What Happened? An Objective Account

One of the questions I’ve been researching intermittently since before the publication of Recovering the Reformed Confession is why confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations sing non-canonical songs in public worship. For the most part the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches sang only inspired songs in public worship and then mostly psalms until the 18th and 19th centuries. This morning, while looking for something else, I stumbled on this interesting page at Reformed Worship. I use the word objective in the title to signal that what follows cannot be considered prejudiced since it’s reasonably clear that the folks who write at Reformed Worship (a subsidiary of the CRC) do not generally share my convictions or agenda regarding the recovery of the theory and practice of the RPW.

In this post the author offers two interesting paragraphs that reach similar conclusions to those I’ve been reaching about how and why things changed. Regarding the CRC they write:

Hymns became part of CRC worship after a long and often painful struggle. At least two pressures threatened the psalms-only stance. One was the influence of American surroundings. Although the CRC tried at times to live in isolation, the sound of hymn singing from Baptist and Methodist churches kept penetrating its walls. The other breach came from the CRC taking in two outside groups who had hymn-singing traditions: a number of German Reformed congregations in 1888 and the True Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in 1890. In 1914 the CRC adopted its first English language psalter (the United Presbyterian Psalter of 1912), which used many English and American hymn tunes. Thus the pressure for hymns in worship continued—especially since hymns were freely sung in church meetings outside of the Sunday worship services. Finally the Synod of 1928 appointed a study committee to look into the matter of hymn singing. And in 1934 that committee presented the CRC with its first Psalter Hymnal, containing 327 psalm settings (some Genevan, most from the United Presbyterian Psalter of 1912) and 141 hymns. The 1959 revision of the Psalter Hymnal included 310 psalm settings and 183 hymns. The 1987 edition, currently in production, will return to the earlier Reformed practice of including one number for each complete versification of the 150 psalms (although several additional versifications are included in the Bible-songs and hymn sections).

The key word here is pressure. The reception of German Reformed (RCUS) congregations and some Dutch congregations along with the (usually unstated) pressure to conform to the post-Secong-Great-Awakening status quo, pushed the CRC away from its original conviction that, in public worship, only the psalms should be sung in response to God’s Word.

The article summarizes American Presbyterian developments along similar lines:

The reason for the inroads of hymns? Duba explains: “Horace Allen has said that Presbyterians can blame their departure from the psalter on the excellent hymns of Watts and Wesley. These new ‘hymns of human composure’ became so popular that by the end of the nineteenth century the churches acknowledged what had already become evident: Watts, Wesley, and the whole English hymn tradition had simply enticed Presbyterians away from the psalter.” The influence of the great revivals only added to this trend.

Context matters. American Presbyterians traded the Psalms for paraphrases and, eventually, paraphrases for hymns.

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  1. Could it be that a major factor in decline of psalm singing is the quality of many of the tunes and versifications? At least in this time and place.
    Perhaps we need more talented folks to work on the psalms the way Calvin’s church in Geneva did in their day.

  2. I don’t mean to be critical. I have used the Trinity Psalter as a step in the right direction, but while some psalms there work well, as Psalm 45 does, some words don’t quite fit the tune. I’m looking forward to the new Psalter coming from the URCC and the OPC.

    • Of course that was one of the ideas behind the 1650 Scottish Metrical Version of the Psalter.

      You put the whole Psalter in common meter and you can use whatever common meter tune you want. Makes it easy and attractive to sing the Psalms.

      While it has some archaisms that can trip you up, nothing beats it. We use the SMV in family worship and nothing beats using it to sing with your kids (especially when you are like me and have the singing ability of a beluga whale 😉 ).

  3. Speaking as someone who is not 100% sold on exclusive psalmody, but who thinks he has a respectful and somewhat sympathetic understanding of the concerns held by those who adhere to it (especially after suffering through churches whose musical traditions are of the generally “Jesus makes me feel like a butterfly” genre, whether Moody-Sankey or contemporary), I think you’ve neglected another source for appreciating at least some hymnody of human composition.

    Descended from Central European (rather than Eastern European) Jews and Scandinavian Lutherans, I heard a lot of the older Lutheran hymnody and have a lot of appreciation for its music and the theological depth of some of the lyrics. What Bach did with it is splendid, and frankly makes it very hard for me to doubt that God exists.

    Then again, my all time favorite is _Rendez a Dieu Loange et Gloire_ (no. 118).

  4. Do you have any insight on how influential (or non-influential) the Reformed at Strasbourg and Constance and Zurich were on the other Reformed churches in regard to singing hymns of human composition? Hughes Oliphant Old mentions hymns of human composition in the Strasbourg Psalter of 1537 and the Constance Hymn Book of 1540. James I. Good mentions that singing was reintroduced in Zurich in 1598 and that a “hymn-book” was published for Zurich in 1615.

    • Neil,

      My experience is that there is a fair bit of loose talk about what the Reformed did in the 16th century. I would be very surprised to find that people sang non-canonical hymns in Zürich. I’ve read that the Strasbourg songbook (1539) had non-canonical hymns but I’ve not seen it. I’ve also been told that Beza put together a “hymnal” only to find that they were all canonical songs. I’ve been told Calvin sang a “hymn” at his last communion only to find that it was the Nunc Dimittis from Luke. So, I’ve learned not to trust everything I read in the secondary lit about what people did in the 16th and 17th centuries in worship. There’s a strong bias in much of the modern secondary lit in favor of modern practice that anachronistically reads our practice back into the 16th/17th century and creates the impression of greater continuity than actually exists. E.g., one very influential writer on this subject, whom I’ll not name, called (in print) the RPW an “Anabaptist” idea. Uh, no.

      In this question the only way to find the truth is ad fontes.

  5. In 1914 the CRC adopted its first English language psalter (the United Presbyterian Psalter of 1912), which used many English and American hymn tunes.

    (Strangely enough, the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Singing has a list of familiar hymn tunes.)

    Still, if the root is rotten, what of the fruit?
    Much is made of the 1912 Psalter in some circles like the PRCs – who on the other hand reprobate the dynamic equivalency of the NIV – and there is no doubt that it is familiar from long use in the reformed churches, but its faithfulness to the Psalm text and format as a reformed psalter is suspect.
    It more resembles a hymnal more than a classic psalter. Twenty percent of the selections are arranged with a leap frog choice of verses from the psalm it is based upon without any correspondence in numbering between the actual psalms and any of the versifications.
    The most glaring problem is #42 based on Ps. 19, but with Ps. 119:97 as the tacked on chorus.
    So much for ‘loving God’s law’.

    All this is no surprise in that the 1912 is the last gasp of psalmody from the UPC, which 13 years later repudiated exclusive psalmody altogether. Hopefully none of the 4 reformed churches that still use the 1912 follow the example of the other American presbyterian and reformed churches, including the CRC, which found it a gateway drug to uninspired hymnody.

    And since the psalters cum hymnals the CRC later bequeathed the URCs stem from the 1912, it was encouraging to hear that the hard work of coming up with a new psalter was seen as a priority in the URCs.

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