, London New, Stilt (now York), Dunfermline, Dundee, Abbey, Martyrs, and Elgin. Of the bunch, I rate Dundee, which we will soon sing, the best. But as you'll soon hear, it's nothing to write home about. Not even the magnificent Old Hundredth was used during these years. The leader of the singing, called the "precentor," often knew only three or four tunes. Millar Patrick describes a humorous example:
At Coull in Aberdeenshire the precentor one day sang all the psalms to a single tune, BANGOR. One of the congregation remarked to him afterwards, ‘Ye were great on "Bangor" the day, Sandy.' To which the offended precentor snappishly replied, ‘Be't "Bangor", or be't Dangor, ye got a weel sustained tune, an' hae nae reason to compleen' (Patrick, 131)
The Scots disrupted the monotony by resorting to a kind of singing that is difficult to describe. The best that I can do is to refer to it as a kind of rhythmic moaning, which they referred to as "gracing." The sound, believe it or not, is not unlike that of the bagpipe. The story is told of a secret conventicle of Covenanters meeting outdoors at Darngavel, in Cambusnethan who were overheard by an English soldier:
...While the people were ‘raising aloft the voice of praise, the melody wafted by the breeze was heard at Blackhall at the moment a trooper happened to call in passing' The farmer there was friendly to the Covenanters, and anxious to avert danger from them. He set the trooper's suspicions at rest by saying to him, "Whenever my neighbour at Darngavel shears ane o' his sheep or tasks off any twa o' his lambs, he sets the hale flock a-bleating.' (Patrick, 113)
Millar Patrick comments:
If the sound heard bore, as it seems to have done, such close resemblance to the cries of sheep in distress, as to persuade a suspicious man that it was that and nothing else, not much could be said of its musical quality. (Patrick, 113, 114)
In addition to "gracing," the Scots were also typically "lining" the Psalms. Because some in the congregation couldn't read, the "presentor" (the song leader) would sing each line of the Psalm, the congregation then following, one line at a time through the whole length of the Psalm. This of course, did nothing to enhance the musical quality of the singing or relieve the tedium. Another story is told of an Italian musician wandering up High Street past the Tron Church and overhearing the concluding Psalm of a Sunday service.
...The Italian paused and listened in amazement to the discordant sounds that came pouring out upon his ears. ‘What on earth are these horrible sounds I hear?' he asked the beadle. ‘That', came the answer, ‘is the people praising God.' ‘And do the people really believe their God likes to hear that dreadful noise?' ‘To be sure,' the beadle answered; ‘of course He does.' ‘Then all I can say', was the foreigner's rejoinder, ‘is, that their God can have no ear for music', and in shocked silence he walked away. (Patrick, 140, 141)
Writing at the beginning of the 19th century, Mrs. Smith of Baltiboys, in her Memoirs of a Highland Lady, describes a service in the now discarded Rothiemurchus Parish Church, the singing during which she recalls,
...Serious severe screaming quite beyond the natural pitch of the voice, a wandering search after the air by many who never caught it, a flourish of a difficult execution and plenty of the tremolo lately come into fashion. The dogs seized this occasion to bark (for they always came to the Kirk with the family), and the babies to cry. When the minister could bear the din no longer he popped up again, again leaned over, touched the presentor's head, and instantly all sound ceased. The long prayer began..." (Patrick, 141)
Sir John Millais and his family attended the Free Church service in Glenfinlas in the summer of 1855. His brother later wrote.
The service to us was somewhat comical, and we could hardly stay it out. The precentor was a little very bow-legged man, with the wheeziest of voices, and sang the first line of the paraphrase [i.e. psalm] alone, whilst his little shaggy terrier, the image of his master, joined in the piteous howl. The other lines were sung by the congregation, assisted by a few collies. I afterwards tackled the little precentor, and asked him why he didn't have an organ. "Ah, man, would you have us take to the devil's band?" he replied.' (Patrick, 142)
Robert Louis Stevenson, in Weir of Hermiston, comments,
‘the nasal psalmody, full of turns and trills and graceless graces, seemed the essential voice of the Kirk itself upraised in thanksgiving'. (Patrick, 142)
Patrick tells another story about a Highland minister, who in a General Assembly debate,
...Declared that when things musical were at their worst, no words in Scripture better described his feelings when the congregation's exercises in praise came to an end, than those which at the beginning of the twentieth chapter of Acts record of the quelling of the riot of the Ephesians in defence of their worship of Diana: ‘After the uproar was ceased...'(Patrick, 143)
Slowly calls for reform began to be hard. But as it might be expected, attempts to improve the quality of the music in the church met tremendous resistance. Some resistance might be called nostalgia. Lady Anne Barnard wrote of an experience she had of walking into a Scottish church in Cape Town after years abroad.
‘We listened,' she said, ‘with reverence to all we understood, and with smiles to the horrid discords with which a Presbyterian congregation assails the ears --------- a discord to me now more pious in its sounds of willing praise than all the organs or hired choir-singers in the world, and exceeded by nothing in the sensations it awakens but by a congregation of converted Hottentots joining in one hymn.' (Patrick, 143)
The people stubbornly clung to their "gracing" and "lining". Hugh Brown once wrote of "that ‘narrow intensity' which is the special note of Scottish genius and character," and Grey Graham of their "intensely conservative" independence. There is a story told of a dying beadle who when asked by his son, who was to succeed him in office, if he had any parting instruction to give him, replied that he had one thing to say, and that was, "Resist a'improvements" (Patrick, 144). When pitch-pipes were introduced to help the congregation start its singing on key, some denounced it saying, "a new fangled profanation of the Sabbath was introduced by singing the psalms at church with a herd-boy's whistle, which gave great offence to many serious Christians" (Patrick, p.152).
Still improvements were made, and into the 19th Century meetings began to be held all over Scotland to practice singing. But true to their character, there was opposition to practice. It was thought to be irreverent to sing the Psalms except in worship. So practice verses were substituted during training made up of the words of secular ballads. This led to a humorous incident when a precentor in Greenock, John McQuisten, a lover of the Old Scots ballads, substituted his favorite, "Sir Patrick Spens," in the Saturday evening practice for the Psalms of the following day. Among John's vanities was his pride in his memory. He always led the Psalms-singing with his eyes closed. I'll let Miller tell the story.
This self-confidence, however was once his undoing. One Sunday a portion of Psalm 107 was given out, beginning at verse 21 - the passage describing the plight of the sailors ‘who go to sea in ships, and in great waters trading be', when ‘the stormy tempest' overtakes them and they are at their wits' end because of danger. All went well till the end of verse 25 was reached, with two verses of the prescribed portion still to come. But at that point the storm in the psalm suggested to John's mind the storm in "Sir Patrick Spen' - not unnaturally, for there is a similarity in the situation. So instead of lining out verse 26, which describes the reeling ship: ‘they mount to heaven, then to the depths they do go down again', he slipped unawares into the lines he had used in his practice the previous evening:
O laith, laith were oor guide Scots lords
to weet their cork-heel'd shoon,
But lang or a' the play was play'd,
They wat their hats aboon.
The congregation blindly followed their leader. Some, who had the words before them, looked aghast, but the majority, seeing John with his eyes shut and trusting implicitly in his memory, sang on after him without misgiving. The unconscious precentor, thinking more of his trills and grace-notes than of the words, sang the verse through, and the next one after it:
And mony was the feather-bed
That fluttered on the faem,
And mony was the gude lord's son
That never mair cam' hame.
Then though the people knew that something had gone amiss, John sat down in bland content, quite unaware that he had done a thing that would be talked about for a half a century after he was in his grave.
The outraged minister got over it in time, and would say to the precentor on the Sunday morning, ‘Gi'e us nane o' your ballants the day, na, John' (Patrick 168, 169)
It was not until 1781, with the publishing of the Scottish Paraphrases, that other inspired songs were allowed in the Scottish Churches. It was not until 1861 that uninspired hymns were allowed. Musical instruments were first permitted in 1865. For 300 years the Scots stuck to their convictions that the Psalms alone without musical accompaniment ought to be sung in the worship of God. Even today two or more Psalms are sung in most Scottish church services. Why did they take things to the extremes mentioned above? Because principle is principle. If the Bible teaches that God is only to be worshiped in the manner that He Himself prescribes, and if He permits only Psalms and does not permit instruments, then this must be followed no matter what.
This brings me to our world today, to America, and specifically to Savannah. The quaintness of Scottish character couldn't contrast more starkly with the character of our nation today. We're thankful that there is no resistance to hymns, organs, pitch-pipes, and practice using Psalm words. We're thankful that resistance to gracing, lining, and additions to the 12 tunes has ceased. Our problem is that there is no resistance to anything today. Principle has been abolished. Expedience rules the day. From the highest elected offices in our nation right through the middle class and on down to the lower classes we are a nation of weak, unprincipled, and spineless hedonists. We don't stand for anything. We won't sacrifice for anything. Pleasure is all that counts. Consequently, as William J. Bennett has pointed out in his "index of Leading Cultural Indicators," we are overrun with pornography, teen-pregnancy, abortion, illegitimacy, single-parent households, divorce, child abuse, drug abuse, violence, crime, declining educational standards, and teen suicide. Moral virtue is ridiculed. American has become a cesspool of wickedness.
About a month ago Emily and I watched the lengthy Disney version of Anne of Green Gables. It is set on Prince Edward Island, A Canadian island populated almost entirely by Scottish immigrants. I know of the place because I preached to a congregation of Prince Edward Island immigrants my entire last year of seminary (they had migrated to Boston). As we watched the series I am not ashamed to say that I wept, as I saw the solid rock character of the leading personalities, in what is admittedly a romanticized portrayal of the life of the island unfolded before us.
And our churches! Lord have mercy upon us. What do we stand for anymore? Where is the sound of the gospel calling our nation from its spiritual harlotires? Presbyterian leaders foot the bill for a conference that worships the goddess Sophia, replaces the Lord's Supper with a banquet of milk and honey, complain "I don't think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff," and claim, "If we cannot imagine Jesus as a tree, as a river, as wind, and as rain, we are doomed together." As of today, the participating churches, including the mainline Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and Presbyterians have taken no disciplinary action and have issued no official word of protest. What do we stand for today? Apparently, nothing at all.
What about Savannah? In a very telling story in the book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the author describes a conversation with one of Savannah's elite. She tells of a time when Billy Sunday, the great evangelist from the earlier part of this century, denounced Savannah as he preached in Forsythe Park, as "the wickedest city in the world." She comments: "Well, of course, we all thought that was perfectly marvelous" (p. 31). Perfectly marvelous. Aren't we naughty, she is saying, and isn't that cute! Indeed the whole community seems to be thrilled about a book that describes Savannah as a wicked town, dominated by intrigue, homosexuality, adultery, drunkenness, ancestral worship, pride, violence, and is home to more eccentric perverts whose lives have been ruined by sin than any city of comparable size in Savannah. Thrilled? We ought hang our heads in shame.
No, we don't want to go back to gracing our Psalms. But our foundations are crumbling. Our civilization is failing. Where in the midst of the ruins all about us is commitment to principle? Where can we find a honest man? Where is integrity? What about our religious commitments? What has become of our commitment to the Christian faith, that commitment of commitments among our Scottish forefathers? Where is our loyalty to Jesus Christ? Where is our devotion to the true worship of God? Where is our inflexible determination to obey the law of God? Where is the commitment to marriage and family? Where is our commitment to church and ministry? Is all to give way to the quest for pleasure? Our foundations have been destroyed. Our civilization is in decay. What can the righteous do?
If we are to truly honor the Scots, we will seek to emulate their character. We will determine to cast off the cloak of wickedness, repent of our sins, and come humbly to the God of our Fathers, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and surrender ourselves, heart, mind, and body, to Him.