Exclusive Psalmody in the Early Modern Kirk?

Posted by

On more than one occasion I've heard advocates of exclusive psalmody invoke the supposed practice of singing only the inspired psalms by the earliest generations of Scottish Reformed believers as historical precedent and support for their position. There's no question that the Reformed Kirk embraced the practice of congregational psalm-singing in worship. In this, as is many aspects of worship, the Kirk took its lead from Geneva. There is, however, a difference between singing psalms and singing only psalms in worship, and I'm not sure there's much historical support for the notion that the earliest Reformed Scots were ideologically opposed, or for that matter entirely unaccustomed, to singing uninspired songs in the corporate worship of God. In fact, somewhat ironically, Scottish Psalters from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries suggest quite the opposite.

Shortly after Scotland embraced the Reformation (1560), James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray and Regent during his nephew King James VI's infancy, commissioned David Peebles, a former Augustinian monk from St. Andrews (who eventually married and had two children) and talented composer, to set the metrical Psalms to four part harmonies and thus produce what was likely intended to be the very first distinctively Scottish Psalter. Peebles's efforts in this regard were collated by another former monk by the name of Thomas Wode; hence the Psalter resulting from Peebles's labors is generally referred to as the "Wode Psalter." It exists only in manuscript form -- or rather, forms, since Wode gathered Peebles's work into discrete "partbooks," one for each voice type (alto, tenor, etc.).

From 2008 to 2011 the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded a project based at Edinburgh University researching the Wode Psalter. Those interested can view one of Wode's partbooks, written for the second bass, at this site hosted by the University of Edinburgh. One of the intriguing features of the work is how many uninspired songs it comprises; for example, an English version of Veni Creator Spiritus, a song invoking the Holy Spirit which is most often attributed to the 9th century monk Rabanus Maurus.

The version of Veni Creator Spiritus included in the Wode Psalter was harmonized by another Scottish composer, Andrew Kemp, sometime master of the 'sang schule' in Aberdeen. Thanks to the Church Service Society we can hear what the song with all its parts was intended to sound like here. The Church Service Society has also provided us with versions of several Psalms as they were harmonized by Peebles. Listen, for example, to Psalm 19 as Peebles apparently envisioned it to be sung in worship. At the risk of offending some close friends, I have to say that this version of Psalm 19 sounds considerably more pleasing than what I've heard the few times I've had the privilege -- and it was truly a privilege -- to worship in congregations which sing the Psalms a capella. That may be due mostly to the fact that the Church Service Society obviously employed some talented singers, rather than your average congregation of sincere believers, to bring Peebles's versions of the Psalms to life. I suspect, however, that the four part harmonization also contributes considerably to the overall aesthetic appeal.

I suppose it's difficult to establish whether or not these uninspired songs included in the Wode Psalter were ever actually sung, whether in four part harmony or otherwise, by Scottish congregations of the sixteenth century. There is, however, evidence to suggest that they may have been, particularly in the form of later, published Scottish psalters which include many of the uninspired songs which originally appeared in the Wode Psalter.

So, for instance, the several Psalters published by Andro Hart, Edinburgh printer and bookseller, between 1601 and 1617 all include some version of Veni Creator Spiritus. The title of each edition of the Psalter printed by Hart makes it clear that the songs included therein were intended "to be sung in the Kirk of Scotland."

Of course, these Scottish Psalters were merely following the lead of the various editions of the Genevan Psalter printed during Calvin's lifetime when they included songs based on biblical texts beyond the Psalms (the Ten Commandments, the Song of Simeon, etc.) as well as songs based on uninspired texts, even if they do appear somewhat more liberal than the Genevan Psalter in their inclusion of the latter. The claim, then, of Wikipedia -- that online bastion of truth -- that exclusive psalmody was "the norm" in Protestant Reformed churches everywhere but in Hungary for the first two centuries following the Reformation seems dubious (and probably reflects the erstwhile editing efforts of some advocate of said position).

I've never been hugely impressed by the biblical and/or theological arguments for exclusive psalmody (though I'm certainly a fan of psalmody as such). I do, however, take very seriously the precedent of our forefathers in the Reformed faith. I'm comforted, then, to think that as I worship this Sunday and join my fellow Reformed believers in singing uninspired hymns, I'll do so in the company of those Scottish Christians who peopled the Reformed Kirk in its earliest decades.

Of course, it's unlikely that those Scottish Christians would have been especially pleased about the hymns celebrating Christmas which are likely to appear in the liturgy of our Reformed churches in the very near future....

Posted November 29, 2014 @ 10:16 AM by Aaron Denlinger
1709 What Every Christian.jpg
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.


Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2016   |   alliance@alliancenet.org   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login