Saturday Psalm Series: Queen Elizabeth And Psalm 23

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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    Donald Keddie (B.A. Grove City College; M.A. St. John’s College, Annapolis; M.A.T. Duke University) teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He grew up in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland and North America, but has made South Korea his home for the past two decades. He is a Ph.D. candidate (University of Dallas, IPS Politics), writing a commentary on a portion of Plutarch’s Lives.

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8 comments

  1. I have actually been told that Crimond was first the favourite tune of Her late Majesty’s mother, also Elizabeth, HM The Queen Mother, for Psalm 23; but HM the Late Queen must have given it a massive popularity boost by having it at her wedding. Of the 20th Century UK Royal Family, the two Elizabeths and the late King George VI gave the clearest testimony of faith in Christ.

    The only time I have ever heard Brother James’ Air in church is when our organist-for-the-evening’s brother, Jim S was the preacher (He preached on being in Christ and not in Adam – I’m no longer sure that the believer ceases to be in Adam when he is in Christ), and she played, during the offering, Harold Darke’s “Meditation on Brother James’ Air”. Had people become aware that “Brother James” had not been some sort of monk, but a 19th century “spiritualist” “minister” (Some people on the internet express surprise that he was able to commit the tune to paper; but he had attended the C of S College, and perhaps the Free C of S College as well, for a time, and these Colleges did, and perhaps still do include solfa in their training)?

  2. I was blessed to be saved into an RP church over 30 years ago and, being from a Catholic background, was not familiar with either psalmody or hymnody. How wonderful it was to have the opportunity to learn to sing psalms from ‘The Book of Psalms for Singing’, then the updated ‘The Book of Psalms for Worship’. When I joined the OP church in 2019 the first Sunday I worshipped there they introduced ‘The Trinity Psalter Hymnal’! Singing the psalms has blessed me again and again as God’s word readily comes to mind through the tunes from these beloved books. I pray this trend back to psalm singing will continue to grow beyond our Reformed churches.

  3. John Cotton considered Psalm singing a gospel ordinance. The Massachusetts Bay Psalter was the very first book printed in America.

    Community Baptist Church in Fargo, ND has been singing Psalms for nearly 20 years and exclusively, except the Gloria Patria, in the Lord’s Day services for much of that time.

    According to the Crown & Covenant publishers, the Baptist represent the largest purchases of their Psalters over the last several years. Who would have thought it?

  4. Crimond is the name of a small village in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. That fact, and the writers apparently being unaware of the existence of Psalm 23, led to the following slightly confused account on the BBC News website following the Queen’s funeral:
    ‘A favourite hymn
    The Lord’s My Shepherd was one of the hymns sung by the 2,000 mourners at Westminster Abbey. It was said to have been a personal favourite of the Queen, and was also sung at her wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947 at Westminster Abbey.

    The young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret had summoned the Master of Choristers to Buckingham Palace in the lead-up to the wedding and sang for him the particular version she wanted to be used.

    The hymn’s roots have been traced back to a parish in Aberdeenshire, not far from Balmoral Castle, where the Queen passed away.

    The hymn ends: “Goodness and mercy all my life shall surely follow me, and in God’s house forevermore my dwelling place shall be.””
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-62955760.amp

    • Matthew, it’s only the composer of the descant that was surprised to hear his arrangement used for Psalm 23 (Jessie Seymour Irvine, who composed the melody, and David Grant, who reharmonised it for her, had long gone to their reward), but that doesn’t mean that he was unaware of that psalm’s existence – The only thing he was unaware of was any connection of that particular psalm with that particular tune. I think his descant gives the tune a more exuberant aspect than it had been perceived to have before – I have a 1941 Free church of Scotland psalter with music (sol-fa notation, which makes reading the music less intuitive the farther it departs from the major key- Reading a dorian mode tune in sol-fa is a nightmare and reading its harmony even worse. Thankfully, lydian, mixolydian, phrygian and locrian modes don’t occur in sol-fa psalters), and in it, Crimond (The editors attributed it to David Grant and, of all people, G W Doane) is a set tune for Psalms 66:10-20, 77:1-4,119:41-48, and 133. Of these, only the last passage exudes the totally peaceful atmosphere that the tune has come to be associated with.

      • John, sorry I didn’t word my comment very well, I was meaning the writers of the BBC article. I read their article and was scratching my head wondering how “the hymn’s roots” had been “traced back to a parish in Aberdeenshire” rather, then I realised they must have looked up the name of the tune. It seemed strange to me that they didn’t mention Psalm 23, so I thought that perhaps they might not know it at all.

  5. Matthew, I didn’t quite realise where you were coming from, but I think I understand now. To traditional Book of Common Prayer Anglicanism, which may be the background of the BBC article writers, the Psalms are those prose passages from the Biblical Psalms that you find either in the BCP or the Old Testament, and when you sing them in the congregation, you do it by intoning them to chord sequences, the number of syllables on each chord determined by the “pointing” in the Psalter (everytime you read a pointing in the text, you go on to the next chord). Proper pro choirs fit the length of each syllable to what it would be if you were speaking the words, whereas amateur choirs and congregations, like the ones I was and, on some occasions, still am in, keep the lengths all syllables the same (as though we were speaking modern Greek). Sung prose items that do not come from the Old Testament Psalms are known as Canticles. More complicated musical settings of such prose are called Anthems.
    If something suitable for singing in church has rhyme and metre and is comparativiely simple to sing, it will be found in a hymnal (hymn book) and is called a hymn, whether it is a paraphrased psalm of scripture or something else. So, to your BBC authors, “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want” is a hymn, the words of which happen to be a close metrical paraphrase of a Psalm, and the tune of which is a hymn tune.

  6. If the only religious background the writers of the BBC article had was being on the fringe of the Church of England, they might well think of “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want” as being merely a hymn that might perhaps quote the Bible more closely than other hymns do. Because to an Anglican, the Psalms that one sings are prose items that you find in the Anglican Psalter that forms part of the Book of Common Prayer, and the mode of singing is chanting.

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