We Used to Sing Only Psalms -- What Happened?

In an attempt to answer that question we asked representatives of various denominations to sketch the history and current practices of psalm singing in their churches. The denominational material presented below is summarized or quoted from Robert Copeland (PCNA), Harry Boonstra (CRC), Norman Kansfield (RCA), Hugh McKeller (PCC), Arlo Duba (PCUSA), and John Frame (OPC and PCA).

Reformed and Presbyterian folk have always felt strongly about psalm singing—strongly enough to quarrel about it and to split churches over the issue. During the 1750s members of the only Presbyterian congregation in New York City argued continually among themselves about whether they ought to replace their Scottish Psalter with Isaac Watts' hymns. A century later other groups were still unsettled over the issue: Dutch immigrants in Holland, Michigan, separated themselves from the denomination they had joined because this group used a "collection of 800 hymns, introduced contrary to church order." "We are obliged to give you notice of our present ecclesiastical standpoint," the immigrants wrote, "namely, separating ourselves from your denomination, together with all Protestant denominations with which we have thoughtlessly become connected upon our arrival in America."

Why such strong feeling about the singing of psalms? Much of the fervor stems back to John Calvin himself. Calvin wrote: "When we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him" ("Epistle to the Reader," in The Form of Church Prayers). The Reformer also helped implement the singing of psalms by vigorously promoting the Genevan Psalter, the grandfather of most later Presbyterian and Reformed psalters. (Ironically, Calvin was not quite as consistent as some of his followers: he included a number of non-psalm items, such as the canticles and the Apostles' Creed, in his psalter.)

Calvin's position took root in most Calvinistic churches. In the Reformed churches on the continent, such as the Dutch and Hungarian Reformed Churches, the Genevan Psalter cast a long shadow that continues to have influence today. Psalm singing was equally tenacious in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, although there the Genevan tunes often gave way to English melodies.

However, exclusive psalm-singing did not go uncontested. Some denominations with Reformed and Presbyterian roots shelved the psalms altogether, at least temporarily. Others continued to sing psalms, but not exclusively; they published psalter hymnals, reflecting their new openness to singing hymns as well as psalms in church. Still others—a minority—continued in the old tradition.

The history of each church and its current practice would fill many scholarly pages and ponderous footnotes. Here we can give only a brief sketch of some churches represented in our readership.

Presbyterian Church in North America

The Presbyterian Church in North America (PCNA) has remained true to Calvin not only by singing exclusively psalms but also by banning musical accompaniment. The PCNA used the Scottish Psalter of 1650 into the nineteenth century. Since then the group has published psalter revisions at regular intervals, the most recent being The Book of Psalms for Singing, released in 1973.

At its last synod the church approved an ambitious project: "To prepare a completely new singing version of the psalms over a ten-year period. This psalter is to be based on scripturally-based hermeneutical, literary, and ex-egetical principles of translation, and musically is to be representative of the diverse nations and cultures of the world, over which Christ's lordship is to be proclaimed."

According to Copeland, the PCNA is exploring new developments as well. "In some quarters one finds a growing interest in other recent developments in psalmody—the Gelineau style, for instance, which can be sung unaccompanied and without violence to the biblical text. Many would like to see greater emphasis on music from outside the North-European psalmody/hymnody tradition— perhaps including folk music from Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe."

Christian Reformed Church

The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) assumes a median position in the spectrum of Reformed churches. Although the church has officially sung hymns since 1934, it also continues to include all 150 psalms in its Psalter Hymnal.

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).

Reformed Church in America.

The other U.S. church in the Dutch Reformed tradition, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), at one point nearly abandoned psalm singing. Although the leaders of the RCA had brought the Dutch "Genevan" Psalter to America, members of that denomination soon began clamoring for an English psalm-book. The minutes of a synod that met in October of 1787 record that "convinced of the necessity for another and better version of the Psalms of David than the congregations as yet possess in the English language… [delegates to the synod] have determined as speedily as possible to form such a new versification…"

Kansfield comments: "When one examines the Psalms of David with Hymns and Spiritual Songs, which was the end-product of this synodical action, one is immediately struck by the fact that the church was concerned with providing the texts of the psalms but not with preserving the Genevan tunes. All but a few of the psalms were presented in four-line stanzas in short metre, common metre, or long metre. In spite of this radical departure from the continental Reformed practice, the book retained settings of each of the 150 psalms and continued to do so in each succeeding psalter until 1869. In the edition of the hymnal published in that year the psalms had nearly disappeared among the 1007 hymns."

However, that's only part of the story. Psalm singing was never totally abandoned in RCA congregations. After 1847, new immigrants from the Netherlands, especially in the western part of the church, revived interest in psalm singing. Also, the RCA participated in the creation of the United Presbyterian Psalter of 1912 and The Hymnbook of 1955 (which contained a substantial number of psalms). And the denomination's latest publication, Rejoice in the Lord, contains 63 settings of 51 psalms. Kansfield sums up: "In the RCA we used to sing psalms, and we still do."

Presbyterian Church in Canada

One can trace a similar history in various Presbyterian churches: original strong adherence to the (Scottish) psalter; gradual adoption of hymns until hymn singing began to outweigh psalm singing; and recently a renewed appreciation of the psalm-singing tradition.

Professor John Scrimger of Montreal's Presbyterian College championed hymn singing in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He argued around the turn of the century that "the churches have become utterly weary of the eternal common metre, and many of them have been attracted to the hymns by the pleasing variety which they furnish in metre and music… The music provided for the Psalms has become, like the versions themselves, obsolete and out of date, representing a style which may suit the survivors from a previous generation but is wholly unadapted to hold the young."

In 1878 the Canadian Presbyterians published a hymnal to supplement psalm singing. Notes Hugh McKeller: "Profits from the Hymnal's sales were earmarked for stabilizing the Aged and Infirm Ministers' Fund, an arrangement that made its purchase palatable, even to devotees of the psalter."

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Because of the various Presbyterian secessions and mergers the history of psalm singing in U.S. Presbyterian churches appears complex (certainly to outsiders). So here we will have to simplify the history and single out the major streams—the northern and southern branches, separated at the time of the Civil War and only recently reunited into the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Until the Civil War the various Presbyterian bodies used psalms predominantly, singing hymns only now and then, especially in informal gatherings. Their songbook, Psalms and Hymns, had a clearly defined psalter section. After the Civil War the use of hymns increased greatly. In the Presbyterian Hymnal published in 1874 by the northern branch of the church, psalms were mixed in with hymns. The 1901 Psalms and Hymns of the southern church followed suit.

A third Presbyterian branch, the United Presbyterian Church of North America, retained exclusive psalm singing much longer. Its Psalter was published in 1887 and 1912, the latter edition still used by some denominations (e.g., Protestant Reformed). Its first Psalter Hymnal, published in 1927, included 295 psalm settings of all 150 psalms and 155 hymns. This Psalter Hymnal was republished several times, until the church merged with the northern branch of the Presbyterian Church and began to use The Hymnbook of 1955.

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.

However, psalm singing is not a thing of the past in Presbyterian churches. In fact Presbyterians are currently preparing to publish a new psalter. The preliminary Psalm Sampler (see review on pp. 45—46) is the first-fruits of this renewed interest in the singing of psalms within the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Separated from the northern branch of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1936, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) has always had strong interest in psalm singing. According to Frame, "In the 1950s the church carried out a study of exclusive psalmody at the General Assembly level but did not accept that position (despite its vigorous defense by Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary), though some congregations in the denomination to this day sing only psalm versions in worship."

The OPC is currently involved (with the Presbyterian Church in America) in the revision of the Trinity Hymnal. "The OPC General Assembly in 1985 requested the revision committee to include all 150 psalms in the revised edition of the Trinity Hymnal, but the committee replied in 1986 that fulfilling this request would create too drastic a change in the concept of the hymnal and that those congregations who wished could purchase psalters."

Presbyterian Church in America

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the other partner in the Trinity Hymnal revision, shows a more checkered history. Since most of its congregations came out of the southern Presbyterian tradition (the PCA separated from the southern church in 1973), the PCA has retained the various patterns in force there. In none of the number of different hymnbooks used by PCA congregations are the psalms strongly represented. However, the PCA has not been in existence long enough to have established clear patterns. If many PCA congregations decide to use the new Trinity Hymnal (which will include a larger number of psalms than previous Presbyterian hymnals have), one can anticipate an increase in psalm singing in PCA churches.

Reformed Worship 3 © March 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.