Saturday Psalm Series: Principal Place: A Pragmatic Plea For Psalmody

The Modern church has earned a dubious distinction: we live in the most psalm-less period in the history of the church.

A Quick History Of Psalmlessness

We know that the Jews sang psalms. We know that our Lord sang psalms with his disciples at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:30). Many English translations inaccurately supply the noun “hymn.” The text says, “After they had sung…”. What they sang was one of the Hallel Psalms (113–18). We know that the New Testament church sang psalms (1 Cor 14:26). The ancient post-apostolic church sang psalms with very little competition until the 4th century—claims about ancient non-canonical hymnody are easier to make than to prove—but even that development was controversial. At least one Spanish synod, the Council of Braga (AD 563), ruled that non-canonical songs were not permitted. In certain quarters, the addition of non-canonical songs was controversial. The creation of an enormous number of Gregorian Chants helped to push the singing of the Psalms toward margins of worship to some degree, but the monks continued to sing and memorize the psalms. The Protestant Reformation came about, in part, because of Luther’s lectures on the psalms, and both the Lutherans and the Reformed sang psalms. Indeed, the singing of the Psalter became identified with the Reformed churches.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, paraphrases of the psalms and then hymns pushed the psalms farther to the margins among many American ecclesiastical traditions, but even so there were pockets of resistance. The Dutch Reformed immigrants in the mid-19th century were psalm singers and they remained so for a century. They did not add hymns to their Book of Psalms until the early 1930s.

A Dubious Swap

Today, however, the singing of the Psalms, God’s inspired song book, has fallen on very hard times indeed. For most American Christians the Psalms are virtually a lost songbook. Experience tells me that it is likely that most Christians today have never sung a psalm in a public worship service. This state of affairs would shock the conscience of virtually any Christian from most traditions and most centuries before ours. It would certainly shock our Reformed and Presbyterian forebears who worked diligently to get the Psalms translated into the language of the people and set to meter so that they could be sung by the congregation. Our Huguenot brothers and sisters sang the Psalms (especially Psalm 68) on the way to the stake and the gallows. Sometimes, their Romanists torturers cut out their tongues to keep them from singing the Psalms.

It is not so for us. We have given them up without so much as a whimper, and in their place we have gems such as “O How He Loves Me,” which features the stanza,

We are His portion and He is our prize

Drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes

If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking

So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss

And my heart turns violently inside of my chest

I don’t have time to maintain these regrets

When I think about the way….

A Modest Proposal

Contemplating this state of affairs recently, it occurred to me that we might find help in an unlikely place: the church order of my federation of churches (denomination). A church order is an agreement among churches as to how they are going to do things. It has less authority than the confessions, which themselves have less authority than Scripture. Nevertheless, less does not mean none.

In article 39 we agree:

The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.

The United Reformed Churches are bound to give to the 150 Psalms the “principal place” in the singing of the churches. We allow (but do not require) the use of non-canonical hymns. This allowance goes back to the Church Order of the 1619 Synod of Dort (art. 69), which said,

In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the 12 Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon shall be sung. It is left to the option of the churches whether to use or omit the song, O God, who art our Father.

As one can read, it was the conviction of the Reformed Churches that God’s Word is to be sung in public worship services. They permitted one hymn. Their pragmatic decision to allow the nose of one steer through the fence has led to an entire herd of cattle in the front yard. Nevertheless, in both cases, the churches committed themselves to sing primarily God’s Word.

As a matter of practice, in URCNA congregations, art. 39 tends to mean that, at the end of the year, if the congregation sang more psalms than hymns, they are in compliance. That is probably not the best reading of the Church Order.

The question here is, what does it mean to say, “principal place?” What does the word principal mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, principal is an adjective (a modifier) that means, “first in order of importance; main,” as in “the country’s principal cities.” The root of our word is the Latin adj., principalis, “first,” or “chief.”

For those who adhere to the Church Order, the sense is, “the first choice in picking a song in which the congregation is going to respond to God’s Word, should be a psalm.” It has less to do with a statistical majority than it does a disposition (habitus). Our first choice in responding to God’s Word should be God’s Word. Scripture is enough. For my part, I have yet to see the advantages of singing something other than God’s Word in responding to his Word, since it is certainly sufficient for the public worship of the churches, but for the sake of this argument it is enough to say that the habit, the disposition of the churches, should be to think of the psalms before anything else.

Those with no relation to the URCNA, however, may also benefit from this discussion. In an age when most Christians and most congregations might be on the verge of practically losing the use of the Psalms in public worship, now would be a good time to reject that trend and for congregations to recommit themselves to the singing of God’s Word and especially the psalms in response to God’s Word.

For some, this means becoming more familiar with the psalms. How about reading through Psalms in an adult (Sunday School) class? Bob Godfrey’s introduction to the Psalms, Learning To Love The Psalms would be a great way to learn them.

Despite the general decline of psalmody in our time, there is some good news. In recent years we have seen the publication of several psalters, perhaps most notably the joint URCNA/OPC Psalter-Hymnal. There are lots of wonderful psalters now including the RPCNA’s The Book of Psalms For Worship. There are more psalters listed in the resources below.

What if those who plan worship services familiarized themselves with the Psalms and with one or more of the several excellent psalters? If God’s Word is sufficient for worship, the Christian faith, and the Christian life (sola Scriptura!) then what better collection of songs could there be for God’s people to sing to the same God who delivered his people through the flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan and the cross? If there is really one covenant of grace with multiple administrations, why would we not sing the songs that God, by inspiration, gave his church under types and shadows, in light of their fulfillment in Christ? How are non-canonical songs superior to God’s Word? Does any other collection of songs connect us so widely and so deeply to Christ’s people in all times and places? The answers to these rhetorical questions all lead us to the psalms.

It is late in the day. General literacy is declining. Biblical literacy is declining. Instruction in the biblical languages is declining. Psalmody also seems to be in the balance. Should we fail to make a conscious decision now to recover psalmody and even to give the Psalms the principal place in public worship, we face the very real prospect of losing one of the most wonderful gifts that God gave to his church.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Hey Dr for people who believe this but are not in a church where psalms are not prioritized in worship or have a second service. What should the congregation do? I know people who have moved across the country to be at a solid reformed church like the ones you describe. Where do such churches exist in the States? Ones that administer the Lords supper every week, has a second service, and sings only psalms. Where are these churches? I live in a state where there is no church like I just described What are your thoughts on the administration of the Lords supper also during evening service? I know your in Cali and it seams as though that there are a lot of URCNA churches there while there are none where I am. Are there URCNA churches on the west coast or anywhere really that you know that fulfill all the requirements of administration of the Lords supper every week, evening service, and singing only of psalms only. Let me know Dr. Thanks again for the blog. It’s awesome!

    • David,

      These are great questions. I’ve addressed some of them here.

      Weekly communion + psalms + two services seems to be a tall order in our day, doesn’t it? Reformation takes time. The truth is that even in the classical period of Reformed theology, piety, & practice (i.e., the 16th and 17th centuries) there weren’t many places where one could find all three. All of them sang psalms and all had two services but, e.g., few Reformed churches ever took up Calvin’s advice to have communion weekly. Today, in our area, there are PCA congregations that don’t sing Psalms or have an evening service but that do observe communion weekly and there congregations that sing Psalms and have evening services but only observe communion every other month or so. There is a congregation in Torrance, CA (about 90 min north of us) where they observe communion weekly, sing only Psalms, and have two services. Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim sings psalms (and hymns), has two services, and weekly communion. In the URCs they were the congregation that showed us all that weekly communion could be done. In Christ Reformed Santee the Psalms have the “principal place” in worship, they observe communion weekly, and they have two services. That would be true at Oceanside URC in Carlsbad, CA. I think it’s true of Christ Reformed in DC too. I don’t mean to omit others. It might be true in other places (the URC in Cincinnati, Indy Reformed, et al.) I don’t know. I know all our congregations have two services, the Psalms are supposed to have “the principal place” but I don’t know certainly whether communion is observed weekly. Still, on reflection, that there are congregations with all three is encouraging. I think this is true in some PCAs. My impression is that hymnody still dominates in OP congregations and weekly communion is relatively rare there but two services is fairly standard in the OP. The second service is largely gone from the PCA and the Psalms seem to have fallen by the wayside in most but there are exceptions. Any RPCNA congregation, of course. will be a Psalm-singing church (with no instruments!) and will almost certainly have two services. They probably won’t administer communion weekly, however.

      On balance, there reasons to be encouraged even though we all, in one way or another, have some distance to go.

    • Hey Dr thanks again for the response. Ever since coming on the blog I’m realizing more and more how much more important public worship is vs private. I’m realizing how super important it is and how much it affects the lives of Gods people. Is it crazy to think in a way in which you want to move somewhere to be at a good reformed church? Or should people stay in the best church around them and pray for these changes? I don’t know it’s just after realizing how important public worship is all you want to do is be at a great reformed church like the ones that you described. Thanks again for the comments Dr!

  2. A friend of mine, who belongs to a community church, voiced her frustration with the church’s “music committee“ and their practice of introducing new songs every service. These were your modern worship songs, songs that “appealed” to the younger generation. She bemoaned the fact that nobody knew the words, the tune was unfamiliar, and there was very little congregational singing.
    The Psalms are part of memory work for reformed school children. An invaluable resource that the children never forget.

  3. Love the article as usual. Especially the point that this is the only time in the history of the Church when Psalms are not widely sung. That is a powerful indictment against modern worship!

    My only complaint is that now I have “How He Loves Us” stuck in my head…

  4. Hi Scott,
    I am occasionally edified by your blog, so thanks for that.
    Anecdotally, my wife and I were on vacation and attended the nearest Reformed church in the area. As we entered, we were greeted by an Elder who ‘warned’ us that the service might seem unusual to us. He explained that they, though OPC, only sung Psalms in worship.
    I thanked him for the warning and assured him that we wouldn’t mind since we are Covenanters.
    The only sad note was that there were so few in worship, and so many fewer who understand the blessings the Psalms offer us.

  5. Great article and important encouragement on Psalm singing.

    You are correct that the English translation of the gospels which reads they sang a hymn is misleading. They sang psalms. However, one minor correction, it wasn’t the psalms of assent. The psalms of assent were sung by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem during the shalosh regalim ( the three pilgrimage festivals). Jesus and the disciples had already arrived in Jerusalem. The psalms they sang at the conclusion of the Last Supper were most likely the Hallel psalms (115-118).

  6. May I draw attention to a distinction that is not always explicitly made, namely between that material in Scripture that is openly strictly inspired as song, including the Psalms, the Songs of Moses, the Song to the Well, the Song of Deborah and Barak, other Davidic songs (though they may be all psalm extracts), the Song of Solomon, The Song of the Vineyard, the Prayer of Habakkuk, and the Song of the Redeemed in Revelation; and that which is inspired, but not as song (including Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis, which I think got adopted for the quality of the Greek – The various doxologies we find in Scripture would seem to me to be at least as suitable for sung worship)? I believe Psalm 119:54 sanctions our making songs out of the latter, which would sanction also our putting into song suitable necessary consequences of Scripture. But those congregations that sing only a selection from the psalms cannot be accused of disobeying Scripture.

  7. Great article and important encouragement on Psalm singing.

    You are correct that the English translation of the gospels which reads they sang a hymn is misleading. They sang psalms. However, one minor correction, it wasn’t the psalms of assent. The psalms of assent were sung by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem during the shalosh regalim ( the three pilgrimage festivals). Jesus and the disciples had already arrived in Jerusalem. The psalms they sang at the conclusion of the Last Supper were most likely the Hallel psalms (113-118

  8. Dr in Ephesians 5 it talks about psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Do hymns and spiritual songs also mean the singing of psalms?

  9. As a composer and lover of the psalms, the wonderful thing about the psalms is that you can thoughtfully and reverently set music to them no matter what point in history the church is in. My son (who is 3) and I recently set a melody to a psalm – it was simple, but very effective. Because of that, my son has memorized parts of that psalm simply because we made up a (reverent) melody, recorded it, and now, play it back and sing it together. It seems the practice of singing the psalms (even if they are different melodies than what are printed in psalters) are a great way to memorize and learn to love them as a family.

    I do have one question, however. Since we do not have a reference for what the psalms sounded like in their original musical practice, is singing them with a different melody or with harmonic a violation of some kind? I guess I have to ask it a different way:

    If the words of the psalms were inspired, was the music not as well? How can we reconcile our own musical practices of setting the psalms if they’re very different in musical composition from when they were penned?

    Thanks for your help and all that you do!

    • Oooph – I meant to type “harmonic content” instead of just “harmonic.” Sorry about that.

  10. We have a majority of Psalms, accompanied by piano, and two services at Indy Reformed Church (meeting in Westfield, Indiana). Lots of fellowship gatherings, as well.

  11. The new Trinity Psalter Hymnal (URC/OPC) is a vast improvement over the older version and certainly deserves wide acceptance. I appreciate your article but lament one oversight. Reformed immigrants to Canada in the 1950s found available psalters to be lacking and identified a number of reasons before a decision was made to translate the Genevan Psalter (Calvin’s project) into English, using the same tunes. It became known as the Book of Praise. The Genevan Psalter has been translated into numerous languages, including Urdi, Korean and Portuguese (still ongoing).

    • Albert,

      I’m a big fan of the Book of Praise. I’ve promoted it more than once on the HB. I didn’t list it because it is heavily populated by Genevan tunes, which I love but, which, for the beginner, are not that inviting. I think of the Genevan Psalter as a sort of second blessing. My main job in this essay is to persuade my own federation to sing more Psalms.

Comments are closed.