/ Warren Peel

A Brief History of Psalm Singing

A couple of weeks ago our congregation featured as part of a programme made for the BBC tracing the development of Christian hymns from its roots in psalm singing to the present proliferation of modern praise songs. (If you live in the UK you can still watch the programme on the BBC iPlayer here). It was a great opportunity to showcase (albeit briefly) the psalms in congregational worship. Still flying the flag for Psalmody, and following hot on the heels of Jared Olivetti's post a few days back about the suitability of the psalms for worship, I thought I'd say a few things about the pedigree of Psalm singers...

Usually if people know anything about the Reformed Presbyterian Church they know that our book of praise is the Psalter. But it’s also very likely that they don’t know why Reformed Presbyterians choose to sing only Psalms. No doubt it seems very peculiar to many nowadays. In an age when we have access to countless thousands of worship songs, why would we choose to limit ourselves to these 150 extremely ancient songs?

Is it because we want to live in the past? Are we like those American civil war buffs who dress up in period costume and re-enact battles of long ago, or those ‘living history’ exhibitions where people from the C21st dress up like people from a bygone age and pretend they are living in it. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many reasons why Reformed Presbyterians sing psalms, but a desire to live in the past is certainly not one of them.

It is true _at this particular moment in history _that Reformed Presbyterians belong to a relatively small group of churches today who use only the psalms in worship. But it’s easy to forget that we in the C21st are not the only Christians who have ever lived and to think that what is now is both normal and normative (what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’).

But it’s not a good attitude to have. It’s not good to have narrow horizons, either culturally or historically, thinking we have nothing to learn from the many generations of Christian thought and experience that has gone before us. And when look at 2000 years of church history, we might be surprised to discover that psalm-singing is actually _majority _position of church. Let me take you on a whistle-stop tour…

The early church. The great church historian Philip Schaff writes: “So far as we are able to gather from our sources, nothing, except the Psalms and a few NT hymns (such as the “Gloria in Excelsis,” the “Magnificat,” etc.) was as a rule sung in public worship before the C4th… Except perhaps for 7 or 8 hymns in rhythmic prose, the Greek church of the first six centuries produced nothing of permanent value or general use. It long adhered almost exclusively to the Psalms of David, who, as Chrysostom says, was first, middle and last in the assemblies of the Christians…”

One of the early church fathers, Tertullian, wrote in the C2nd describing a typical Christian worship service. He said that reading Scripture and singing psalms were the essential components. In the C4th Jerome wrote, “Wherever you turn, the labourer at the plough sings Alleluia; the toiling reaper beguiles his work with Psalms; the vine-dresser as he prunes the vine sings something of David’s.”

The great church councils of the early church asserted the sufficiency of the Psalms in worship: Laodicea (AD 381) prohibited the use of uninspired/“private” psalms, & Chalcedon (451) confirmed this.

The Middle Ages were marked by a loss of Scripture in general, but even here the Psalter had a central place in the church. The Council of Braga (561) decreed that poetic compositions were not to be used in worship, and the Council of Toledo (C7th) repeated this.

In the C6th (at the 2nd council of Nicaea) no-one was to be consecrated as a bishop unless he knew the Psalter thoroughly; this ruling became even more stringent by the C7th: no-one was to be given a position of authority in the church unless he perfectly knew the whole Psalter. How many of us would be disqualified from office today if this were applied today?

The C9th church leader Agobard of Lyons reminded his readers that “the councils of the fathers decree that uninspired psalms should not at all be sung in the church… Let us apply ourselves wholly to divine words in which there is no error, no ambiguity.”

The Reformation was a great revival of Christianity when fresh confidence and trust in Scripture as the inerrant word of God flourished. Hand in hand with this went the rediscovery of the Psalms as the perfect vehicle for the worship of God. The Psalter was central in the spread of the gospel and of the Reformation. The Genevan psalter (for example) was published in 1562 and went through 25 editions that year – 1400 altogether!

A visitor to Geneva in 1557 remarked: “A most interesting sight is offered in the city on the weekdays, when the hour for the sermon approaches… The people hasten to the nearest meeting house. There each one draws from his pocket a small book which contains the Psalms with notes, and out of full hearts, in the native speech, the congregation sings before and after the sermon.”

In France Huguenot Protestants were known as “psalm-singers”. One writer comments, “With the Huguenot, love of the Psalms was more than a passing fashion; they became in a peculiar sense his special inheritance… With the psalms is bound up the history of French Protestantism. Their translation into verse and their setting to music were among the chief causes of the Reformation in the low countries.”

After the Reformation in England, metrical versions of psalms were almost the only praise songs used in public worship until the middle of the C18th, and not just among Calvinists – in the second half of the C16th and C17th psalms were sung by just about everyone except Quakers and Roman Catholics.

The Scottish Covenanters inherited this noble tradition in the 1600s. As one writer puts it, “…no people ever derived greater comfort from the Psalms in the midst of persecution than they.”

What was true of the revival at the time of the Reformation in the C16th was also true of the revival in Ulster in 1859. Someone relating his experience of the revival on 2 June 1859 wrote: “The 23rd, 40th and 116th psalms seem psalms of power in the hands of the Spirit in imparting indescribable joy. They are heard at the midnight hour, sung by bands of persons, old and young, returning from their prayer meetings. ‘Martyrdom’ [a psalm tune] thus heard at 12 o’clock on the midnight breeze has a wonderfully solemnising influence.” The Psalms continued to be central especially in the Presbyterian family in Ulster for a further hundred years.

The same thing was happening in America. The first book printed in English-speaking America was the “Bay Psalm Book”. Jonathan Edwards wrote of New England revival: “One of the most observable features of the work was the singular delight which all the awakened appeared to take in singing psalms.”

As Edward Donnelly has expressed it, ‘the Psalms are part of the spiritual inheritance of all the people of God.’ It is a simple historical fact that the psalms have dominated the praise of the Christian church for 3000 years. Reformed Presbyterians today share gladly in that rich inheritance. Whatever else Christians believe they should sing in worship, one thing is absolutely certain – they should sing the psalms. One of the great tragedies of the modern church is its almost total neglect of these wonderful songs of praise. How many Christians, if asked which book of the Bible is their favourite, would reply ‘the Psalms’? Is it not a pity they have so few opportunities to sing them in worship – to use them as they were designed to be used?

Warren Peel

Warren Peel

Warren has been married to Ruth since 1998 and God has blessed them with four daughters. He is Pastor of Trinity RPC in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland. He serves as a Trustee of the Banner of Truth.

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