Psalm Singing in Calvin and the Puritans
Following Jewish synagogue practices, the early church sang psalms. The Synod of Laodicea (AD 350) and the Council of Bracatara (AD 563) forbade the singing of non-scriptural hymns. In the Middle Ages, however, Gregorian singing allowed choirs to trump congregational singing. For nearly a millennium church choirs sang hymns, usually in Latin, with difficult tunes; congregational psalm singing dissipated and, in many places, virtually disappeared.1
The Reformation revolutionized congregational singing, particularly through the efforts of Martin Luther and John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin and the Puritans felt convicted to sing psalms in public worship and loved doing so. In this chapter, after showing how Calvin developed psalm singing, we will look at the Puritan view of psalm singing, following the outline of John Cotton's representative book on the topic:
- the duty of psalm singing,
- the content of the singing,
- the singers, and
- the manner of singing.
This chapter will conclude by presenting some spiritual benefits of psalm singing for believers today.
Calvin on Psalm singing
Calvin viewed the book of Psalms as the canonical manual of piety. In the preface to his five-volume commentary on Psalms — his largest exposition of any Bible book — Calvin writes, "There is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this exercise of piety."2Calvin's preoccupation with this book was motivated by his belief that the Psalms teach and inspire genuine piety in the following ways:
As revelation from God, psalms teach us about God. Because they are theological as well as doxological, they are our sung creed.3Psalms clearly teach our need for God. They tell us who we are and why we need God's help.4Psalms offer the divine remedy for our needs. They present Christ in His person, offices, sufferings, death, resurrection, and ascension. They announce the way of salvation, proclaiming the blessedness of justification by faith alone and the necessity of sanctification thorough the Spirit in the Word.5
Psalms demonstrate God's amazing goodness and invite us to meditate on His grace and mercy. They lead us to repentance. They teach us to fear God, trust His Word, and hope in His mercy.
Psalms show us the depth of communion we may enjoy with our covenant-keeping God. They show how the living church is God's bride, God's children, and God's flock.
Psalms provide a vehicle for communal worship. Many of the psalms use first-person plural pronouns (we, our) to indicate this communal aspect, but even those with first-person singular pronouns include all who love the Lord and are committed to Him. They motivate us to trust and praise God and to love our neighbors. They prompt reliance on God's promises, promote zeal for Him and His house, and advocate compassion for the suffering.
Psalms cover the full range of spiritual experience, including faith, unbelief, joy in God, sorrow over sin, trust in divine presence, and grief over divine desertion. As Calvin says, they are "an anatomy of all parts of the sour.''8We see our affections and spiritual maladies in the psalmists' words. Their experiences draw us to self-examination and faith by the Spirit's grace. David's psalms, especially, lead us to praise God and find rest in His sovereign purposes.9
For twenty-five years, Calvin immersed himself in Psalms as a commentator, preacher, biblical scholar, and worship leader.10
Early in his ministry, he began working on metrical versions of psalms for use in public worship. On January 16, 1537, shortly after his arrival in Geneva, Calvin asked his council to introduce psalm singing into church worship. Since there was no French palter available, Calvin recruited the talents of men such as Clement Marot (1495-1544), Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510-1560), and Theodore Beza (1519-1605) to produce the Genevan Psalter. The work took twenty-five years to complete. The first collection (1539) contained eighteen psalms, six of which Calvin put into verse. The French poet Marot, forced to flee to Geneva for political asylum in the early 1540s, arranged the rest. Calvin was eager to enlist Marot's talents, despite his worldly ambitions and anti-Reformed convictions. 11Interestingly, the eighteen psalms selected for the first edition were of a far different balance from most hymnbooks today: six were psalms of repentance, six were about judgment, three dealt with the law and righteousness, while only three were psalms of praise.12An expanded version (1542) containing thirty-five psalms came next (Marot arranged thirty, Calvin five), followed by an edition with forty-nine psalms (1543).13Calvin wrote the preface to both of those psalters, commending the practice of congregational singing. After Marot's death in 1544, by which he had set about fifty psalms to meter, Calvin encouraged Beza to put the rest of the psalms into verse after he happened to find a beautifully rhymed version of Psalm 16 on Beza's desk. Though Marot was a more careful student of the French text than Beza, Beza's Hebrew and theology were better. By the early 1560s, Beza completed his work; two years before his death, Calvin rejoiced to see the first complete edition of the Genevan Psalter.14
The Genevan Psalter offers a remarkable collection of 125 melodies written specifically for the psalms, plus two biblical canticles that remained in use: the Song of Simeon and the Decalogue. The best known of these outstanding musicians is Bourgeois — chosen by Calvin himself.15Arriving from Paris in 1545, Bourgeois became a music teacher in Geneva. He did most of his work on the Genevan Psalter in 1549 and 1550, arranging 80 of the 125 melodies, thus becoming one of the three main composers of the Genevan Psalter.16
The Genevan tunes are melodic, distinctive, and reverent.17
Sung in half and whole length notes, they clearly express Calvin's convictions that the psalms deserve their own music and that piety is best promoted when text takes priority over tune. Since music should help us receive the Word, Calvin says, it should be "weighty, dignified, majestic, and modest" — fitting attitudes for sinful creatures in the presence of God.18
This type of music promotes the sovereignty of God in worship, properly conforming a believer's inward disposition to his outward confession. It enables a believer to sing under the impulse and direction of the Holy Spirit.19Psalm singing is one of the four principle acts of church worship, Calvin believed. It is an extension of prayer and congregants' most significant vocal contribution. He thus urged his people to sing psalms in Sunday morning and afternoon services. Beginning in 1546, a printed table indicated which psalms would be sung on each occasion. Sermon texts dictated the psalms for worship. By 1562, three psalms were sung at each service.20
Calvin felt so strongly about psalm singing that early on he introduced it into his Geneva school. His goal was to enable children to sing psalms at school, church, and home so that they could help their parents learn to sing them also.21
Calvin believed that there was something unique about the Psalms. He observes,
The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here (in the Psalms) the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to (participate)...22
Calvin also believed that corporate singing subdued the fallen heart and restrained wayward affections in the way of piety. Like preaching and the sacraments, psalm singing disciplines the heart's affections in the school of faith, lifting the believer to God. It also amplifies the effect of the Word on the heart, multiplying the church's spiritual energy. "The Psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardor in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of his name," Calvin writes.23
In short, with the Spirit's guidance, psalm singing tunes believers' hearts for glory.
The Genevan Psalter was an instantaneous success. Twenty-five editions were printed in the first year, and sixty-two editions within four years of publication. By the nineteenth century, there were fourteen hundred editions in dozens of languages. The Netherlands alone produced thirty editions in less than two centuries. 24
Remaining an integral part of Reformed worship for centuries, the Genevan Psalter set the standard for successive psalm books in French, English, Dutch, German, and Hungarian. As a devotional book, it warmed the hearts of thousands, but the people who sang from it also understood that its power was not in the book or its words, but in the Spirit who impressed those words on their hearts.
The Genevan Psalter promoted piety by stimulating a spirituality of the Word. That spirituality was corporate and liturgical, breaking down the distinction between liturgy and life. The Calvinists freely sang the Psalms not only in their churches, but also in their homes and workplaces, on the streets and in the fields.[25
Psalm singing became a "means of Huguenot self-identification."26It also became a cultural emblem. As T. Hartley Hall writes, "In scriptural or metrical versions, the Psalms, together with the stately tunes to which they were early set, are clearly the heart and soul of Reformed piety."27No wonder, then, that in many parts of Europe, the term psalm singer became nearly synonymous with the title Protestant.28
The Puritans on Psalm singing
Like Calvin, the Puritans practiced psalm singing. Percy A. Scholes, a Puritan music scholar, explains: "The English Puritans, being Calvinist and not Lutheran, held to the view that the only proper worship song was that provided of God once for all in the Book of Psalms (and Biblical canticles). This was Calvin's conviction and a metrical psalm before and after the sermon was the usual practice at Geneva."29
When approximately eight hundred Protestants went into exile under Bloody Mary's reign, their churches in exile commonly used metrical psalmody in their liturgy.3053.
Beth Quitslund concludes,
For the English communities in exile, metrical psalms helped define a Protestant identity that could respond to the trauma of the Marian accession. As writings that offered great scope for penitence, consolation, and oppositional self-presentation, they were well suited for the task, and the paraphrases that Whittingham composed at Frankfurt show the language of these biblical songs framed to the times. Congregational singing itself, both psalms and in the hymns composed by the English Protestants in Germany, answered a need for communal expression that the exiles felt more keenly than they had in the religious climate of Edwardian England. This attachment to psalm-singing as a way to unite the people in godly affection did not abate, however, when Elizabeth's accession restored England's national Church to Protestantism. Many of the texts and tunes that had supported the English abroad became staple songs of the Elizabethan Church, importing the confessional ideology they nourished and the anti-Marian militancy they articulated with them.31
When the exiles who had settled in Geneva returned to England, they took the Genevan Psalter with them. By 1562, they published the first complete English metrical version of the Psalms, The Whole Booke of Psalms, which contained 150 numbers with 64 tunes in 462 pages.32
This version became known as the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, named after its two major contributors, Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins.33
Other contributors included William Kethe, John Marckant, John Pullain, Thomas Norton, William Whittingham, and Robert Wisdom.34
The Whole Booke of Psalms continued to play a major role in the life of the Elizabethan church from 1562 to 1603. Quitslund writes: "Counting only those printed in England and containing the whole text of at least the psalms, 14 editions survive from 1562 to 1572; from 1573 to 1582, 37 editions; from 1583 to 1592, 42 editions; and from 1593 to 1603, 53 editions."35
Quitslund goes on to address the question,
"Why did the largely anti-puritan Elizabethan authorities support metrical psalmody, overlook the Genevan associations of Day's book, and allow such a confessional strident volume to become so important to English worship?" Her answers include
- that the "basic theology of the English Church as a whole during the sixteenth century was very like that of Calvin's Geneva,"
- that the make-up of the Bishop's bench and the Privy Council was largely conservative in the first part of Elizabeth's reign,
- that most congregants felt some enthusiasm for the Reformed faith and viewed psalm singing as welcome "propaganda" for the still tenuous religious settlement, and
- that most people "thoroughly enjoyed singing psalms."36"The singing of these psalms became a signature of Puritanism,"37
says W. Stanford Reid. Yet since many Christian churches already engaged in considerable psalm singing, Scholes was reluctant to regard psalmody as ''a special mark of Puritanism" since Psalter use was nearly universal.38People sang psalms at city banquets, soldiers hummed them on the march, farmers whistled them in the fields, and pilgrims sang them as they sailed for new continents. Nevertheless, while psalm singing was not a uniquely Puritan practice, the Puritans developed the theology of psalmody and emphasized its lawfulness and necessity beyond other groups of Christians. That is why when Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), sympathetic to the Puritans, established the Commonwealth, only metrical psalms in their simplest forms were allowed to be sung in churches. The new leadership also abolished the liturgy and Prayer Book, dismissed choirs, and destroyed or silenced organs. 39
Let us not misunderstand the Puritans here. Their motivations were rooted in their conviction of what would later be called the regulative principle of worship — anything not expressly commanded in Scripture was forbidden in worship. This varied substantively from the Anglican view, which followed the Lutheran tradition and view of Scripture, asserting that what Scripture did not expressly forbid and tradition sustained was permissible in the church. For the Puritan mind, Anglican cathedral music was too complex, its anthems too obscure, its choirs too professional, and its entire theology of music too divorced from the principles of edification and the priesthood of all believers40
Since the Puritans and their successors, the Nonconformists, taught that every part of worship needed scriptural warrant, uninspired hymns were unacceptable. How could church leaders assume that they were capable of deciding what was appropriate for worship when God had already decided that for them in Scripture by restricting God's praise to the metrical psalms, His own handbook for singing? The Puritans' conservative views on singing in worship services were grounded in what they deemed to be non-negotiable scriptural principles. The issue at stake was not their distaste for music, but their deep conviction that Scripture must be obeyed at all costs.41
In Massachusetts Bay Colony, New England, a group of "thirty pious and learned" Puritans, principally Thomas Welde, Richard Mather, and John Eliot, worked together to produce a better psalter. Published in 1640 as the first book printed on the American continent, The Whole Booke off Psalms became known as the Bay Psalm Book.42
Is it not fascinating that the first published book in America was a faithful translation of the Hebrew psalms into English? The Bay Psalm Book eventually replaced the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter and included a preface explaining "not only the lawfulness, but also the necessity of the heavenly ordinance of singing Scripture psalms in the churches of God."43
The Bay Psalm Book used about forty common tunes in its first edition. By the 1698 edition, that number was only thirteen, indicating how the quality of singing degenerated among the New England Puritans during the last half of the seventeenth century.44
That degeneration, common to both Old and New England, was one factor that helped open the door to hymn singing in the eighteenth century.
John Cotton (1584-1652), the well known New England Puritan who may have written the preface to the Bay Psalm Book,45
wrote an important treatise in 1647, typical of Puritan thought: Singing of Psalms: A Gospel-Ordinance Or A Treatise, Wherein are handled these fore Particulars.
- Touching the Duty itself.
- Touching the Matter to be Sung
- Touching the Singers.
- Touching the Manner of Singing.46
This was "the first major work by a New Englander on psalmody and worship."47
It is one of the best sources for the study of Puritan psalmody, as it carefully addresses the main issues in psalm singing. For most of the remainder of this chapter, we will follow Cotton's four-step order.
The duty of singing Psalms
On the title page of the Bay Psalm Book, Cotton states that psalm singing is a gospel ordinance. His grandson Cotton Mather called psalm singing a "holy, delight full and profitable Ordinance in the Church or Household."48.
The Westminster Assembly divines said in their "Directory for the Public Worship of God" that it is the duty of all Christians "to praise God publicly, by singing together the congregation, and also privately in the family."49
Cotton points out that Christ sang a psalm with His disciples after "the administration of the Lords Supper" (Matthew 26:30).50
Matthew Henry remarks: "Singing of psalms is a gospel-ordinance. Christ's removing the hymn from the close of the pass-over to the close of the Lord's Supper, plainly intimates that he intended that ordinance should continue in his church, that, as it had not its birth with the ceremonial law, so it should not die with it.''51
When Cotton Mather published Accomplished Singer in 1721, his father, Increase Mather, wrote an endorsement for the book, remarking that psalm singing was "somewhat lost in many places."52
The problem was not new Cotton had already dealt with it in Singing of Psalms (1647). In the first section of this volume, Cotton specifically addresses the issue of vocal psalmody. He says there are "Anti-psalmists, who does not acknowledge any singing at all with the voice in the New Testament, but only spiritual songs of joy and comfort of the heart in the word of Christ."53
In arguing for vocal psalms, Cotton cites two classic texts on singing psalms: Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. He says that in these verses Paul exhorts us to sing not only silently in our hearts but also audibly with our voices.
Cotton further argues that lifted voices should be understandable, so that even uneducated hearers "might be edified, and say, Amen, at such giving of thanks" (1 Corinthians 14:14-15).54
Psalm singing should bless not only the singer but also the listener. Yet, edification should not be the chief aim in singing — it should be God's glory. As Cotton Mather declares, "Let a sincere View to the Honour of God (the great End of Psalmody) animate and regulate your Endeavors to attain this worthy Accomplishment. Let all be done after a godly Sort, that even by this common action you may please and glorify God."55
Because God's glory is psalmody's supreme goal, the Puritans believed that singing in worship should be robust rather than reserved, as some have caricatured their singing. While the Puritans sang out of duty, they did so with profound joy and delight in their souls. That is why Mather calls psalm singing a "delightful ordinance."
The matter to be sung
Should singing in public worship be confined to the book of Psalms? Should congregations sing the songs of Moses, Mary, Elizabeth, and other biblical saints? And should the church be allowed to sing hymns composed by spiritually gifted believers? Cotton addresses these questions in the second part of his book.
Cotton says the singing of uninspired hymns should not be allowed in public worship.56
Quoting Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, he says that when Paul exhorts or commands us to sing, he instructs us to sing "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs," which, for Cotton, are "the very Titles of the Songs of David."57
To stress his point, Cotton says that the word hymn in Matthew 26:30 is "the general title for the whole Book of Psalmes.''58
Therefore, Paul was directing us to sing not hymns or spiritual songs written by any believer, but specifically the psalms of David. In Cotton's mind, the title "Psalms or Songs of David" refers to all 150 psalms, even though David did not write all the psalms.
Other Puritans supported Cotton's interpretation of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. In commenting on Colossians 3:16, Edward Leigh argues: "As the Apostle exhorted us to singing, so he instructed what the matter of our Song should be, viz. Psalms, Hymns, and spiritual Songs. Those three are the Titles of the Songs of David, as they are delivered to us by the Holy Ghost himself."59
Similarly, Jonathan Clapham, maintaining the worth of singing David's psalms, says, "The Apostle, Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, where he commands singing of Psalms, doth clearly point us to David's Psalms, by using those, Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, which answer to the three Hebrew words, Shorim, Tehillim, Mizmorim, whereby David's Psalms were called."60
Thomas Ford, a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, also affirmed this view. He asserted in his Singing of Psalms: the duty of Christians under the New Testament. Or A vindication of that Gospel-ordinance in V sermons upon Ephesians 5. 19. Wherein are asserted and cleared 1. That 2. What 3. How 4. Why (brace) we must sing (1653):
I know nothing more probable then this, viz. That Psalms, and Hymns, and spiritual Songs, do answer to Mizmorim, Tehillim, and Shirim, which are the Hebrew names of David's Psalms. All the Psalms together are called Tehillim, i.e. Praises, or songs of praise. Mizmor and Shir are in the Titles of many Psalms, sometimes one, and sometimes the other, and sometimes both joined together, as they know well who can read the Original. Now the Apostle calling them by the same names by which the Greek Translation (which the New Testament so much follows) renders the Hebrew, is an argument that he means no other then David's Psalms.61
Ford's statement is important because it indicates that when the Westminster Confession of Faith says that "singing of psalms with grace in the heart" is a part of "the ordinary religious worship of God" (21.5), it means exclusively the book of Psalms.62
Nick Needham, however, suggests that the framers of the confession did not intend the word psalms to mean only the psalms of David. 63
If only they (the composers of the confession) had written 'David's psalms' that would be an end of the matter. But they did not write 'David's psalms' From a purely linguistic standpoint, it is therefore wholly possible and legitimate to interpret the unqualified word 'psalms' in 21.5 either as David's psalms, or as religious songs in general.64
This would thus allow for uninspired hymns.
Matthew Winzer, who understands the term psalms in the confession to refer strictly to the book of Psalms, challenges Needham's view. Winzer concludes that Needham "failed to properly represent the view of the Westminster Assembly when he claims that exclusive psalmody is the least probable historical-contextual interpretation of the reference to 'singing of psalms' in Confession 21.5"65Winzer's argument seems to hold more weight than Needham's.
Though Cotton made a strong case for the exclusive psalmody interpretation of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, he was not a strict advocate of exclusive psalmody. He stated: "Not only the Psalms of David, but any other spiritual Songs recorded in Scripture, may lawfully be sung in Christian Churches, as the song of Moses, and Asaph, Herman and Ethan, Solomon and Hezekiah, Habacuck and Zachary, Hannah and Deborah, Mary and Elizabeth, and the like."66
As for doctrinally sound uninspired, or extra-scriptural, hymns, Cotton says they should not be sung in public worship, but they may certainly be sung in "private houses."67
We grant also, that any private Christian, who hath a gift to frame a spiritual Song, may both frame it, and sing it privately, for his own private comfort, and remembrance of some special benefit, or deliverance: nor does we forbid the private use of an Instrument of Music therewithal; So that attention to the instrument, doe not divert the heart from attention to the matter of the Song.68
Cotton does not deny "that in the public thanksgivings of the Church, if the Lord should furnish any of the members of the Church with a spiritual gift to compose a Psalm upon any special occasion, he may lawfully be allowed to sing it before the Church, and the rest hearing it, and approving it, may goes along with him in Spirit, and say Amen to it."69
In a word, Cotton sanctioned singing newly composed religious songs, but only in special gatherings. He was concerned that only David's psalms and other Scripture songs be sung in worship services.70
Who must sing these divinely inspired songs? Should an individual be allowed to sing for the congregation, or should the entire congregation sing? Should men and women sing, or men only? Should unbelievers be allowed to sing with believers? Should people who are not church members be allowed to sing? Cotton addresses these kinds of questions in the third section of his book.
While solos might be appropriate in other settings, Cotton says that in public worship God wants the entire congregation to sing together. Intriguingly, Cotton explains that after partaking of the Lord's Supper, Jesus and His disciples — a sort of congregation — sang a psalm. Likewise, in the Old Testament, "Moses and the children of Israel (who were a body of people) sang a Song of Thanksgiving to the Lord" (Exodus 15:1).71
Cotton says women may sing along with men in congregational singing, citing Exodus 15:20-21, which says that Miriam and other women sang God's praises along with men. For Cotton, this passage is sufficient ground "to justifier the law-full practice of women in singing together with men."72
Cotton spends much time addressing the questions of whether believers who are not members of the local church and unbelievers are allowed to sing with believing church members in public worship. Some people in Cotton's day believed that only professing church members had the right to sing during a worship service. Cotton's response was that since psalm singing is a moral duty of all Christians, every person, whether a church member or not, is "bound to sing to the praise of God."73He says psalm singing is a "general Commandment"; thus, as the psalms themselves make clear, everyone in the world — including unbelievers — is called to lift up their voices to the Lord. Scripture is plain: "O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD, all the earth" (Psalm 96:1); "Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands" (Psalm 100:1); "Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the LORD; Selah" (Psalm 68:32)74
Not all Puritans agreed with Cotton on granting unbelievers the right to participate in congregational singing. For example, this issue surfaced in John Bunyan's Bedford meeting house. Two years after Bunyan's death, the Bedford church met and "discussed the subject and gravely decided ... that Public Singing of Psalms be practiced by the Church with a caution that none others perform it but such as can sing with grace in their Hearts according to the command of Christ."75
The Bedford congregation's conviction was not uncommon among separatist churches, which said a local church should consist only of believers; thus, in public worship, only believers should sing. But Cotton made it clear that on the basis of the general nature of the command to sing to the Lord, none is "exempted from this service."76Most Puritans agreed. However, Cotton acknowledged that "the grounds and ends of Singing ... peculiarly concern the Church and people of God and therefore they (the believers) of all others are most bound to abound in this Dutie."77While the unsaved are commanded to make melody to the Lord, the redeemed should delight in this command.
The manner of singing
In the final segment of Singing of Psalms, Cotton addresses the issue of whether it is lawful to sing psalms in meter to tunes invented by men. Using common sense, Cotton reasons that if it is "the holy will of God, that the Hebrew Scriptures should be translated into English Prose in order unto reading, then it is like sort his holy will, that the Hebrew Psalms, (which are Poems and Verses) should be translated into English Poems and Verses in order to Singing."78
Practically speaking, Cotton says a metrical psalter makes "the verses more easy for memory, and more fit for melody."79Hence, singing David's psalms in meter is not only proper but also wise.
As for tunes, Cotton says that since the Lord "hath hid from us the Hebrew Tunes, and the musical Accents wherewith the Psalms of David were wont to be sung, it must needs be that the Lord allowed us to sing them in any such grave, and solemn, and plain Tunes, as doe fitly suite the gravity of the matter, the solemnity of Gods worship, and the capacity of a plain People."80God gives us freedom to compose reverent tunes for the Psalms, so long as the rhythm and tunes are pleasing to God and edifying to His people.81We should never use this liberty to satisfy our selfish desires.
Cotton suggests that a minister read each line of a psalm before asking the congregation to sing it. Though the Bible does not require this practice, Cotton found it helpful "that the words of the Psalms be openly read before hand, line after line, or two lines together, that so they who want (lack) either books or skill to read, may know what is to be sung, and joined with the rest in the duty of singing ... and by Singing be stirred up to use holy Harmony, both with the Lord and his people."82
The Westminster divines similarly advise:
In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunable and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.
That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot 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.83
A "Puritan" Baptist exception
As Puritanism waned at the close of the seventeenth century, a Puritan-minded Baptist preacher named Benjamin Keach (1640-1707) introduced hymns, in addition to psalms and paraphrases, into the English Nonconformist churches. He began by allowing one hymn after each administration of the Lord's Supper, and then moved to one hymn per Sabbath.84Eventually he became "a pioneer of congregational hymn singing."85
In response to Isaac Marlow's A Brief Discourse Concerning Singing in the Public Worship of God in the Gospel Church (1690), which argued that hymn singing was a distraction from the plainness of Puritan worship.86
Keach wrote his first book on the subject: The Breach Repaired in God's Worship; or Singing of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, Proved to Be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ (1691). Keach argued for hymn singing based on examples from David, Solomon, and others, and its "educational value." This book, together with Keach's Spiritual Melody; containing near Three Hundred Sacred Hymns (1691), created quite a stir, even in Keach's own church, where nine people withdrew their membership. That, however, was the tip of the iceberg. Marlow responded with an appendix to his own book even before Keach's The Breach Repaired was available to the public, moving Keach to add an appendix to his own book. That sparked pamphlet war among a number of pastors, most of whom supported Keach. Despite this, Keach lost an additional twenty mem87The following year the issue of hymn singing reached the General Assembly, which censured both sides for their uncharitable reflections against their brethren; with that, the pamphlet war ceased for four years.88
In 1696, pamphlet war began again after Keach published A Feast of Fat Things; containing several Scripture Songs and Hymns. In all, Keach himself wrote nearly five hundred hymns and promoted hundreds more by publishing hymnbooks that circulated throughout the United Kingdom and North America. His work paved the way for Isaac Watts (1674-1748), often called "the father of English hymnody," whose renowned Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) dealt a serious blow to the fading Puritan convictions about Psalm singing in public worship.89For the first time in church history, manmade hymns replaced psalm singing.90
Conclusion: practical benefits of Psalm singing
Albert Bailey rightly concludes that Calvin's theological beliefs about the Psalter helped unite the Reformers and Puritans around the conviction that "only God's own Word was worthy to be used in praising Him."91Psalm singing was important to Calvin and the Puritans, however, not only because it is biblical and historical and is our theological and moral duty to God, but also because of the gracious effects it has upon those who sing. Here are some spiritual and practical benefits of psalm singing:
Psalm singing comforts the soul. It lifts up the spiritually downcast and provides spiritual riches that are Christ-centered and experiential. Cotton says psalm singing "allayed the passions of melancholy and choler, yea and scattered the furious temptations of evil spirits, 1 Samuel 16:23."92It "helped to ass(u)age enmity, and to restore friendship favor, as in Saul to David."93Increase Mather observes "that music is of great efficacy against melancholy" Mather says, "the sweetness and delightfulness of music has a natural power to (overcome) melancholy passions."94For Calvin and the Puritans, a psalter is what Robert Sanderson (1587-1662) called "the treasury of Christian comfort."95
Sanderson, Bishop of Lincoln, ejected from his professorship at Oxford and imprisoned by Parliament, found great comfort through difficult times in the psalter. Subsequently, he wrote that a psalter is fitted for all persons and all necessities; able to raise the soul from dejection by the frequent mention of God's mercies to repentant sinners: to stir up holy desire; to increase joy; to moderate sorrow; to nourish hope, and teach us patience, by waiting God's leisure; to beget a trust in the mercy, power, and providence of our Creator; and to cause a resignation of ourselves to his will: and then, and not till then, to believe ourselves happy.96Psalm singing cultivates piety. Lewis Bayly included a section on psalm singing in The Practice of Piety. He set down five rules for psalm singing:
Beware of singing divine Psalms for an ordinary recreation; as do men of impure Spirits, who sing holy Psalms, intermingled with prophane Ballads. They are Gods Word; take them not in thy mouth in vain.
- Remember to sing David’s Psalms, with David’s Spirit.
- Practice Saint Paul’s rule: I will sing with the Spirit, but I will sing with the understanding also.
- As you sing, uncover your heads, and behave yourselves in comely reverence, as in the sight of God, singing to God, in Gods own Words: but be sure that the matter makes more melody in your hearts, then the Music in your Ears: for the singing with a grace in our hearts, in that which the Lord is delighted withal...
- Thou maist, if thou thinke good, sing all the Psalms over in order: for all are most divine and comfortable. But if thou wilt choose some special Psalms, as more fit for some times, and purposes: and such, as by the oft-usage, thy people may the easilier commit to memory.[97
- Finally, psalm singing helps us glorify God, as the Reformation and post-Reformation divines tell us repeatedly. Wilhelmus á Brakel, a primary Dutch Further Reformation divine, writes: "Singing is a religious exercise by which, with the appropriate modulation of the voice, we worship, thank, and praise God."98
Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.