The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church
Terry Johnson gave this lecture at Erskine Seminary at the Symposium on Congregational Psalm Singing, February 26-27, 2009. We also offer this article as a PDF Download.
The canonical Book of Psalms properly may be viewed as the Bible's own devotional book. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made this point in his brief work, The Psalms - Prayer Book of the Bible. Indeed it is the primary source from which all other devotional books have drawn. "The Psalter is the great school of prayer," said Bonhoeffer elsewhere. Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471), for example, quotes the Psalms more than the gospels in his The Imitation of Christ, "the most popular of all Christian devotional books." The Psalter has provided the people of God with the verbal images, names, and terminology with which to understand God and how we are to relate to Him. They have taught us how to speak to God as we address Him with praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, and intercession. "There is no one book of Scripture that is more helpful to the devotions of the saints than this," says Matthew Henry, "and it has been so in all ages of the church, ever since it was written." But the Psalter is not only our prayer book, it is also and even primarily God's hymn book, given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, "by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David," as the Apostle Peter expressed it (Acts 4:25 NASV). "From earliest times the Psalter has been both the hymn-book and the prayer book of the Christian Church," say Kidner and Thomson.
"Psalmody was a part of the synagogue service that naturally passed over into the life of the church," says E. F. Harrison. Morning prayers at the synagogue normally began with the chanting of Psalms 145-150. Not surprisingly, we find the early Christians lifting their voices "with one accord" (verse 24), likely indicating singing or reciting the Psalms in unison. These were not spontaneous free prayers. Luke supplies us with the text of Psalm 146:6, likely indicating that they sang the whole Psalm, if not a series of Psalms, following the pattern of the synagogue.
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, "O Lord, it is Thou who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them . . ." (Acts 4:24)
A second Psalm was sung or read (Psalm 2:1-2). The phrasing "who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David, Thy servant, didst say," may indicate a different mode of communication (i.e. reading) than was indicated for the previous Psalm.
"who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst say, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples devise futile things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against His Christ.'" (Acts 4:25-26)
This Psalm was then followed by a meditation on the meaning of the Psalm in light of their current situation:
"For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur." (Acts 4:27-28)
We do not know exactly how this meditation took place, whether by sermon, prayer or discussion. But "taken simply," says Old, what the text "seems to indicate is that an exposition of Scripture is taking place in prayer." The word was sung, read, and preached in this service of daily prayer.
A prayer follows:
"And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bond-servants may speak Thy word with all confidence, while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Thy holy servant Jesus." And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken . . . (Acts 4:29-31a)
They pray for protection, for help, for boldness, for spiritual power in Jesus' name. All in all, Old reckons this is "a rather thorough description of a daily prayer service." Again he says, "This prayer service held by the Apostles, like the prayer service of the synagogue, was made up of three elements, the chanting of psalms, a passage of Scripture, and prayers of supplication and intercession." Note as well the instinct to interpret the psalms Christologically, and to allow the psalms to shape the prayer of life of the church.
"The Psalms formed the core of the praises of the New Testament church," as Hughes Old has observed. The Apostle Paul commanded both the Ephesian and Colossian churches to sing Psalms (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), and commented on the Corinthian practice of doing so (1 Corinthians 14:15,26). James instructed his readers ("the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad," apparently a way of referring to the whole church) to sing Psalms (James 5:13, psallō). With surprising frequency the New Testament cites the psalms demonstrating as they do a keen awareness of both their Christological (e.g. Acts 2:24-26; Heb 1:5-13; 2:5-10,12,13; 3:7-4:7; 5:1-7) and devotional importance. "From the earliest times the Christian community sang the psalms," summarizes Mary Berry, "following the practice of the synagogue."
The Patristic Church
The church fathers and earliest Christian writings demonstrate a devotion to the Psalms, and particularly to the singing of the Psalms, that is startling. Calvin Stapert speaks of the fathers' "enthusiastic promotion of psalm-singing" which he says, "reached an unprecedented peak in the fourth century." James McKinnon speaks of "an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm" for the psalms in the second half of the fourth century. The writers of The Psalms in Christian Worship and others, including most recently John D. Witvliet, have collected a number of testimonies of psalm-singing from the church fathers that survive to this day. For example, Tertullian (c. 155-230), in the Second Century, testified that Psalm-singing was not only an essential feature of the worship of his day, but also had become an important part of the daily life of the people. Athanasius (300-343 A.D.) says it was the custom of his day to sing Psalms, which he calls "a mirror of the soul," and even "a book that includes the whole life of man, all conditions of the mind and all movements of thought." Eusebius (c. 260 - c. 340), Bishop of Caesarea left this vivid picture of the Psalm-singing of his day:
The command to sing Psalms in the name of the Lord was obeyed by everyone in every place: for the command to sing is in force in all churches which exist among nations, not only the Greeks but also throughout the whole world, and in towns, villages and in the fields.20
Basil the Great (c. 330-379) comments in his sermons on the Psalms on the "harmonious psalm tunes" which mix "sweetness of melody with doctrine" and are sung by the people not only in the churches but "at home" and "in the marketplace" as well.21 Augustine (343-430 A.D.) in his Confessions (ix.4) says of them, "They are sung through the whole world, and there is nothing hid from the heart thereof."22
Jerome (d. 420 A.D.) said that he learned the Psalms when he was a child and sang them daily in his old age. He also writes,
The Psalms were continually to be heard in the fields and vineyards of Palestine. The plowman, as he held his plow, chanted the Hallelujah; and the reaper, the vinedresser, and the shepherd sang something from the Psalms of David. Where the meadows were colored with flowers, and the singing birds made their plaints, the Psalms sounded even more sweetly. These Psalms are our love-songs, these the instruments of our agriculture.23
Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 431- c. 482 A.D.) represents boatmen, while they worked their heavy barges up the waters of ancient France, as "singing Psalms till the banks echo with ‘Hallelujah'." Chrysostom (d. 407 A.D.), the renowned Greek Father and Patriarch of Constantinople, says
All Christians employ themselves in David's Psalms more frequently than in any other part of the Old or New Testament. The grace of the Holy Ghost hath so ordered it that they should be recited and sung night and day. In the Church's vigils the first, the middle, and the last are David's Psalms. In the morning David's Psalms are sought for; and David is the first, the midst, and the last of the day. At funeral solemnities, the first, the midst, and the last is David. Many who know not a letter can say David's Psalms by heart. In all the private houses, where women toil-in the monasteries- in the deserts, where men converse with God, the first, the midst, and the last is David.24
He says again,
David is always in their mouths, not only in the cities and churches, but in courts, in monasteries, in deserts, and the wilderness. He turned earth into heaven and men into angels, being adapted to all orders and to all capacities. (Sixth Homily on Repentance) 25
Over against this devotion to singing Psalms there was a growing skepticism about hymns "of human composition" throughout this period because of the use to which they were put by heretics. For this reason the Council of Braga (350 A.D.) ruled that: "Except the Psalms and hymns of the Old and New Testaments, nothing of a poetical nature is to be sung in the church."26 The important Council of Laodicea, which met about 360 A.D., forbade "the singing of uninspired hymns in the church, and the reading of uncanonical books of Scripture" (Canon 59).27 While these were not Ecumenical Councils, nearly 100 years later, the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), the largest of all the general councils, confirmed the Laodicean canons.
We cite these decisions, not in order to encourage exclusive Psalmody, but to underscore the point that the Psalter clearly was the primary song book of the early church. Worship in the early church was "according to Scripture," and consequently filled with scriptural praise.
It is certain that during the patristic period all of the people participated in the singing of the psalms.28 But during the Middle Ages congregational singing eroded. "More and more it was the monks who were charged with the praise of the church," notes Hughes Old.29 The people gave way to the monastic schola cantorum. Over time the church's music also became increasingly sophisticated. The tunes were difficult. The words were in Latin. The common people could neither sing them nor understand them.
Still, the use of the Psalms was, if anything, intensified by the Medieval monastic orders, which following the rules of St. Benedict chanted their way through the entire Psalter each week.30 "Psalmody is also at the heart of the music of the mass," Mary Berry reminds us.31 Most of the texts used for the choral propers (the parts of the service that changed according to the calendar) were taken from the psalms. The psalms dominated the music of the monastery and the cathedral, even if the music and language proved too remote for the town church or village chapel.32
The Reformers were aware of much of this history, as Hughes Old has demonstrated, and sought to restore congregational psalmody.33 They appealed to the kind of scriptural and Patristic evidence that we have noted above. For example, Bucer appealed to Pliny the Younger's report on the worship of the early church. Calvin appealed to the church historians (e.g. Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen) as well as the church fathers (e.g. Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom). While the Reformers did not advocate the exclusive singing of Psalms they did express "a partiality for Psalms and hymns drawn from Scripture," says Old.34 Moderate use of hymns "of human composition" was not opposed in principle. Rather, congregational psalmody was a preference which grew out of their consistent concern that worship be conducted "according to Scripture." For their ideal to be realized it would be necessary to develop a simpler music as well as vernacular translations. The new psalmody would be designed for congregations rather than trained monastic choirs.
It was Luther who first suggested that the Psalms should be sung by congregations. Luther specified in his Formula missae (1523) the use of German hymns in the still Latin mass. In a letter to Georg Spalatin he described his plan to develop vernacular psamoldy. His reason for doing so is typical of the whole program of Reform: "so that the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music."35 For this Luther can be called both the "father of congregational hymnody" and "the inventor of the vernacular metrical psalm."36 In these two forms, hymns and psalms, the conviction of Protestants that the word of God is to be sung by the people came to be expressed. Under Luther's guidance the first Protestant hymnal was produced in 1524, the Geistliche Gesanbuchlein.37 Within a year a hymnal also had been published in Strasbourg, whose example was followed by other South German and Swiss cities. The Protestant revolution in preaching and praying was paralleled by another crucial liturgical revolution, that in church song. "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," Luther's Psalm 46, is an example of his work. Similarly Martin Bucer, writing in his seminal defense of Reformed worship, Grund und Ursach, explained "we use neither songs nor prayers which are not based on Holy Scripture."38
Moreover, among Reformed Protestants it was whole Psalms and the whole psalter that were to be sung. Why sung? Because they were written to be sung, and sung in context. The biblical texts they cited (and noted above) demonstrated that the Psalms were sung or were commanded to be sung (Acts 4:24-26; 1 Corinthians 14:16,27; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13), an understanding reinforced by testimonies from the early church (e.g. those Tertullian, Eusebius, Athanasius, Basil, Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom cited above). The Psalms are not merely a collection of the poems to be recited. They are songs, each one complete in itself and having its own integrity, to be sung. "The Psalms may be spoken," says Paul Westermeyer, "but they cry out to be sung."39 That in itself is worth pondering. "The Psalms are poems," adds C.S. Lewis, "and poems intended to be sung,"40
The Reformers partiality to Psalms is further explained by Calvin in his Preface to the Psalter (1543). The Psalms, he argued, were the songs of the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting of the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.41
John D. Witvliet points out that one of the distinguishing dynamics of Reformation era Psalm-singing was "the singing of whole or large portions of individual Psalms rather than the versicles used in the medieval Mass."42 The Reformers would not have been content with the "versicles," or fragments of Psalms that are virtually all that have been available in recent years. This would be true of the partial collections of Psalms (65-80 Psalm settings) found in the Presbyterian hymnals of the last century (e.g. The Presbyterian Hymnal , The Hymnbook , Trinity Hymnal [1961, 1980], as well as their compilers' "too prissy" (as Hughes Old calls it) editing of those which were included. They "went much too far in trying to clean up the treasury of David."43 Neither would they have been content with the practice of isolating particular verses of Psalms to be sung as "Scripture songs." To sing the Psalms is to sing the Psalter. Each Psalm has its own thematic integrity. The Book of Psalms as a whole is characterized by the theological, Christological, and experiential wholeness. The Psalter was given by the Holy Spirit as a complete collection whose strength is collective: laments not isolated from praise, imprecations not isolated from confessions of sin, but all together. The whole gospel of the whole Christ is found in the whole Psalter.
Consequently the Reformers produced collections of Psalms for singing as an early part of their liturgical reforms. The Strasbourg German Service Book of 1525 (just 8 years after the posting of the 95 Theses by Luther) included a collection of metrical Psalms. This collection was increased in the Strasbourg Psalter of 1526 and subsequent editions (e.g. 1530, 1537). The Constance Hymn Book of 1540, called by Hughes Old "one of the most important monuments in the history of Reformed liturgy," included hymns by Zwingli, Leo Jud, Luther, Wolfgang Capito, and Wolfgang Musculus, among others.44 But half of the collection was metrical Psalms.
Genevan Psalmody began with the French Evangelical Psalm Book of 1539 and grew into the Geneva Psalter of 1542, and finally the Geneva Psalter of 1562, a complete Psalter of 150 Psalms, metered for singing, most with a distinctive tune.
The singing of Psalms became one of the most obvious marks of Reformed Protestantism. The Genevan Psalms were translated into Spanish, Dutch, German, and English, among others, twenty-four languages in all. English editions developed and evolved both in the church of England and the church of Scotland. Psalmody was immediately embraced by the French refugees streaming into Geneva in large numbers. Louis F. Benson, the leading hymnologist of a previous generation, wrote a series of scholarly articles in 1909 for the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, entitled "John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches."45 In these articles he discussed the impact that the Genevan Psalter had upon the French exiles in Geneva as they first encountered Psalm-singing.
The sight of the great congregation gathered in St. Peter's, with their little Psalm books in their own hands, the great volume of voices praising God in the familiar French, the grave melodies carrying holy words, the fervor of the singing and the spiritual uplift of the singers, - all of these moved deeply the emotions of the French exiles now first in contact with them . . .46
As these refugees flowed in and out of France, they took with them a love for the Psalms that they had learned in Geneva. By 1553 the Genevan Psalms were sung in all of the Protestant churches of France.47 In 1559 it became the official "hymnal" of the Reformed Churches of France. The Psalms played a great part in "spreading the Genevan doctrines in France," says Benson.48 When the first complete edition was published in 1562 it was immediately consumed, going through twenty-five editions in its first year of publication.49 During this time of fervent devotion to the Psalms the French church grew with extraordinary speed. In 1555 there were 5 underground churches in France. By 1559 the number had jumped to more than 100. By 1562 there were estimated to be more than 2150 churches established in France with approximately 3 million attending.50 Witvliet maintains that "metrical Psalm-singing was a maker of the Reformation."51 It popularized Reformed piety, "opening up the Scriptures to the laity,"52 says Miriam Chrisman, joining the sermon and catechism says Witvliet, "as the chief means of spiritual formation."53
Its completion in 1562 proved to be a providential provision for the French Protestants, as attempts at reconciliation with Rome and the French crown failed and civil war broke out that very year. "They found in it," Benson says, "a well opened in the desert, from which they drew consolation under persecution, strength to resist valiantly the enemies of their faith; with the assured conviction that God was fighting for them, and also (it must be added) would be revenged against their foes."54 "To know the Psalms," says Benson, "became a primary duty" for the Huguenot, as French Protestants became known.55 The powerful appeal of the Psalms sung "made Psalmody as much a part of the daily life as of public worship."56 Families at home, men and women in the workplace or engaged in daily tasks were recognized as French Protestants because they were overheard singing Psalms. "The Psalter became to them the manual of the spiritual life."57 Moreover, the Psalter "ingrained its own characteristics deep in the Huguenot character, and had a great part in making it what it was," says Benson.58 For the Huguenot, "called to fight and suffer for his principles, the habit of Psalm-singing was a providential preparation."59
The Psalms were his confidence and strength in quiet and solitude, his refuge from oppression; in the wars of religion they became the songs of the camp and the march, the inspiration of the battle and the consolation in death, whether on the field or at the martyrs' stake. It is not possible to conceive of the history of the Reformation in France in such a way that Psalm singing should not have a great place in it.60
A similar story can be told of the Scottish Presbyterians. As John Knox and other Protestant refugees returned to Scotland from exile on the continent in the late 1550's, they came with a zeal for an English-language Psalter corresponding to the Genevan Psalter. The result eventually was the Scottish Psalter of 1564, then of 1635 and finally of 1650. The last of these became the standard Psalter for the Scots and "passed straight into the affections of the common people" says Millar Patrick in his Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody.61 "It was a godsend," he says, published a few years before the enormous suffering of the "Killing Times" (1668-88) by which time "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."62 Note what he says: the language which they used to interpret and express their experience was the language of the Psalms which they sang. Patrick continues:
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 honor. 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.63
To their Psalms they turned, he says, "to sustain their souls in hours of anxiety and peril," and from them they "drew the language of strength and consolation."64 He continues, "it was there that they found a voice for faith, the patience, the courage, and the hope that bore them through those dark and cruel years."65 The Scottish metrical Psalms, he says,
are stained with the blood of the martyrs, who counted not their lives dear to them that by suffering and sacrifice they might keep faith with conscience and save their country's liberties from defeat.66
The singing of Psalms has been an important part of the "strength and consolation" of all the churches of Reformed Protestantism, including their near cousins, the Congregational and Baptist churches for 300 years. Early collections of metrical Psalms were published amongst the Dutch in 1540. In 1568 Peter Dathenus (c. 1531-1588) published a Dutch translation of the French Psalter "carefully molded after Genevan texts and melodies," as Butler explains, "which became the official Calvinist songbook for the next two centuries" in Protestant Netherlands.67 Similarly the German language edition of the Genevan Psalter, the work of Ambrosius Lobwasser (1515-1585), was published in 1573. Even today the Genevan psalms form the core of the sung praises of the French, Swiss, and Dutch Reformed Churches.
The Reformed and Presbyterian Churches in America were exclusively Psalm singing for nearly 200 years, from the Pilgrim Fathers to the Jacksonian Era, as were the Congregationalists and Baptists. The first book published in North America was a Psalter. The enormously popular Bay Psalm Book (1640) was the hymnal of American Puritanism, undergoing 70 printings through 1773.68 When the Bay Psalm Book and the favorite among Scots-Irish immigrants, the Scottish Psalter (1650), were eventually superseded, it was by a book that purported to be yet another Psalter, Isaac Watts' The Psalms of David Imitated (1719).69 Ironically Watts' hymns and Psalm paraphrases were the primary vehicle through which hymns finally were accepted into the public worship of Protestants, yet not without considerable controversy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Still it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that hymns began to overtake the Psalms in popular use.70
In addition to the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists, the Anglican and Episcopal churches boast a 300-year history of exclusive Psalmody, singing first from the Sternhold & Hopkin's Old Version (1547, 1557), then Tate & Brady's New Version (1696, 1698). Not until the publishing of Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1861 did hymns gain entrance to the Anglican liturgy.
B.R. Butler speaks of "the phenomenal success of Calvinist psalmody," and particularly of its impact on the people:
For the faithful it was God's word they were privileged to sing, and it spoke to their most profound human needs and aspirations. The psalms became their badge of identity, the banner of the people of God struggling for power or survival in France, the Low Countries, much of Germany, and elsewhere.71
The supplanting of the metrical psalms by hymns was gradual in American Protestantism. From 1620 to 1800, metrical psalmody dominated the American church scene. The Pilgrim fathers arrived with their Ainsworth Psalter, which gave way to the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the Psalter of American Puritanism. Presbyterians sang from the Scottish Psalter of 1650 and Anglicans from either Steinhold & Hopkins (1562) or Tate & Brady's New Version (1696). In the 1750's the churches of New England and beyond began to vote to adopt Watts' Paraphrases (1719), the popularity of which, along with his hymns, could not be suppressed.
By 1800 the battles over the inclusion of hymns in public worship had largely been fought, and won or lost according to one's perspective. Subsequent hymns for the next 65 years included both psalms and hymns, typically with a large opening section of psalms. For example, both the New School Presbyterian hymnal of 1843, Church Psalmist, and the Old School hymnal of 1843, Psalms and Hymns, open with multiple versions of all 150 Psalms, making up 40% of the former hymnal and over 50% of the latter.72 The distinction between psalms and hymns was clearly maintained. As late as 1863 the New School General Assembly voiced its disapproval of hymnals which "in the arrangement, blot out the distinction between those songs of devotion which are God-inspired and those which are man-inspired."73 Yet with the publication of the Hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (1866), the distinction was gone and the psalms had all but disappeared, without even a scriptural index with which to trace them.74 The 1866 book was soon superseded by the first hymnal after the reunion of New and Old Schools in the north, The Presbyterian Hymnal of 1874. Again, psalms are nowhere evident. If one hunts one can find a few, but they are well hidden and nowhere identified.75 The same is true of the hymnal of 1895 and its revision in 1911, which still lacked a Scripture index by which to hunt down the psalms.76 The Southern Presbyterian's published The New Psalms and Hymns in 1901, with a significant selection of psalms, but they too were scattered and unidentified,77 leading Benson's observation that it was "Psalms and Hymns in name only."78 By the time of the Southern Church's The Presbyterian Hymnal of 1927 the psalms had completely disappeared.79 It too lacked a Scripture index by which to trace the psalms, and even the obligatory "All People that on Earth do Dwell" (Psalm 100) was missing. The Northern Church's The Hymnal of 1933 did have Psalm 100 and Psalm 23, but little else, and also lacked a Scripture index.80 Psalm-singing in the mainline had reached its lowest point. It would be left to the smaller Reformed and Presbyterian denominations to keep psalm-singing alive in the twentieth century, as the UP, ARP, RPCNA, and CPC maintained their commitment to metrical psalm-singing.
A similar story can be told about the Congregationalists and Baptists. The Connecticut Association commissioned Timothy Dwight, President of Yale College, to revise and complete Watts' psalms, to which was added a collection of 263 hymns, published as The Psalms of David in 1801. Dwight's work, plus that of Samuel Worcester, Psalms and Hymns of 1819 (revised in 1823 and 1834, and frequently reprinted), familiarly known as "Watts & Select," solidified the dominance of Watts' psalmody and hymnody into the Civil War era.81 Thereafter the psalms quickly fell out of congregational hymnals. Indeed, with the advent of the gospel-song tradition in the post-Civil War era, this new hymnody, says Yale's Sydney Ahlstrom, "swept much of Isaac Watts," and "the older Reformed ‘psalms' . . . into disuse and oblivion."82
This eclipse of psalmody in the late nineteenth century is quite unprecedented. The psalms, as we have seen, have been the dominant form of church song beginning with the Church Fathers, all through the Middle Ages, during the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, and into the modern era. By the beginning of the twentieth century the church had lost the voice through which it had expressed its sung praise for more than 1800 years.
Can we hope to see psalm-singing revived in our day? Metrical psalmody must contend not only with classical hymnody and gospel songs, but it faces ever stiffer competition from Scripture songs and praise bands. There are some hopeful signs. We must return our attention to the smaller Reformed churches. The United Presbyterians, still an exclusively Psalm singing domination in the nineteenth century, worked to reverse the downward trend with the publication of its Book of Psalms in 1871. It marked progress, in my view, in the development of psalm-singing in the English-speaking world because it offered much greater metrical variety than before seen. It provided the foundation for The Psalter of 1912, largely the 1871 book, but a collaborative work of nine churches of the Presbyterian-Reformed family in the United States and Canada, who after 50 years of decline were beginning again to see the value of singing Psalms.
Multiple texts from The Psalter, 1912, found their way into The Hymnbook, 1955, a collaborative work of the PCUS, PCUSA, United Presbyterians, ARP, and RCA. A similar number were to be found in the OPC's Trinity Hymnal of 1961.83 A revival of psalm-singing was well under way. Both of these publications clearly identified psalms as psalms, and provided helpful indices by which to find them, though they remained scattered throughout the text. The editors of The Hymnbook boasted of "the interweaving of the strands from five denominations," resulting in "the inclusion of many of the psalms in meter," which it describes as "a happy recovery of one of the great sources of strength of both the Genevan and the Scottish tradition."84 The next generation of hymnals from the CRC, the Psalter Hymnal (1987)85 and the PCUSA (the reunited Northern and Southern mainline churches), Hymns, Psalms, & Spiritual Songs (1990),86 restored the psalms to their own distinct sections, and offered a complete (CRC) or nearly complete (PCUSA) selection of all 150 psalms. The revised Trinity Hymnal (1990)87 expanded its psalm offerings without placing them in a distinct section. Meanwhile, the RPCNA published its Book of Psalms for Singing (1973),88 which blended together the selections primarily from the Scottish and Genevan traditions and the 1912 Psalter. The Trinity Psalter (1994) condensed this work into a slender volume for hymnal using churches.89 It has sold 40,000 copies since publication.
The power of persuasion should not be discounted. Advocates of psalm-singing have considerable ammunition at their disposal as they explain to the church why the psalms ought to be sung.
1. Psalm-singing is biblical - by this we mean that the Canonical Psalms were given by the Holy Spirit to be sung. Moreover, we are commanded to sing Psalms and are given examples of the New Testament churches singing them.
2. Psalm-singing is historical - it was the practice of the early church (as attested to by the church Fathers), of the medieval monastic orders, of the Reformers, and of virtually all Protestants until the middle of the nineteenth century. Calvin R. Stapert is right in concluding, "There can be no doubt that the psalms have been the most widely used and universally loved texts that Christians have sung."90 The psalms are at once catholic as well as the distinctive form of church song for Presbyterian and Reformed Protestants.
3. Psalm-singing is emotionally satisfying - it's theological, Christological, and experiential richness provides God's people with the language with which to understand and express the vicissitudes of life. Nothing touches the hearts of God's people like the Psalms, particularly sung. Calvin called the Psalms, "An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that it is not represented here as a mirror." Here, he says, "the Holy Spirit has drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated."91
4. Psalm-singing is sanctifying - the act of singing (not merely reciting as poetry) the whole Psalter (not merely hymns or even Psalm fragments), given the thematic integrity of each Psalm and the divinely balanced content of the Psalter as a whole, has a unique capacity to shape and mold a biblical piety. A distinctive contribution to the health and vitality of the body of Christ is made by the singing of Psalms.
Again we find that mainline Protestants seem to understand what the evangelicals have forgotten. Hughes Old waxes euphoric regarding the singing of Psalms.92 So also does Ronald P. Byars. He commends their balance: "Psalms portray the majesty of God as well as the neediness of human beings. Psalms don't ignore human strengths, but they're centered on God rather than on us . . . The Psalms get the balance between God's trustworthiness and our need right . . . sung psalmody has a certain gravity because it takes God so seriously . . . a virtue of psalmody is that the words come from Scripture."93 Perhaps we can dare to hope that a revival is underway that will restore the psalms to their rightful preeminence in the life of Christ's church. New psalters have been produced in recent years in Australia, The Complete Book of Psalms for Singing, 1991, and most recently, from the Free Church of Scotland, Sing Psalms: New Metrical Versions of the Book of Psalms, 2003.94 Also, Psalter, a compilation of the 1912 Psalter, and the 1934 and 1957 Psalter Hymnals of the Christian Reformed Church was published in 1997.95
New efforts are underway in both the OPC and RPCNA to publish new psalters that combine the best of all that has gone before us, as well as incorporate the benefits of recent Old Testament scholarship. Whether or not the efforts of the enthusiasts bear fruit in the larger Christian community remains to be seen.
Terry Johnson gave this lecture at Erskine Seminary at a Symposium on Congregational Psalm Singing February 26-27, 2009. We also offer this article as a PDF Download.