James L.H. Brumm. New Brunswick: Historical Society, RCA, 1990. 77 pages; $12.00 (spiral). Available from RCA Historical Society, 21 Seminary Place, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.
James Brumm, pastor of the First Reformed Church of South River, New Jersey, has done a great service in providing this brief history of the hymnals used throughout the 360-plus-year life of the Reformed Church in America (RCA). On the one hand he writes as a historian and hymnology scholar, with many endnotes, references, and suggestions for further research. On the other hand, he writes as a pastor interested in the broader picture; embedded in the story of the hymnals is the history of the RCA and of English hymnody in America.
One part of that history can be told in the relation of psalters to hymnals. Like almost every Presbyterian and Reformed denomination in North America, the Dutch Reformed Church (later called the RCA) began by singing only the psalms, added hymns, lost its psalm-singing heritage, and recently has begun to sing psalms once again.
Brumm's first chapter, "Psalters," tells the extraordinary story of how the Dutch Genevan Psalter was first "translated" into English. Like the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) more than three hundred years later, the Dutch Reformed Church took the Dutch Genevan Psalter with them to America; but after about one hundred fifty years, the descendants of these Dutch immigrants (in both denominations) began to worship in English.
Francis Hopkinson is famous for being one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but he could better be called infamous for what he did to the Genevan Psalter. Contracted to translate the texts into English to fit the Genevan tunes, he instead stretched (by adding syllables to) the currently popular English psalm texts of Tate and Brady to fit about a dozen adapted Genevan tunes. Brumm claims that the disastrous results in the Collegiate Psalter of 1767 were directly responsible for the eclipse of the Genevan Psalter in North America for nearly the next two centuries.
Chapter 2, "The First Denominational Effort," details the RCA's adoption of the English style of psalm singing and their initial adoption of hymns in the 1789 Psalms and Hymns of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in North America. Although there were only one hundred hymns in this early songbook (and 52 of them were arranged according to the Heidelberg Catechism), more and more hymns were added in subsequent editions until few psalms remained: the 1859 edition contained "700 hymns and a vestigial psalter."
In chapters 3 and 4, Brumm describes the more complex nineteenth-century history of the RCA. The denomination first produced hymnals, then approved hymnals produced by others, until the psalter had all but disappeared from their worship and traditions; and with it, both unity and theological consistency.
The final two chapters of the book trace the denomination's twentieth-century efforts to produce songbooks in cooperation with others, until they finally took the major step of once again producing their own hymnal. Responding, along with many other denominations, both to the explosion of new hymns and the search for a deeper denominational unity and identity, the RCA produced Rejoice in the Lord in 1985. However, in choosing the renowned English hymnolo-gist Erik Routley as its editor, the RCA continued its tradition of reaching beyond its own denomination.
Brumm closes with some penetrating reflection and insights about the importance of hymnals in the life of the church, and the need for denominational effort to provide leadership in equipping the churches "to sing the Lord's song in the twenty-first century." His advice would be well taken by all churches. All RCA pastors and church libraries as well as church music students should have a copy of this fine history.