We heard many stories about Queen Elizabeth II after her passing, but I do not know how many of you will know the story I am about to tell.
Did you know that we have Queen Elizabeth II to thank for the popularity of Psalm 23 (CRIMOND) in our Sunday worship services? The story of Psalm 23 is a story not only about the Queen, but about the place of the metrical psalms in American Presbyterian worship.
In Scotland, Presbyterians were psalm singers, but beginning with the American revised Directory of Worship of May 16, 1788, which stated that “it is the duty of Christians to praise God, by singing psalms, or hymns,” American Presbyterians slowly but surely began to sing hymns instead of the psalms.
After the Civil War, the change from psalms to hymns accelerated with fewer and fewer psalms appearing in each new hymnal. By the time the OPC left the Northern church, their last hymnal, The Hymnal of 1933, included only Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. When the PCA left the Southern church, their last hymnal, The Presbyterian Hymnal of 1927, had even eliminated Psalms 23 and 100. No metrical psalms remained.
Psalm 23 was retained for so long because its words of comfort were traditionally sought for at funerals. None of the hymns could seem to replace it. The tune used at the time to sing Psalm 23 was typically the quiet and plaintive BROTHER JAMES’ AIR or the tune MARTYRDOM.
The tune CRIMOND was composed in Scotland by Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836–1887) in 1871 and was included in The Northern Psalter of 1872, but it was not known outside of Scotland and was not even that popular in Scottish churches at the time.
Here is where the young Princess Elizabeth enters our story. The Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten in 1947 would be a worldwide event followed by an international audience. It seemed to offer hope of a new era of happiness in the aftermath of World War II.
The music director of the Royal Wedding, William McKie (1901–1984), visited Balmoral in Scotland and heard one of Princess Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, Lady Margaret Egerton, singing a descant of Psalm 23 to CRIMOND, accompanied by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. McKie wanted to include something Scottish in the Royal Wedding, and Psalm 23’s pastoral imagery fit the bill perfectly.
Unable to find the music for the descant and with two days to go to the wedding, McKie wrote down the music himself shorthand and taught it to the Abbey Choir. The composer of the descant, William Baird Ross (1871–1950), was later surprised to hear his arrangement on the radio broadcast.
The fame of the Royal Wedding made Psalm 23 to CRIMOND a Christian pop song of its era. The brighter, more joyful tune gave new life to the psalm. As a result, American Protestants of all denominations began singing Psalm 23 to this tune, and American Presbyterians embraced a metrical psalm from their own tradition again.
In my lifetime, I can say that Psalm 23 might have been the only psalm sung consistently in the OPC and PCA churches of which I was a member (and Psalm 100 to a lesser extent). There were other psalm paraphrases of course, such as Watts’ hymns, but their relationship to the psalms was easily missed unless you were looking out for it. For most American Presbyterians I know, Psalm 23 is their favorite psalm because it is usually the only psalm they get to sing in church on a regular basis.
Princess Elizabeth planted a seed in 1947 that marked a change of direction for singing psalms in American Presbyterian worship. The Trinity Hymnal of 1961 included 41 psalms and psalm portions, representing a restoration of psalmody not seen in the United States since the Civil War. The Trinity Psalter of 1994 made it possible to sing all 150 psalms in OPC and PCA circles. Finally, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal of 2018, a joint effort of the URC and the OPC has made it much easier to learn to sing entire psalms with better tunes and an easy to use app. I think the winds of change have reversed back in the direction of more psalmody when I talk to Presbyterian and Reformed folks these days.
Growing up in the RP church in Scotland and in North America, I can say that I personally never stopped singing the psalms, but I have been in many non-RP churches where psalm singing was an alien territory that was hard to enter. I have served as an elder in a Presbyterian church where I had to slowly introduce the singing of psalms. It is not something that just happens automatically.
So I am glad to see psalm singing come back more broadly. I believe that this is the Lord’s doing and a cause for rejoicing, and I think in the future, when we look back on our history, we may view Princess Elizabeth’s Wedding and Psalm 23 (CRIMOND) as a turning point for American Presbyterian worship.
Fittingly, the Queen’s funeral was overflowing with psalmody. Choral psalm settings were chosen for her procession to lying in state (Psalm 139, O “Lord, you have searched me and known me,” O’Donnell), for her committal service (Psalm 121, “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills,” Walford Davies), and for her funeral (Psalm 42, “Like as a hart,” Weir, which was a newly commissioned setting, and Psalm 34, “O taste and see,” Vaughan Williams).
Finally, two psalms were specially chosen to be sung at the Queen’s funeral service at Westminster Abbey. They were Psalm 23 (CRIMOND) and the Queen’s favorite hymn, “Praise My Soul, The King of Heaven,” a portion of Psalm 103.
God has used the Queen to remind and encourage the church to sing the psalms, and for that I give thanks.
©Donald Keddie. All Rights Reserved.
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