Should the Psalter be the Only Hymnal of the Church?

Historical aspects of the practice of Reformed worship suggested by a booklet of the same name by Iain H. Murray published by the Banner of Truth Trust, 2001.

Published in The Presbyterian Banner, December 2001 and
The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, January 2002

The title says it all. Murray’s answer is in the negative as expected from one who severely criticised the modernisation of many old hymns in Rejoice! – the 1987 hymnbook of the denomination which holds his ministerial credentials, the Presbyterian Church of Australia. However, why is Banner publishing this material? Given that Murray has been notorious for excluding controversial issues from discussion at Banner Conferences, he’s certainly changed his own practice of recent years. Further, considering that much of Murray’s last 45 years has been spent with republishing Puritan and Reformed books, his historical grasp is astonishingly lacking on this occasion.

Rather than a somewhat unedifying detailed rebuttal, I offer the following framework for a proper understanding of the historical issues, which are frequently poorly understood.

(1) The deliberate practice of Reformed churches was for the use of the materials of Scripture in praise, with the Creed and the Doxology, where used, the exceptions.

Congregational singing almost disappeared well before the 16th century, but was a important part of the Reformation. John Calvin wrote in the preface of his 1542 service book:

‘As for public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists simply of speech, the other of song Now, what Augustine says is true, namely, that no one can sing anything worthy of God which he has not received from him. Therefore, even after we have carefully searched everywhere, we shall not find better or more appropriate songs to this end than the Psalms of David, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And for this reason, when we sing them, we are assured that God puts words in our mouth, as if he himself were singing through us to exalt his glory.’

The Psalter reigned supreme in the Reformed churches worldwide, although the argument for it was not a tight exclusive psalmody position as developed later on. Murray cites John Cotton as the earliest advocate of exclusive singing of the Psalms, but he did not hold to that position. I presume Murray has not read Cotton’s book and was misled by the title: Singing of Psalmes A Gospel-Ordinance. Or A Treatise wherein Are handled these Particulars: 1. Touching the duty itself. 2. Touching the Matter to be Sung. 3. Touching the Singers. 4. Touching the Manner of Singing (London 1647).

Cotton is explicit concerning the matter to be sung:

“Wherein we hold and believe;
1. That not only the Psalmes of David, but any other spirituall Songs recorded in Scripture, may lawfully be sung in Christian Churches, as the song of Moses, and Asaph, Hemen, Ethan, SolomonHezekiah, Mary and Elizabeth, and the like.
2. We grant also, that any private Christian, who hath a gift to frame a spiritual Song, may both frame it privately, for his own private comfort, and remembrance of some special benefit, or deliverance. Nor do we forbid the private use of an Instrument of Musick therewithall: So that attention to the Instrument, does not divert the heart from attention to the matter of the Song.’ (p. 15)

(2) The Reformed churches distinguished between the public worship of the church and the activities of Christians outside those settings, so that uninspired religious songs were valued but not used in public worship.

In Scotland the Guid and Godlie Ballats (not later than 1578) included a variety of matter which was used in non-church settings. A song is attributed to Calvin, and another to the well known David Dickson ca. 1650, but it is quite wrong to use this as an argument for church use, as Murray does. Note Robert McWard, the Covenanter, in his reply to Bishop Burnet: ‘We ought to abide content with God’s institutions, and refuse a superfluous mixture of human odes with these Divine Psalms, which he hath appointed for the matter of our more solemn praises’ (The True Non-Conformist, 1671, p. 278).

To the same effect one may cite influential Dutch writers. For example, Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711), in The Christian’s Reasonable Service (1700), writes positively of uninspired hymns written by Luther and Reformed writers such as Justus Van Lodestyn, whose songbook (Utrecht 1676) he describes as ‘second to none as far as spirituality is concerned’. Yet he also states: ‘The decision of the Dutch Synods has been very correct indeed, namely, that none other but the Psalms of David are to be used in the churches.’ (Vol 4, ET 1995, pp. 34-35).

(3) The term ‘psalm’ in the 17th century (and at other times) is frequently used in a generic sense for a religious worship song inclusive of but not necessarily limited to the 150 songs of the Psalter.

In the above citation from Cotton this breadth of use is illustrated. It is also used this way in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21:5 (1646) when referring to religious worship including ‘singing of psalms with grace in the heart’.

The Westminster Assembly produced a revision of Francis Rous’ Psalter in 1645. The Westminster Version received approval from the Commons in April 1646, but it did not supplant the Sternhold & Hopkins Psalter of 1562 used in England, which included about 20 pieces additional to the Psalter itself. On 8 July 1647 the Scots commenced the process of radical revision of the Westminster Version which ended in November 1649 with the approval of what we know as the Scottish Psalter.

Meanwhile, the Confession of Faith was approved by the Assembly of the Scottish church in August 1647, and also a proposal that Zachary Boyd, who was helping with the revision of the Psalter, prepare versions of the other Scripture Songs. The Assembly that adopted the Confession believed in the Word of God in song, not exclusive singing of the Psalter.

Hence, the Westminster Assembly, the early Church of Scotland and its constitutional descendants, the Free Church of Scotland and the PCEA, are not to be regarded as maintaining the principle that the Bible requires the exclusive use of the Psalter in public worship. Other Scripture songs, and perhaps also prose parts of Scripture put into singing form, are admissible without breaching the principle of an inspired song service which is the point the churches named stand for.

(4) There was no consensus among the Reformed as to the precise meaning of the term ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

a. Some make no special comment on the terms so far as whether they were inspired songs or not (eg. John Davenant (Colossians, Latin 1627, 1630, 1639, English 1831); John Diodati (Annotations, 1642, 1643 etc.) and John Trapp (Epistles, 1647).

b. Some considered the three-fold term referred to material agreeable to Scripture teaching but not necessarily songs embedded in the text of Scripture. Those who thus allowed for new songs included the Englishmen Thomas Cartwright (On Colossians, 1612), Paul Bayne [d. 1617] (On Ephesians 1643, 5th ed. 1658), and Edward Elton (On Colossians 1612, repr. 1620, 1637). We could add the learned Scot, Robert Boyd [d. 1627] (Ephesians, Latin 1652); and the English Baptist hymnwriter, Benjamin Keach (The Breach Repaired, 1691, 2nd ed. 1700).

c. Some regarded the terms as referring to inspired material only (inclusive of the Psalter). These included Nicolas Byfield (Commentary on Colossians, 1615, repr. 1617, 1627, 1628, 1649); Jean Daille (On Colossians, French 1643, English trans. 1672); John Cotton of New England (1647, repr. 1650) and the Scottish Commentator, James Fergusson (Colossians, 1656; Ephesians, 1659). Fergusson seems to restrict the meaning to Old Testament songs.

d. Others regarded the three-fold expression as referring to the Psalter alone. Thomas Ford (1598-1674), a member of the Westminster Assembly, is of this mind. Likewise Cuthbert Sydenham (1622-54), Presbyterian minister at Newcastle, advances this view in his 48 page tract on what he terms one of ‘the two grand practical controversies of these times’ (the other was infant baptism). To the same effect is the Biblical scholar Francis Roberts (1609-75) in his Clavis Bibliorum, 3rd ed. 1665.

This mixed tradition of interpretation is a further confirmation that the statement in the Westminster Confession, a consensus document, was not designed to bind the conscience as to the precise extent of the material of praise in the worship service.

In 1673 an edition of the Scottish Psalter was published in London with a preface signed by 25 of the leading ministers of the age, including John Owen, Thomas Manton and Joseph Caryl. They state:

‘Now though spiritual songs of meer humane composure may have their use, yet our devotion is best secured where the matter of words are of immediately Divine inspiration; and to us David’s Psalms seem plainly intended by those terms which the Apostle useth, Eph 5:19, Col 3:16.’

We know Thomas Manton was not opposed to uninspired materials of praise in public worship (see his Commentary on James at 5:13), but the signers obviously stood in the line of the earlier Calvinistic Reformation. The Psalter was envisaged as the norm of praise, but commonly was not underpinned by an argument for it alone.

(5) There were periods of scruple of any singing in church at all. Prior to 1690 most published discussion related to this question and stressed the use of Scripture songs, and thus in practice the Psalter.

The scruples against singing were first raised in the 1520s by Huldreich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, and there was no singing there until 1598. In the 1640s scruple was raised in England about singing compositions in a church gathering where some might be unbelievers, or where the things sung may not be true of the singers. Also singing was treated very casually or negligently by many. There was of course little in the way of available hymns outside the Bible until the 1740s. If the Bible songs were not sung there would in effect be no sung praise at all.

John Cotton’s book (1647) has been mentioned already. Cuthbert Sydenham introduces his little work (1653) thus:
‘The next publick controversie which Satan hath raised to disturb the Churches, is about the practice of singing scripture-Psalms, on purpose to deprive the saints of the blessing of that soul-raising and heart-ravishing Ordinance, by which God is publickly and solemnly praised, and the spirits filled with the glory of God; and because your hearts may be established in every truth, and not so easily perswaded to part with such a holy Ordinance, I could not but endeavour to clear up this also‘ (A Christian sober and plain exercitation p.175).

Thomas Ford of Exeter published five sermons in 1653 with the title, Singing of Psalmes The Duty of Christians Under the New Testament. His main burden was that congregational singing was a duty, and particularly of the Psalter. He states:

‘I will not say it is unlawful to conceive and compose a Psalm upon occasion. But I say again, there is no reason that our conceived Psalms should shut out David’s how can we do better than in the words of David? It would become those who quarrell at our singing of David’s Psalmes, to give us better in the room of them, or else consider how they fulfill the law of Christ, when they neither sing those, nor any other’ (pp. 20,23).

Later developments 1700-1840

It was not until the last quarter of the 18th century that refinement of the Scriptural psalmody argument occurred under the impact of ‘Christianised’ versions of the Psalter such as those by Isaac Watts (1719) and, from the 1740s, of the Methodist hymns. In England, William Romaine, the Anglican Calvinist, battled indifferent singing and Methodist influence. His An Essay on Psalmody (1775) was in the line of the earlier work of Francis Roberts. The displacing of God-inspired songs with ‘human’ songs was especially disliked by conservatives. On the other hand, the hymns had appeal to many as more expressive of personal experience and of the nature of the Gospel, as well as often being set to a variety of fresh tunes.

Most Scottish and Irish Presbyterians only moved gradually from the Psalter. The first step was the use of versifications of Scripture passages following the publication of 67 pieces as The Scottish Paraphrases 1781. They were used in some PCEA circles in the 19th century but formally abandoned in 1947. The Rev Dr James Glasgow (1805-90), a famous Irish Presbyterian missionary to India, is a good example of someone who maintained the position of accurate versification of Scripture in public worship song. He composed some 173 paraphrases himself, most between 1870-75.

The second and more significant stage was the move from Biblical passages to ‘free’ songs, what we commonly called hymns. These spread through the British Presbyterian and Anglican churches between 1850 and 1890 with little theological reflection. Only the smaller Presbyterian groups, often remnants, maintained the older position (although hymns were used in some PCEA Sabbath-Schools in the 19th century, and they were sung before the service in Prince Edward Island).

Not infrequently the small churches refined it to the position that the Bible required singing in public worship to be restricted to the Psalter. The earliest example of this that I know of is by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the United States of North America in its Testimony of 1774, and it is moderately enough expressed. It reads:

‘Singing God’s praise is a part of public, social worship, in which the whole congregation shall join; the Book of Psalms, which are of divine inspiration, is well adapted to the state of the church and of every member in all ages, and these Psalms, to the exclusion of all imitations and uninspired compositions, are to be used in social worship.’

This is repeated word for word in the American RP Testimony of 1806, and for substance is the same in the Scottish RP Doctrinal Testimony of 1837. Yet there is no condemnation of metrical versions of prose Scripture or of other Scripture songs in these writings. The more restrictive theory had not yet come to the fore.

In this article I have limited myself to historical aspects in the main. If we want to travel from songs that are Scripture to doctrinally accurate free songs, a significant yet at times fairly fine point, let us not only get our history straight but also understand the principles of Biblical worship. Otherwise the train may go express to Sound Hymns, then stop all stations to Mime, Dance and Clowns, and ultimately end at Ichabod.