Psalters!

When I began to become Reformed (c. 1980–81), the Reformed churches I knew were hymn-singing congregations. Typically, they used the blue Trinity Hymnal (1961), published by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (and later by Great Commission Publications). There are Psalms (for singing and reciting) in the blue Trinity Hymnal, of course, but they were not gathered in one place for singing. In this respect, the Trinity Hymnal was truly a hymnal rather than a Psalter-Hymnal. The red Trinity Hymnal (1990) was an improvement in certain respects, but it remained deficient in that it also did not collect the Psalms in one place for singing. Again, considering the history of Reformed worship, the decision not to gather God’s songbook together for use in public worship was odd. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches were Psalm-singing churches from the beginning. We translated the Psalms into the language of the people and set them to tunes for use in public worship. For at least 150 years, Psalms were virtually the only thing sung in public worship in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

Over the years, however, I came to understand that history and the principle behind our original practice. Finding a Psalter to use, however, was not always easy. I first came into sustained contact with Psalm singing in the Escondido Christian Reformed church, and then again in my congregation in Kansas City, when a member graciously re-bound and donated a set of blue Psalter-Hymnals (1959/1976). Singing Psalms in worship is one thing, but planning a service and choosing Psalms to sing was a somewhat different experience. Doing so, I became quite fond of the Psalter-Hymnal right away. It was a great improvement over the Trinity Hymnal. It contains settings of the 150 Psalms, many of which are quite good and faithful to the text. Nevertheless, some of the settings were not terribly appropriate to the Psalm, and too many of the Psalms are loosely paraphrased. For those reasons and others, the United Reformed Churches in North America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have cooperated in publishing the Trinity Psalter-Hymnal (2018).

Some time back, a group of students asked if there were any contemporary Psalters. They had been reading on the history of Reformed worship and wondered what one would do if one took up the historic Reformed practice of Psalm singing in worship. I took them to my office and began pulling psalters off the shelf. It was quite encouraging to the students and to me to see how many options there are for folk who want to sing the Psalms. I had not gathered them all together before (and even still, there are some not represented here).

Among them are the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise, which was revised in 2014. It contains the Anglo-Genevan Psalter (with other canonical and non-canonical songs). I include it because it is a great way to access the Genevan tunes (some of which still work quite well) and settings of the Psalms. The second is the Psalms of David in Meter (1650), also known as The 1650 Scottish Psalter. It is a split-leaf Psalter so that tunes and Psalms can be mixed and matched. There are smaller editions of this work too. The 1912 Psalter is the collection of metrical Psalms published by the old United Presbyterian Church and used by the Christian Reformed Church until the publication of its first Psalter-Hymnal in 1934. The Reformed Presbyterian Church has published two psalters in recent decades, The Book of Psalms for Singing (1998) and more recently The Book of Psalms for Worship (2021). Both are skillfully and carefully done. I commend them for your use. The Free Church of Scotland has produced a new Psalter, Sing Psalms (2003). Like the 1650 Psalter, it is split-leaf, but it contains updated tunes and settings (and, I suppose) translations of the Psalms. I have had the opportunity to use some of the settings and they are very well done. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has published The ARP Psalter with Bible Songs (2011, reprinted in 2022). Crown and Covenant has a wonderful resource where you can listen to all 150 psalms in four psalters (The Book of Psalms for Worship, The Book of Psalms for Singing, APR Psalter with Bible Songs, and the Trinity Psalter), and even isolate which part you want emphasized for learning. For a small subscription fee, you can also view full sheet music and access choir audio.

That we have this abundance of Psalters is a wonderful thing. My students were thrilled to see that they exist—that they are not mere history or theory—and that they can be put to use in the corporate worship of God. I am encouraged, and I hope you are also. I hope that you are motivated to participate in the recovery of the biblical and historic Christian practice of singing God’s Word.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2013 and has been updated with recent resources.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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29 comments

  1. Have you ever encountered Rowland Ward’s Complete Book of Psalms for Singing with Study Notes?
    Sorry I have no idea how you could get a copy apart from suggesting you contact Rowland.

  2. My wife and I alternate between 1650 Scottish Psalter, Book of Psalms for Worship, and the red Trinity Psalter. We have, however, found the red TP to be on occasion a less faithful rendering. On that point, I find it challenging to sing most of the 1912 psalter in worship, which are often the psalm selections in our Green Hymnals. I am hopeful this will change with the joint efforts of the URC-OPC, but assume it will be difficult for most smaller churchers in my denom to purchase them.

  3. The Book of Psalms for Worship is offered by Crown & Covenant as an app on iPhone and Android, complete with musical accompaniment.

  4. The Reformed Church of New Zealand has an excellent site. Not only is there an eclectic selection from various sources, but powerpoints and PDFs and using the sebelius plugin the music is available to listen to for all the parts encouraging 4 part harmony:

    http://hymnal.ws/public/Psalms.htm

  5. I love singing the Psalms! I have two psalters, each of which is pictured above. I just ordered a third. It’s called, Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship. What made this psalter seem attractive, which is different from the two I own, is its selection of musical tunes. According to one website, “It has multiple versions of each of the 150 psalms…with musical styles ranging from chant and classical hymnody to African American spirituals…”

  6. We began singing psalms on Sunday night a couple of years ago using the Trinity Psalter produced by Crown and Covenant (the one Terry Johnson worked on). Since that time we have been working through the Blue Psalter Hymnal (I actually have a blue one from Escondido URC – a gift from AC.) I have an observation that I’d like you to comment on.

    It seems that the blue Psalter Hymnal utilizes a number of tunes that came out of the 2nd Great Awakening or were influenced by that movement. I cannot explain why this is except that those who chose the tunes sought to find ones with broad appeal. Perhaps they found those tunes more singable than metrical psalms. Whatever the reason, I find myself repelled by those sorts of psalms.

    In contrast, the psalms we sing from the Trinity Hymnal published by Great Commission Publications, have older tunes. Many are from the 1912 Psalter and to my ear those tunes are more distinct and durable.

    Am I imagining this distinction or not? What are your thoughts about the tunes of the blue Psalter Hymnal?

    • Hi Dave,

      Criticizing the blue PH is risky since people are emotionally invested but I agree re revival tunes. We need more appropriate tunes, which I think the OPC/URC project is aiming to use.

  7. Oh, come on.
    You don’t mean to tell me that originally the P&R churches sang psalms predominantly, if not exclusively?
    I mean, what will you say next?
    That they didn’t have pianos and organs?
    That you believe in flying saucers?
    That Bldg. 7 fell down . . . . (never mind birth certificates.)

    OK, there’s been some real improvement and that is a cause for thankfulness.
    Still too many reformed churches don’t seem to have a clue that reformed refers not only to doctrine, but also to the worship and government of Christ’s church.
    As in everybody believes in some kind of RPW or jus divinum ch. govt. but it’s not supposed to be lasseiz faire/adiaphora if you are P&R. (IOW without the principle, the practice doesn’t usually last too long.)

    Regarding what is available, Crown & Covenant (RPCNA) lists psalters from the ARP, the Reformed Pres. Ch. N.Ireland, the Free Ch. Scotland and Australia for sale and in American money to boot.

    I have the same problem as Dave with the blue PH. Where did these revival tunes and hymns come from/what are they and the tacked on choruses doing in a reformed songbook?
    FTM while the 1912 is better, both are laid out in the fashion of hymnal, which just might be the reason why both seem to be stepping stones to full-on hymnals in most of the churches that started out using them. (If they don’t remind me a little of a Roman missalette which chops the Scripture up into little bite size and unconnected pieces.)

    On the other hand, the Can. Ref. Anglo Genevan Psalter is quite nice and laid out in the classic form of reformed psalter, but the joint effort between the URC and the CanRC broke up and the URC has now taken up with OPC on editing a song book. Any comments on that?
    Thanks.

  8. I’m with Robert, Scott – I love the online New Zealand Psalter website and hope our URCNA is taking notice. I love the ability, as the pianist, to be able to change keys easily. Not every congregation loves singing in the rafters. Although I can change kesy in my head, this is easier and so user friendly. The print is so easy to read and I can easily enlarge it for easier reading. The musical type in our current Psalter is well….sad and often difficult for less experienced pianists to read.

    You would have to be the judge of the theological content of any lyrics that have been changed, but many remain the same when I compare. Some of the bad harmonies in our hymnal have been fixed. I deeply desire for the URCNA to follow their example — because after looking at the site with the new hymnal, I see things I would have changed — esp. some of the keys chosen. The online ability lets me change that for our specific church. http://hymnal.ws/public/Psalms.htm

  9. oops — I forgot to say I agree with the revivalist tunes in our current Psalter. There are some beautiful tunes in the Trinity Psalter used by the PCA — if only the words could be fixed 🙂

  10. If you are not already aware of it, please allow me to introduce you to my own psalter project which I began nearly three decades ago: http://genevanpsalter.redeemer.ca/
    I am currently in the process of coming up with fresh, non-Genevan versifications set to my own tunes, and these will likely go into a projected book on the subject.

    Incidentally, I too grew up with the blue Trinity Hymnal, which is still a part of my personal library. Adequate for its day, but, I agree, the Psalms should have been gathered into one place, and all the Psalms should have been covered.

  11. For contemporary music, check “Sons of Korah” (band) and “Psalmen voor nu”.

    For contemporary arrangements of the Genevans, try Tim Nijenhuis (CanRC) and the Psalm Project (The Netherlands).

    The French-speaking Roman Catholics are used to “Gelineau,” a set of simple chants that allow the congregational chanting of the psalms as you find them in the Bible.

    Another way of chanting, of course, is in the Anglican style, but the organist needs to train the congregation and it doesn’t always work well.

    For churches not used to singing the psalms and to the tunes, a possible resource is “lining out” the psalm. A precentor can sing a line and the congregation repeat, etc. This means they can sing well from day one, until they get used to the tunes and no “lining out” is required.

    This is common practice still in “primitive baptist” churches and of course it was what the Puritans did (for different reasons).

  12. Your students are invited to join our psalmody fb group here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/2527615329/

    I use the “Comprehensive Psalter” published by the group that produces “The Confessional Presbyterian” journal… but I’m not sure they’re printing it anymore. 🙁
    It’s an excellent version of the 1650 Scottish, and if you can get your hands on one, I recommend it.

    I also enjoy listening to & singing along with: http://www.thepsalmssung.org/

    And despite the typical prominence of the pipe organ, I also enjoy listening to & singing along with Anglican chant. Lutherans do a kind of chanting too, but I don’t know much about it.

    Also see here: http://genevanpsalter.redeemer.ca/links.html

  13. Hi Scott,
    The Canadian Reformed Book of Praise is nearing the end of a major revision, due out in 2014. The tunes will continue to be the Genevans but most of the lyrics have been translated and versified anew. The penultimate revision can be download here in Word and/or PDF.
    http://bookofpraise.ca/
    George

  14. I too collect psalters. In addition to the most (but not all) of those pictured in this post, I have a few others, either as standalone psalters or as part of prayer books which I recommend:

    Coverdale’s Psalter, 1662 Book of Common Prayer edition (for which recordings are readily available)

    KJV, pointed for chanting in the “Brotherhood Prayer Book” (for which compete recordings are available)

    KJV, with split-leaf notation in “The Scottish Prose Psalter” (1909)

    ESV, pointed for chanting and with notation suggestions in “Reading the Psalms with Luther” (no recordings available to my knowledge)

    NKJV, pointed for chanting and with notation suggestions in “The Psalter and the Canticles of the New King James Version: Set to the Gregorian Psalm Tones in Modern Notation and Supplied with Appropriate Antiphons”

    For more resources, see my blog site, with abundant resources, which I hope to have publishing twice daily psalter selections by the start of Advent 2013: http://psalmsandcanticles.wordpress.com/

  15. I’ve used a number of different Psalters over the years, but still have a strong preference for the Scottish Psalter of 1650. Among its advantages include:

    1. At one time universally and exclusively used in Scottish (Ulster, American, etc.) Presbyterianism
    2. Produced by the Westminster Assembly and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
    3. Renowned for its accuracy
    4. Every Psalm is put to common meter (8.6.8.6), meaning that even the musically illiterate can use it, if they know the tune for “Amazing Grace”
    5. Words-only editions are cheaper than any other Psalter
    6. iPhone app is $2, Android app is free
    7. No copyrights on the lyrics

    http://1650psalter.com

  16. Scott, why not plug the current joint effort of the URC and OPC to produce a Psalter-Hymnal with a complete Psalter at the front of the volume no less?

  17. One mustn’t sacrifice formal equivalence in the interests of what we believe (sometimes mistakenly) to be dynamic equivalence, but in order to fit into metre and rhyme some of the translations are ANTI-dynamic and occasionally highly archaic (I edited the Urban Dictionary to add “kyth” as a verb and added “to the froward wight” to the Wikipedia entry on “wight”).
    It is worth considering chanting instead, as per the book of Common Prayer. The translations tend to provide better equivalents, and chanting is not that difficult to learn.
    Had the charismatics made conscience of setting whole psalms (AV), or at least logical partitions of psalms to those catchy tunes, rather than just contextless sections to tunes that were given them “by the Spirit” (In my Charismaniac days, one young lady gave us quite a good tune for Psalm 93 omitting just the last verse, because that’s all “the Spirit” gave her), I might recommend their offerings as well.

  18. I don’t think anyone has any business to be pontificating on tunes – It’s got to be a matter of taste. My taste is for classical music, but I have to admit that Christian classical composers can probably be counted almost on one hand, and as far as Reformed composers are concerned, I can’t think of one (Schumann does not appear to have shown any interest in spiritual things, and both he and Frank Martin wrote a requiem mass – well, perhaps Christopher Tye?); in any case, it has had to take second place.
    Choruses are a different matter. They don’t belong in a Psalter.
    Omissions in Psalters are a cause for concern, things like “Selah” and “The prayers of David the Son of Jesse are ended”.
    As far as musical instruments are concerned, my reading of the original Greek of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, taking word order into account (“With grace” in Colossians must refer to grace in the singing, rather than to grace in the heart, especially as we must have the latter at all times, not just when we sing. This then means that the Ephesians should be involving the heart in both their singing and their instrumental playing, rather than using the heart as the instrument to accompany heart-less singing), is that the Ephesians used musical instruments and the Colossians did not, and both are instructed in this respect to carry on as they are. The Regulative Principle, then, would seem to say “Either use musical instruments, or omit them and sing unaccompanied with added grace in the singing sufficient to compensate for their lack”.

    • It is worth noting that God’s Word is forever settled in Heaven. The Psalms are a part of God’s Word. They will, therefore, have a place in Heaven not promised to human compositions. What business, therefore, have we to omit them from our worship in favour of uninspired songs?
      On the other hand, we must distinguish between songs made out of Scripture that is inspired as Scripture but not directly as singing material, or possibly made out of necessary consequence of Scripture, and songs that are not. The former, being spiritual-pneumatikai, though not inspired-theopneustai may still be permissible in worship under the Regulative Principle.

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