Summary: God’s people sing psalms and hymns of praise.
by Tony Grant
Some History of Psalmody
Psalmody is the singing of the biblical psalms in the worship service. Hymnody is the singing of extrabiblical, poetic, and musical compositions in worship.
The singing of the psalms is a three thousand-year-old tradition going back to Solomon’s temple, and, in one form or another, the church has always sung the Psalms. This tradition was recovered especially during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
John Calvin and his followers in Geneva held a strict view of what was acceptable in worship, and limited their music to the biblical psalms, New Testament hymns and a few other portions of Scripture. The Calvinist emphasis on the authority of the Word of God made it important to produce a singable psalmody that changed the words of the Bible as little as possible. The Genevan Psalter (first edition 1542) set a high standard for the metrical psalters that were to follow in the Reformed churches of Holland, England and Scotland. A Psalter is a collection of psalms, a book of psalms, that have been altered, for better or for worse, so that they are singable. Many of the tunes used in later editions of the Genevan Psalter were composed by Louis Bourgeois. For example, #544 in The Hymnbook is the “Doxology.” The hymn tune is "Old Hundredth." The author is Louis Bourgeois. This tune is from a later edition of the Psalter—1551, so we have already sung a psalm this morning, from the Genevan Psalter.
John Knox was a student of John Calvin in Geneva. Knox went back to Scotland and founded what we now call Presbyterianism. Thus, all Presbyterian churches have a Scottish background. Knox being a good reformer insisted on Psalm singing in church.
When Presbyterians came to America, they were all Psalm singers. When three Associate Presbyteries and a Reformed Presbytery joined in 1782 to form the Associate Reformed Church, that church sang from a Psalter.
In 1822, when the Associate Reformed Synod of the South separated from the Associate Reformed Church and went its own way, it reaffirmed the practice of exclusive psalmody. The Synod of the South would eventually change its name to The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, but it did not immediately change its position on Psalm singing. Robert Lathan writes that in 1871 the Synod adopted the following statement:
It is the will of God, that the sacred songs contained in the Book of Psalms be sung in His worship, both public and private, to the end of the world; and the rich variety and perfect purity of their matter, the blessing of God upon them in every age, and the edification of the church thence arising, set the propriety of singing them in a convincing light; nor shall any human composures be sung in any of the Associate Reformed churches.
[Robert Lathan, History of the Associate Reformed Synod of the South, (Published in Harrisburg PA for the author, 1882, Reprinted as Volume 1 of the "Set of Six" for the ARP Bicentennial Celebration, 1982) p416.]
This regulation not only maintains that the Psalms should be sung in church, but forbids the use of “human composures.” By the way, I should note that Lathan was the second pastor of this church, which was known in those days as the Yorkville Associate Reformed Church.
Lowry Ware and James W. Gettys note that ARPs “proudly called themselves ‘the psalm singing Presbyterians.’ There were serious suggestions that the denomination adopt this as its formal name as late as the 1880’s.” [Lowry Ware and James W. Gettys, The Second Century: A History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterians 1882-1982. (Published as Volume 3 of the "Set of Six" for the ARP Bicentennial Celebration, 1982) p61]
But exclusive psalmody was always a controversial position. ARP’s were always trying to explain to the world why they held such a peculiar stance. “Rev. R. F. Bradley of Troy, S. C. founded an eight page monthly called The Psalm Singer which began in 1885.” [Ibid 61]. His declared intention was to furnish arguments and reasons for Psalm singing.
Understand that these ARPs were not endorsing any particular version of the psalms or any particular psalter. But in the Shorter Catechism they read that the Second Commandment forbade "the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word." To their mind, when a congregation sang “human composures,” they were singing in a way “not appointed in his word.” They would say that “if God wanted us to sing it, he would have put it in the Bible.” Moreover, they would say that the hymn books prepared by various denominations are all sectarian. They all promote their particular dogmas, and thereby perpetuate division of the church. The Book of Psalms though is a common ground on which the whole church may stand