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The Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist    200 Main St., Thomaston, Maine  04861    (207) 354-8734       Sunday Services are at 8 am and 10 am

Office Hours:  Tuesday through Friday 8:30 am - 12 noon 

How Psalm Singing Became Hymn Singing 
                                                      By Dr. Anthony Antolini

            Since the beginning of the calendar year I’ve been writing a “hymnology” section for inclusion in the weekly bulletin. If you’ve been reading it you may have noticed that the vast majority of hymns we sing originated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when poets wrote texts that were intended to be sung in church as hymns. Before that time poems were written on religious texts but their authors did not expect their works to be set to music. In fact, we have a number of hymns that began as poems and were set to music centuries later.

Our choir is enriched by members who grew up in other denominations. (This is not at all unusual in an Episcopal church nowadays). Three of our singers grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church. One of them kindly loaned me his hymnal, entitled Psalter Hymnal, published by the Christian Reformed Church Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are 468 hymns in the book. Of that number, 327 of them are psalms, arranged in order of psalm number. Some psalms that are less familiar and less used have only one tune. The more familiar, such as Psalm 23, have several tunes.

At St. John’s we chant the psalms as they appear in the Book of Common Prayer. This might be an Anglican chant – a kind of four-voiced barbershop melody that covers either one verse or two verses before repeating. Or it might be a recent invention known as a simplified Anglican chant where the number of chords is fewer and a refrain is often added. Or it might be a Gregorian setting that uses what’s called a psalm tone – basically a simple unaccompanied melody without chords that is repeated for each verse of the psalm. At St. John’s we use all three of these types during the year. They make it possible to sing prose to a predictable pattern without the words having a rhyme scheme or meter.

Our hymnal also includes a large number of psalms that we think of as hymns but are a separate category in the Psalter Hymnal. These are psalms that have been rewritten as poetry.  They have meter and rhyme. 

Let’s take one of the most familiar psalms – the 23rd:  In prose it begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” In the Hymnal 1982 we can find four different hymns that set this text: #645 and #646 “The King of love my shepherd is” and #663 “The Lord my God my shepherd is” and #664 “My Shepherd will supply my need.” They have rhyme and meter.

The 150 psalms that we find in the Old Testament were the “hymn book” of the ancient Jewish tradition. Scholars have devoted a great deal of research to the actual method of singing these texts and we are still far from knowing for certain what they must have sounded like. But we do know that instruments were used for accompaniment. Some of the psalms even mention these. Psalm 150 proclaims “Praise him with the blast of the ram’s horn; / praise him with lyre and harp. / Praise him with timbrel and dance; / praise him with strings and pipe. / Praise him with resounding cymbals; praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.” In the Psalter Hymnal these lines become “Praise Him with the trumpet sound, / Let Jehovah’s praise abound, / Praise Him with the psaltery, / Harp unto His majesty, / Praise Him with the pipe and timbrel; / Praise Him with stringed instruments, / Organ forth His excellence, / Praise Him with the sounding cymbal.”

The technical name for rhymed psalms is metrical psalmody. It had its beginnings in the Lutheran Reformation. Martin Luther wanted the Wittenberg congregations to sing the psalms. Early in 1523 he turned his attention to the Daily Office, simplifying and modifying it for congregational use. His first thought was that the prose psalms should be sung to the traditional plainsong psalm tones. But there must have been some difficulty in getting the congregations to sing what up until that time had been essentially monastic music.  Within months Luther had hit upon the idea of rendering the biblical prose psalms in rhymed poetry. With regular stanzas and a repeating metrical structure, the text could be sung to a melody that needed no modification to fit the words.  Together with his Wittenberg colleagues, Luther wrote a number of metrical psalms. In the first Wittenberg hymnal, a set of choral part-books issued in 1524, the so-called Chorgesangbuch of Johann Walter, there are no less than nine metrical psalms, approximately one-third of the entire hymnal. The first truly congregational book, Geistliche Lieder (Wittenberg, 1529) included such timeless settings as Ein feste Burg (A mighty fortress) [#687 & #688] which is a rhymed version of Psalm 46.

It was not long before metrical psalmody spread to other parts of Europe.  John Calvin, who had already begun his reforming work by publishing the first edition of his Institutes in 1536, was called in the following year to be the minister of the small French-speaking congregation in Strassburg. Here he encountered the hymnody and psalmody of the German-speaking congregations. For his French congregation he produced a songbook containing metrical psalms, paraphrases of Scripture, canticles, and one or two liturgical pieces entitled Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant (Strassburg, 1539). Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 and a year later issued his Genevan liturgy: La forme des prières et chants ecclésiastiques (Geneva, 1542). Calvin’s objective was the complete Biblical Psalter rendered into rhyme and meter. His priority was theological accuracy, not poetic quality. By 1562 all 150 psalms had been set to music.

This European religious environment influenced the rise and development of English metrical psalmody.  In England Lutheran psalms were translated from German into English in the mid-1530’s during the reign of Henry VIII.  Much of this work was done by Miles Coverdale who published both texts and tunes as Goostly psalmes and spirituall songes (London, ca. 1535).  Later in the reign of Henry VIII Thomas Sternhold, one of the King’s personal courtiers, began to write poetic versions of the psalms.  At the time the fashions of the French court were held in high esteem at the English court. Contacts between the two were frequent and many members of the English Court – including the two Queens, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – had spent time at the French Court.  The poet of the French Court was Clement Marot, who, between 1532 and 1543, produced thirty metrical versions of the psalms.  These early French metrical psalms are reported to have been sung to popular vernacular tunes.  When this practice came to England it got the name “Ballad Metre.”

Development of a vernacular psalter on English soil came to an abrupt end with the death of Edward VI in 1553. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, who almost immediately reversed the reforms of Henry VIII and Edward VI.  The Prayer Book was prohibited, the mass reintroduced and medieval heresy laws were reenacted.  Some Reformers, such as Cranmer and Ridley, remained in England in the hope of salvaging something of the English Reformation, but they eventually perished in the flames of reaction.  Others fled to the mainland of Europe and existed in exile congregations in such places as Strassburg, Frankfurt, Basle, Zurich, Geneva and elsewhere.

Queen Mary died in 1558. She was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth. Over the next year or so the anti-Reformation legislation was repealed, the anti-papal statutes of Henry VIII reenacted, and the reforms begun under Edward VI were reintroduced. The 1552 Prayer Book, with some material from the 1549 book, was reissued in 1559. English exiles abroad began to return and English metrical psalters began to be published in London.

In Scotland, under the leadership of John Knox, who had been in exile in both Frankfurt and Geneva, the Reformation developed in a Genevan style.  The Anglo-Genevan liturgy of 1556 was reprinted in Edinburgh in 1564. It contained 87 psalms.

The more extreme Puritans found England unsympathetic to their views. For many of them, cities of the Netherlands were more amenable, especially Middleburg and Amsterdam. In the beginning of the seventeenth century a new metrical Psalter was produced for English-speaking Separatists abroad: Henry Ainsworth, The Book of Psalmes, Englished both in Prose and Metre (Amsterdam, 1612). 

Some of the Puritan Separatists in the Netherlands, together with others from England – later known as the Pilgrim Fathers – sailed to the New World on the Mayflower, arriving there in December 1620. They brought the metrical Psalter with them.  Thus the congregational singing of psalms in North America at this time was metrical psalmody. Twenty years after the landing at Plymouth Rock a new Psalter was issued. It was the first book of any kind to be published in British North America. It was called the “Bay Psalm Book” and its official title was The Whole Book of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Metre (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1640).  Over the next century the Bay Psalm Book was reprinted and widely used in New England, England and Scotland, and wherever there were independent Puritan or Separatist congregations. 

Psalms continued to be turned into poems in England. By 1696 a “New Version” of the metrical psalter was published but was soon derided for its poor poetry.  Psalm 1 reads (in our Prayer Book): “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scournful.” This was turned into the following rhyme: “Happy the Man whom ill Advice / From Virtue ne’er withdrew: / Who ne’er with Sinners stood, nor sat / Amongst the scoffing Crew.” In a few years, things were little improved but writers kept trying. Here’s the same verse from Psalm 1 in the “New Version”: “How blest is he who ne’er consents / by ill Advice to walk; / Nor stands in Sinners ways, nor sits / where Men profanely talk.”

As a young boy Isaac Watts had objected to the psalmody he was expected to sing on Sundays and received the perennial parental admonition: do not complain; do better. He ended up writing his own rhymed psalms. By 1707 he had published two collections of his work. The first edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (London, 1707) included a number of metrical psalms.  When a second edition was published the metrical psalms were left out because the author had a bigger project in mind. This confirmed the statement he had made some two years earlier in the preface to the first edition: “I should rejoice to see a good part of the Book of Psalms fitted to the Use of our Churches, and David converted to a Christian: But because I cannot persuade others to attempt this glorious work, I have suffered myself to begin it…”

Continuing with our survey of how these writers handled the first line of Psalm 1, here is Watts’s attempt: “Blest is the Man who shuns the Place / Where Sinners love to meet; / Who fears to tread their wicked Ways, / And hates the Scoffer’s Seat.” But something new had also been added. Verse 6 of the same psalm reads (in our prayer book): “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.” Watts abandons the Old Testament and turns this verse into: “Sinners in Judgment shall not stand / Amongst the Sons of Grace, / When Christ the Judge at his Right-hand / Appoints his Saints a Place.” Watts adds the following note after the psalm: “In this work I have often borrowed a Line or two from the New Testament; that the excellent and inspired Composures of the Jewish Psalmist may be brightened by the clearer discoveries of the Gospel.”

Although there was criticism of Watts for mixing Old Testament theology with the New Testament, he had started a trend that lasts to this very day. We have eight Watts metrical psalms in our own hymnal. We sing most of them regularly. They are hymns 664, 544, 680, 100, 391, 380, 50 and 429.

But the trend had been started and in the later eighteenth century new metrical versions of psalms continued to appear. In his various collections of poetry and hymns published from the 1740’s, Charles Wesley produced for emerging Methodism nearly all of the psalms in metrical form.  Evangelicals within the Church of England followed the trend and began to use freely composed hymns. But the old metrical psalms were not displaced: the hymns were considered supplements to the psalms. 

By the nineteenth century there was a steady decline in metrical psalmody on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the early 1800s, following the trend of the previous century, collections were often given the title Psalms and Hymns, meaning they were essentially metrical psalters with an appendix of hymns.  As time passed, the appendix of hymns grew larger than the corpus of metrical psalms.  The next development was for a reduction to be made in the number of metrical psalms until, around the middle of the century, the separate section of metrical psalms was eliminated altogether. Thereafter the residue of metrical psalms still in use was incorporated within the main body of the hymnal, being effectively regarded as hymns rather than psalms. This can be seen in the hymnals of most American denominations and in Episcopal hymnals since 1789.

For almost one hundred years English metrical psalmody was replaced by the tradition of English hymnody. But since the latter part of the twentieth century there has been something of a revival in the writing of new metrical versions of the psalms.  In England the Anglican Bishop of Thetford, Timothy Dudley-Smith, and the Jesuit priest James Quinn, have been writing such psalms.  In America, the distinguished Episcopal rector, F. Bland Tucker, began writing metrical psalms for his congregation in the 1950s. More recently Jeffery Rowthorn, former Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Connecticut, has written a metrical version of Psalm 98. It’s in the hymnal #394 and #395. Our Youth Choir sang it to him when he visited St. John’s several years ago. A letter of thanks from the Bishop is on the wall next to the robe closet!


Material for this column was taken from The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Raymond F. Glover, General Editor. New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1990. “English Metrical Psalmody” by Robin A. Leaver, pp 321-348.