I was asked recently, “Why do we sing Psalms?” It’s a good question and asked often by contemporary Presbyterians who grew up in churches that did not do so. “History and tradition” was my answer.
During the Protestant Reformation, some 500 years ago, there was an intentional break from some of the Roman Catholic worship practices of that day. The Reformer John Calvin, our theological and liturgical forefather, differed from the Reformer Martin Luther in the way worship practices would be determined. Luther taught that Roman Catholic worship practices which were prohibited in scripture should be forbidden, but anything not prohibited in scripture should be allowed. Calvin was much more strict, teaching that only those things mandated by scripture should be done in corporate worship. This came to be called the “Regulative Principle.” In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church in particular, the authority of scripture was seen as preeminent and strictly followed.
John Knox, who spent time with Calvin in Geneva, used this “Regulative Principle” to write a Book of Common Order, approved by the General Assembly in 1562, which was the standard of Presbyterian practices for the next 80 years, when it was updated and replaced by the Westminster Assembly. In his book, Knox made two major points which would be unusual by today’s practices. These were: 1) Exclusive Psalmody — the doctrine that only the Psalms (from the Bible) were to be sung in corporate worship; the singing of other words was only to be done outside the corporate worship service, and 2) A Cappella Singing — the doctrine that no instruments were to be used in corporate worship other than the human voice. As scripture did not mandate singing words other than scripture, neither did it mandate the use of instruments in corporate worship, thus they were forbidden.
In addition, it was a standard practice, though not demanded by the “Regulative Principle,” that the method of singing in Presbyterian worship, was “lining out,” where a “Precentor” read or sang one line and the congregation repeated it after him. This was largely due to illiteracy and a lack of psalters, which were printed by hand. The Directory of Public Worship read: “it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.” So, congregations didn’t sing whole verses of the Psalms straight through.
Another issue was the singing of a Pastor or a Choir apart from the congregation. In worship, as well as in other areas of church life, Calvin stressed “the priesthood of all believers,” (1 Peter 2:5) according to which everyone, as a member of the body of Christ, should participate. Calvin did not advocate choir singing in worship services on the grounds that it suggests the active participation of the entire congregation was not required. He believed that Reformed and Presbyterian worship should involve the whole congregation in every element of the liturgy. Therefore, our heritage included a corporate worship with no hymns, no organ, no choir and no continuous singing! Presbyterian congregations sang the Psalms without instrumentation one line at a time.
Calvin also had thoughts about the music to which the Psalms were sung. Since the combination of music and text is a powerful one, great care should be taken to determine that both the content of the song and the nature of the accompanying music be beneficial to the soul. Calvin believed strongly that the music was “secondary” to the text. Music serves as a means whereby the words touch the human soul more effectively. He believed that there is a fine line between a proper and improper worship of God in song. Singing affects the mind and the heart, and so alters one’s knowledge, as well as one’s feelings. Therefore, the type of music which accompanies the text should be appropriate to the contemplation of God and the praise of God’s mercy. When the music is proper, it causes one’s spirit to rise and aspire to greater piety; when it is improper, music can cause the feelings to surpass the thoughts. For Calvin, when we are moved more by the singing than by what is sung, we have sinned. Therefore, the Psalms were sung to a simple meter, rather than a rhythm of complex structure. The Genevan Psalter was and continues to be, a shining example of these beliefs and practices.
Although there are still Presbyterian and Reformed denominations who carry on with the “Regulative Principle,” it is obviously a far cry from the practices of Carmel Presbyterian Church. What happened and when? First, with literacy on the upswing, around 1720 many began to advocate “continuous singing” — that is singing verses all the way through without a “precentor” although having a soloist lead and the congregation respond is still a part of our hymnal today. Second, after singing Psalms exclusively since Calvin’s day, the Church of Scotland first formally adopted hymns with extra-biblical wording in 1861 (although the thoughts were still expected to paraphrase scripture, without being overly emotional). Third, a couple years later, the Rev. Robert Lee defended instrumental music at the 1864 General Assembly. The Assembly subsequently declared that “such innovations should only be put down when they interfered with the peace of the Church and harmony of congregations.” Hence, a pipe organ was first installed at a Scottish church in 1865, marking a major shift in Presbyterian worship. Groups of people who were trained singers then began to sit in groups near the organ to lead congregational singing, marking the beginning of choirs in Reformed worship. Eventually, hymns found their way into these churches and grew to a place of prominence. Thus, the “Regulative Principle” for Presbyterian corporate worship was greatly loosened and, in some cases, abandoned altogether.
There were two primary factors in non-scriptural hymns becoming prominent in Presbyterian Churches. The first was that, as Horace Allen said, “Presbyterians can blame their departure from the psalter on the excellent hymns of Isaac Watts and the Wesleys.” 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 second was the Great Awakening which began in 1738 and introduced this English hymnody into American churches. When the stirring British pulpiteer George Whitefield made his first preaching tour of the American colonies he championed Watts’s hymns, which were more suited to his fervid style of preaching and the wildly emotional responses of the hearers, than were the metrical psalms. In the five years after Whitefield’s arrival, at least six reprints of Watts’s hymnic works appeared from American presses. Calvin’s greatest fears were coming true!
After the Civil War, the use of nonbiblical hymns in worship proliferated. The Presbyterian Hymnal, published in 1874, had hymns mixed in with the psalms. The Hymnbook of 1955, which had allusions to the Psalms in far less than half of its songs, became the official hymnal of the United Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination after the merger in 1958. Additionally, with the rise of ecumenism, many Protestant denominations began to lose their more distinctive characteristics. As people moved to new locations, they freely joined different denominations but wanted to continue the worship practices with which they were familiar. To its critics, these hymnals and other worship changes promoted non-scriptural ideas, let alone non-scriptural language. The music itself became considerably more important than the text and many songs were about the believer’s subjective experiences than they were a glorification of God. Choirs were used in worship primarily as performers, rather than as leaders of congregational singing. Scripture no longer regulated anything. A counter-movement was on the horizon.
Although liturgical renewal has happened many times in the church, perhaps the most global example of one was in the 20th century. The theological, musical and liturgical drift in the wake of evangelical revivals and the secular effects of the Enlightenment led many Protestants to turn back to history and tradition to find a basis for greater theological and liturgical worship identity, integrity, unity, stability, and beauty. Liturgical cooperation among denominations opened many Protestant eyes to reconsider the biblical, theological, and historical foundations of traditions they had largely forgotten.
In Reformed and Presbyterian churches this renewal included a restoration of many worship traditions of the early Reformation: more active participation of the whole congregation, a liturgical calendar promoting a more Christ-centered framework, the systematic reading of the whole Bible which stands at the center of the worship experience, and the praising of God in congregational singing with songs or scripture, or with strong scriptural allusions. The promotion of the Revised Common Lectionary encourages the singing of Psalms, as one is listed each week with several other scripture lessons. The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) reflects this historic recapturing by including a significant section dedicated to the music of the Psalter, as well as leaving out popular hymns of a particularly subjective nature (e.g., In the Garden).
It is unlikely that we will ever go back to the exclusive singing of Psalms without instrumentation, liturgical renewal of Presbyterianism, with its central position and normative quality of scriptural worship, allows us to keep key components of our historic identity alive. This certainly includes the singing of Psalms – which, as we’ve seen – is very Presbyterian!
Dr. James W. Thornton