A Brief History of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter
When our forefathers arrived in Canada in the early 1950s, they noticed the absence of an English Psalter on the familiar Genevan melodies. There was discussion as to what to do. Should they use the Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC)? Or should they make their own Genevan Psalter? Although the worship services were first held in the Dutch language in which they could use the Dutch Psalter, they felt it important to develop an English one.
At the first synod (Homewood-Carman, 1954) the churches agreed that the thirty-four psalms in the CRC Psalter Hymnal that were set to Genevan tunes could be used. Further Synod decided to appoint a committee with the instruction to study the whole matter of the rhymed version of the psalms in the English language and to report to the churches and the next synod (Homewood-Carman, 1958).
The committee got to work. They published a little booklet with the thirty-four psalms. The idea, at first, was not necessarily to produce a Psalter set exclusively to Genevan tunes; rather, it was to produce a Calvinistic Psalter. Synod 1958 instructed the committee “...to compose a Psalter in the English language including, if possible, other hymns of the Scripture ... and to make use of material available in the Psalter of the CRC and other Psalters in as much as the versification is faithful and tunes answer the Church musical norms.” Synod 1962 said that the committee did not need to confine itself to Genevan tunes; however, it needed to ensure that the psalms and hymns were faithful to Scripture and that they could be understood and sung in the churches. The rhyming had to be intelligible and the music of a high quality.
In 1961, a songbook was published containing eighty-two psalms and fourteen hymns. To this was added, in 1967, a Supplement, thirty-four more psalms and nineteen hymns. Most, though not all, of the psalms were set to Genevan tunes.
Synod 1965 made some significant decisions. It instructed the committee to include in the Psalter (at this point and thereafter called the Book of Praise) hymns of other parts of Scripture and of the confessions. As to the melodies of the psalms, the Synod did not restrict the committee to Genevan tunes but said that other appropriate melodies could be used. The committee was also authorized to publish, by way of exception, two different versions of the same psalm (one on a Genevan tune, one on a different tune) if not doing this would possibly result in the psalm never being sung because of the melody.
Even though synods had said that the committee did not need to restrict itself to the Genevan melodies for the psalms, the committee did. In its report to Synod 1968, the committee said:
The ultimate aim of Deputies (i.e., “the committee”) is to present to the Churches a complete Psalter comprising all 150 Psalms on the Genevan tunes. They would like to emphasize the phrase “on the Genevan tunes.” Deputies do not anticipate any objections to the first part of this suggestion; all of us are convinced that the Churches are in need of a complete Psalter. The second part of the suggestion, however, implies that Deputies, will no longer avail themselves of the opportunity offered by the Edmonton Synod (1965), namely that they did not have to limit themselves to the Genevan tunes, but were at liberty to use different tunes so long as these served the purpose of the congregational singing, (namely) the praise of the Lord. Deputies are now of the opinion that they should not make use of this possibility. They have come to the unanimous conclusion, after many lengthy discussions, not to recommend to the Churches to add another one to the many existing Psalters, which are composed of a number of tunes well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world together with beloved Genevan tunes.
If this were the result of their work, Deputies would consider the work previously done a waste of time and money since there are many of this type of Psalter available in our country. Instead, Deputies would like to suggest that the Churches once and for all forsake this concept of an eclectic Psalter and proceed to the completion of a Genevan Psalter. If our Churches achieved this – and Deputies are convinced that this is certainly possible within a reasonable period of time – then our Churches would not only possess a well-balanced Psalter, but would also have contributed in a unique manner to the culture of our nation, which is for the most part unfamiliar with the magnificent Genevan tunes. Deputies flatter themselves that thus they may contribute to the Psalmody of our nation. That they certainly do not aim too high may be inferred from the enthusiasm with which musicologists from many quarters have received our still incomplete Psalter. This change of policy entails of course that the non-Genevan tunes of some Psalms in the existing Book of Praise will be replaced by Genevan tunes.
This has been the track upon which the Canadian Reformed Churches have been ever since: The Psalter exclusively Genevan and the hymn section a mix of Genevan and non-Genevan.
The first complete Book of Praise was published in 1972 by order of General Synod New Westminster, 1971. It contained all 150 psalms on Genevan tunes, and sixty-two hymns.
The second complete edition of the Book of Praise was released in 1984. In this edition the hymns were arranged according to the order of the Apostles’ Creed and several changes were made to the hymn section to give a total of sixty-five.
General Synod Neerlandia, 2001 instructed the committee to begin the work of expanding the hymnary. The result was the publication of the Augment in 2007, a collection of twenty-eight hymns, nineteen of which eventually found their way into the present Book of Praise.
General Synod Smithers, 2007, directed the committee “...to initiate a thorough review of all 150 Psalms in the 1984 text of Anglo-Genevan Psalter in the Book of Praise.” This work was done in cooperation with all the churches. Using the power of the Internet, revised psalms were made available to the churches via a website as they were approved by the committee. As well, hard copies of the revisions were also presented to the churches.
The committee received much valuable feedback from the churches, which was very helpful in finalizing the committee recommendations to the churches and General Synod Burlington, 2010. This latter synod approved the Authorized Provisional Version of the Book of Praise, which the churches are all using. The definitive version will, Lord willing, be approved at the upcoming Synod Carman, 2013.
In a sense, a circle will close: the work was begun in Carman and will find a conclusion in Carman. As Canadian Reformed people and churches, we may be very thankful to the visionaries of the first synods. It is remarkable that a far-flung federation of Dutch immigrant churches had the dream of producing an English Calvinistic Psalter. The dream resulted in something unique to the world: the Book of Praise, the only English songbook that contains the complete collection of all the tunes used in the first Genevan Psalter of 1562. On this fortieth anniversary, it is worth noting that the Book of Praise is truly catholic since Reformed churches throughout the world sing the Genevan Psalms in their own languages.
May God continue to be praised by his people as we sing from the Book of Praise.