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.