Echoes from the Past *

The Psalms and Sacred Songs

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.—Colossians 3:16

W. A. Eliason

To those who seek "the old paths" (Jeremiah 6:16) the Scripture at the head of this article is significant, for from it we learn something regarding the worship of the church in the days of the apostles. Our text notonly proves that congregational singing was apart of the worship of the believers, but it givesa brief description of the hymnody of the apostolic church—that it consisted of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs."

The writer proposes to first give a brief history of Christian hymnody, in order to show how the apostle’s admonition has been followed (and disregarded); then to point out our rich legacy of songs—the inspired as well as those of human composition—and finally to offer a few practical thoughts on our text.

Hymnody of the Early Church

In the New Testament the references to singing are not numerous but they are interesting. Only from the familiar words "When they had sung an hymn" (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26) do we know that our Lord himself sang, though we would expect him to follow the custom of the Jews, who sang some of the psalms in their temple worship and at the Passover meal. In the prison at Philippi Paul and Silas "sang praises unto God" at midnight (Acts 16:25). St. James says: "Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise" (James 5:13, RSV). To the church at Corinth St. Paul writes: "When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm" (or one of the other spiritual gifts) (1 Corinthians 14:26). The psalm sung on that occasion was evidently not congregational singing, but a solo rendering of an inspired hymn, for it would not require a special gift of the spirit to sing (orr ecite) a Scripture Psalm. We realize, of course, that with the passing away of the "charismatic gifts" that kind of psalmody would cease, though such "psalms" (or some of them) may have been preserved for use in the church.

The hymnody that remained in the church is that described by the apostle in our text. As to manner, we infer that the singing was congregational and in unison. As to subject matter, it consisted of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." The "psalms" were doubtless some from that cherished heritage of the Jewish church, the Book of Psalms, mainly the inspired work of David, "the sweet singer of Israel." In the Hebrew these would be familiar to Jewish Christians, and others would likely use the Greek version of them in the Septuagint. The Greek word rendered "psalm" literally means "a striking of musical strings" (Abbott-Smith), while the original Hebrew word means praise. According to its Greek derivation the word "hymn" also denotes a song of praise (to God). The third word used by St. Paul, "song" (or ode), is a general word for any kind of song, but the apostle qualifies it by the word "spiritual," restricting the meaning to sacred song. Unlike the Psalms, which were Scripture, the "hymns and spiritual songs" were human compositions, but since these were "offered to Christ" they were germane to the new dispensation, and from the first age of the church had their rightful place in the Christian hymnody. They were needed to supplement the Psalms; for a new salvation called for "a new song."

In the Middle Ages

In the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers there are many references to singing in the church and the composing of hymns. One of the earliest of these, Clement of Alexandria, who wrote in the latter half of the second century, is thought by some to have been the author of the hymn appended to one of his writings. If true, this is possibly the oldest Christian hymn extant. The ancient Latin doxology Gloria in Excelsis, which is still in use, is ascribed to the third or fourth century. From all accounts that have come down to us, there was in those early centuries no lack of hymns and for about three centuries the common people had the right to sing them in the church service. Then the night began to set in.

The Synod of Laodicea in the year 363 decreed that (a) "Psalms composed by private men" must not be used in the church, and (b) "None but appointed singers shall sing in church." Eventually these two rules became virtually the law in both branches of the Catholic Church. Toward the end of the fourth century Ambrose (bishop of Milan) composed some hymns in Latin, which had limited use; for four centuries they were not accepted at Rome in spite of their considerable merit. The cir-cumstances that the psalms were commonly in Greek and Latin effectively barred the "laity" from singing them.

In the Reformation

When the Reformation of the sixteenth century dawned, each of the leading reformers was faced with such questions as: What about singing in the church? and, What is there for the people to sing? Each reformer solved the problem of the hymnody in his own way; for they were divided on the question.

Martin Luther was best equipped to cope with the problem, for he was both a poet and a musician. He loved the Latin psalms but he wished to give the people songs in German. Accordingly, he wrote the stirring "Eine FesteBurg" ("A Mighty Fortress") and other hymns. The Lutherans did not wait long for a serviceable hymnbook; their great leader saw to that. Luther retained the Latin psalms of the Catholic Church, but also translated some of their metrical hymns, and in addition he composed others. He gave as his authority St. Paul’s words of our text, and the practice of the early church.

John Calvin handled the matter differently, in his position as leader of the Swiss reformation at Geneva. His language and that of his followers was French, so he provided metrical versions of the psalms in French. For this undertaking he enlisted the services of the French court-poet Clement Marot, who translated most of the psalms for Calvin’s hymnbook. Unlike Luther, Calvin used only the psalms in his book; also he banished the organ from the church. Luther liked singing in part-harmony; Calvin insisted that the singing be in unison. At that time a musician named Louis Bourgeois was living at Geneva; to him the Reformer turned for help, and Bourgeois composed most of the tunes for the Genevan Psalter of 1551. One of the melodies in that famous old hymnbook was the deservedly popular chorale tune now known as "Old Hundred," to which is sung Wm. Kethe’s metrical version of the hundredth Psalm, which he composed in the middle of the sixteenth century. In the Genevan Psalter, however, that tune was used with the 134th Psalm.

Another prominent Swiss reformer, Zwingli, dealt drastically with the problem of church hymnody; he ruled out all singing in his church at Zurich—even the singing of the psalms! Strangely enough, this able and zealous leader contended that preaching and hearing are the only proper worship, and he allowed little else than that. This attitude can only he understood as a strong reaction to Catholic practice, in which music had displaced the ministry of the Word.

Hymnody of English and Scottish Churches

In the British Isles the influence of Luther and Calvin inspired similar efforts to provide a Psalter and a hymnbook in the English language. As a result the Psalter came first, with its metrical versions which were provided with such tunes as were available, most of which would probably in our day he considered quite dull. The Genevan melodies had become popular in other European countries, but they had been composed for the French meter and they were found difficult to adapt to the English metrical psalms, which explains the little use made of them. The English Psalter was soon followed by editions of "hymns and spiritual songs," this enlargement marking a new era in English hymnody. Although this era was inaugurated amid much controversy and disruption, it brought great enrichment in the sphere of sacred song to succeeding generations of Christians, including ourselves.

The first great name appearing in the history of this movement is that of Isaac Watts, an independent minister of great talent who became prominent at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In bodily stature Dr. Watts was a small man (little over five feet), but he was a giant among the writers of sacred verse. Not satisfied with existing conditions this bold spirit called for a "new deal" in English hymnology, and offered his talents in its service. Watts thought it wrong to use only the psalms in the hymnody and he proposed a new "system of praise," which would include "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." He put the matter to a test; his own published hymns found acceptance with the people, and the battle was won. It was the viewpoint of Luther versus that of Calvin. Luther’s won. Many of Dr. Watts’ hymns are still in general use, and as they are so well known it is not necessary to list them here. Among the most famous of them doubtless are "O God, our help in ages past" and "When I survey the wondrous cross."

Isaac Watts was "the father of English hymnology," but he was the first of an illustrious group of English hymn writers of the eighteenth century. Of these the limits of this article will allow only the briefest mention, but they all made important contributions to our hymnody.

Charles Wesley was the great hymnist of the Methodist movement. He is said to have written over 6500 songs, some among the finest in our language. Some of the best loved of them are: "Love divine, all loves excelling," "Hark, the herald angels sing," and "Jesus, lover of mys oul." Of Wesley’s great talent for verse it has been said that Charles and his brother John came from a remarkable family; they were reared in the very atmosphere of poetry. It seemed to come naturally to them.

A noted contemporary of the Wesleys was August Toplady, a Calvinist minister and poet. Toplady’s best contribution to our hymnbook was his "Rock of Ages," a hymn that ranks with the most popular of all time, and has been translated into many languages. It has been said that Christians in Armenia went down singing this inspiring hymn when they were slaughtered by the Turks. There is food for thought in the fact that though Charles Wesley and Toplady were poles apart on the doctrine of election (and even engaged in controversy over it), this did not prevent these sincere men from using their great talent for the blessing of all Christians everywhere.

Two other hymn writers of that period must be noticed in even such a brief sketch as this. William Cowper and John Newton together produced the "Olney Hymns," among which were some gems, such as Cowper’s "There is a fountain" and Newton’s "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds."

Brought to the New World

When the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth in 1620 they brought with them the best of English hymnody as it was at that early period. Hymns have always given solace and strength to the persecuted and these Puritans were a singing people, as described by Felicia Hemans in her well-known poem: "Not as the flying come In silence and in fear:— They shook the depths of the desert gloom With their hymns of lofty cheer."

What were their hymns? What hymnbook did the Pilgrims use? Certainly not our hymnal, for this was fifty years before Isaac Watts was born! We cannot doubt that the hymns used were the versified psalms in the Sternhold and Hopkins version, which was used in England atthat time. This, then, was the foundation of Christian hymnody in America, which here too, as elsewhere, was enlarged in after years by the addition of "hymns and spiritual songs," though not without controversy and opposition particularly from those who held to the practice of Calvin.

Our Hymnbook

Christians of our day have indeed a rich legacy in their hymnbook. The typical hymnal contains a cross section of the best in sacred verse that sanctified and talented men have written—from Isaac Watts down—and even earlier, for the familiar "Doxology" is ascribed to Thomas Ken who died in 1711.

Our hymnbook is the work of many men—and of many women too. Though in the Lord’s arrangement women have been shut out from some fields of service, this is certainly not true of Christian hymnology for so many of our most popular and spiritual hymns are the work of talented women. Only a few can be mentioned here: Adelaide Pollard’s "Have Thine own way, Lord"; Elizabeth Prentiss’ "More love to Thee, O Christ"; and the many fine hymns of the blind poetess, Fanny J. Crosby, such as "Jesus, keep me near the cross," "Blessed assurance," and "Thou my everlasting portion."

Catholics as well as Protestants are represented among our hymn writers, as J. H. Newman who wrote "Lead kindly Light," and F. W. Faber to whom we owe "There’s a wideness in God’s mercy" and "Faith of our fathers"—the latter revised considerably by Protestant editors.

And finally, although the words of our hymns are most important, we realize that without the tunes we could not sing them, therefore we must give credit to those who have given us the melodies. It is evident that the development of melody has kept pace with the improvement in verse, for in our hymn tunes there are reminiscences of the "plainsong" commonly used in the medieval church service, and of the stately chorales which Luther did so much to develop —along with the more modern type of hymn tune.

Outward and Inward Song

In our text St. Paul says: "Let the Word dwell in you richly"; we ought not to be content with a smaller measure. In whatever other respects we might suffer from poverty, in the word of Christ we can be rich. Another lesson given is that our hymns can be a vehicle of instruction, as well as of admonition. To be a suitable means of instruction our hymns need to be free of error; this would seem to justify the rather common practice of revising the original text of some hymns. This practice ("hymn tinkering" some call it) has no doubt been to some extent a source of annoyance, and its ethics have been questioned. But it would seem to this writer that here the end justifies the means, and that many a fine hymn has had a wider use in the church because an objectionable word or phrase was changed.

If the Word dwells in us richly it will find spontaneous expression in song—in the meeting and in the home. God’s people are a singing people. In Ephesians 5:19 St. Paul writes: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." From these words we see that when the true Christian sings there are in reality two songs—the outward song upon his lips and the inward song in his heart. An unbeliever, if he has a fine voice, may sing a hymn beautifully but in that case the inward song, the "melody in the heart" will not be there. The least musical Christian, on the other hand, though he may sing a hymn a bit off key or have trouble following the rhythm of the tune, will, if living up to his privileges, have in his heart that melody of thanksgiving and praise to which the Lord listens.

* Reprinted from the January 1973 issue of The Herald.