On the Decline of “Unmodified” Psalmody in the English Tradition: A Question of Hermeneutics and Ecclesiastical Mission


Artistic Theologian 9 (2021): 61–80

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Mark A. Snoeberger, PhD, is professor of systematic theology and apologetics at the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI. He first presented this paper on November 20, 2020, at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, originally scheduled in Providence, RI, but presented virtually due to the COVID pandemic.

Examining the indices of historical English songbooks used for worship is an enlightening exercise. One is overwhelmed, especially in the oldest of these, by (1) the preference for (and sometimes the exclusivity of) the psalms and other inspired material and (2) the prominence of the themes of lament and the crucible of experience in both inspired and non-inspired hymnody. While the Christian gospel is not absent in older hymnals, neither is it dominant: (3) the theme of divine providence takes pride of place and evangelical truth is to be inferred. This article explores historical reasons why these features have faded from English hymnody. Its conclusion is that the decline of unmodified psalms (and with them the themes of lament and providence) and the corresponding uptick in evangelical psalmody, original hymnody, and more buoyant lyrical themes stem from troubling hermeneutical and missional developments with respect to gathered worship.

That the Hebrew psalms are mandatory of Christian worship cannot be credibly denied (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). The church cannot obey God without singing them.[2] Nor do we find any express reason in the Scriptures to exclude any of the Hebrew psalms—they are all appropriate to Christian worship. It is true, of course, that affections of longing engendered by certain forward-looking psalms may evoke today affections of relief and delight in their fulfillment; psalms of confidence may become more emphatic as elements of faith become sight; and outmoded cultic and cultural elements in the psalms may invite analogical application (e.g., the believer finds his modern trials embodied in David’s wilderness experiences). Still, all in all, the OT psalms remain incredibly timeless as they stand written—a fact emphatically reinforced in the hymnody of early church history. The Hebrew psalms are as much the property of contemporary Christianity as they were of ancient Israel.

The reason that this is true, it would seem, is that the general experience of faith (e.g., new life, conversion, justification, sanctification, assurance, and hope for resurrection) is identical for both the OT and NT faith communities. It is true that the respective faith expressions of these two communities featured some disparity, but the essence of their faith, the object of their faith, the crucible of their faith (depravity, finiteness, persecution, etc.), and the hopeful end of their faith was the same. And for these reasons, the psalms of God’s more ancient people are of equal profit for his contemporary people.

The progress of revelation and especially Christ’s historical accomplishments suggest, perhaps, that there is abundant fodder for additional hymns in the present age—and it is possible that the NT included poetic devices to this end (Phil 2:5–11; Col 1:15–20; 1 Pet 2:21–25; etc.).[3] Some suggest further that Paul’s allowance not only for “psalms” but also for “hymns” and “spiritual songs” anticipates original hymnody, identifying two other categories of worship music.[4] The relative paucity of such hymns in the early centuries of the Church suggests, however, that caution was the order of the day: the early Church used primarily psalms in gathered worship.[5]

The Reformation and English Psalmody

After the Medieval period, in which choral music largely displaced congregational singing, the latter was revived, and with this revival, the trend (albeit uneven) toward caution. Luther, true to his normative principles, allowed and even composed original hymns; still, his creativity was tempered, and his compositions were rarely divorced entirely from inspired material.[6] John Calvin was more severe, but never properly forbade the practice of original hymn-writing, and is even credited with at least one original hymn of his own (though its provenance and purpose are much debated).[7] While the 1539 edition of the Genevan Psalter, prepared under Calvin’s direction, contained only psalms and sundry other biblical songs, later editions contained several original hymns.[8] Still, while Calvin’s name cannot be included emphatically among the exclusive psalmodists, his caution on the matter prompted many in succeeding generations of Reformed to adopt exclusive psalmody as the most defensible way to implement the regulative principle of worship and to divorce their liturgy from Rome’s. This pattern dominated continental Reformed life for nearly two centuries, and spread therefrom to England, where it took firm root especially in Puritan worship.[9]

By the 1560s, several English psalters had emerged, none more revered than the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter (1562), often called the “old psalter,” which was frequently published together with the Book of Common Prayer in a single volume. Hermeneutical strictness marked the “old psalter,” and became a defining hallmark of early seventeenth-century psalters, including, among others, the Scottish Psalter (1635) and Bay Psalm Book (1640), the latter distinguished as the first work published in the Americas. John Cotton’s preface to the latter is instructive. In it Cotton admits that the psalm settings found in the Bay Psalm Book “are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect,” but defends this shortcoming on the principle that “God’s altar needs not our polishings: for we have respected rather a plain translation, than to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrases and so have attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language, and David’s poetry into English metre.”[10]

In 1647 the Westminster Assembly approved the Directory for the Publick Worship of God to replace the Book of Common Prayer in the churches represented in that Assembly. In it, the Westminster divines offered additional parameters for the singing of psalms:

It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.

In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably 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.[11]

The Directory made no allowance for singing anything other than psalms and offered two key recommendations, viz., (1) that the music be “gravely ordered” and (2) that unfamiliar psalms be introduced to congregations by “lining them out.” Neither piece of advice was wholly embraced. Not only did the insistence on gravity of mood (which some churches read not as a call for sobriety, but as a call for morbidity) meet with resistance, but the experiment with “lining out” was often implemented poorly.

These factors proved a catalyst for discontent and reform, and in 1696 a psalter more vernacular and graceful in the ear was published by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, viz., the New Version of the Psalms of David Fitted to the Tunes Used in the Churches (sometimes called “Tate and Brady” or, more simply, the “new psalter”). But dissatisfaction with the “old psalter” ran deeper than mere style and mood. In the 1698 and 1700 reprintings of the “new psalter,” a supplement of hymns was added, the firstfruits of what Robin Leaver calls the “hymn explosion.”[12] In 1701, a supplementary volume of hymns was added even to the venerable “old psalter.”[13]

The Collapse of English Exclusive Psalmody

The trend observed in the “new psalter” and its supplement did not occur in a vacuum, and broad acceleration away from older and especially exclusive praxis of psalmody was swift. Influences toward this change were legion, but two stand out: (1) criticism of exclusive psalmody among English dissenters (Baptists and other Independents), leading to revision both in the interpretation and function of psalms in gathered worship; and (2) the rise of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world, including suspicion of formalism, fervent pietism, and evangelical missionism.

Baptist Dissent and Acceptance of Original Hymnody

The genesis of English original hymnody is almost impossible to trace. Folk hymnody extends back into the Medieval period and was often preserved orally (which is to say it was often not preserved at all). Early notables in the Modern era include George Wither (1588–1667) and George Herbert (1593–1633); neither, however, composed hymns that were used (at least in their day) for congregational singing.[14] John Austin, John Playford, and John Mason prepared hymnals in 1668, 1671, and 1683, respectively, but these were critically received and used in public worship only sparingly and regionally.[15]

A major “breakthrough” in popularizing original hymns for use by English congregations came at the hand of the Baptist minister Benjamin Keach. Keach began composing hymns as early as 1673, and slowly introduced them in his church, first conjoined with the ordinances (important matters that distinguished the Baptists from other Protestants and not discoverable in the Hebrew Psalms), and then more broadly.[16] In 1689, Keach sued for accommodation of the practice in the proceedings that resulted in the Second London Baptist Confession. The Baptist confession, which preserved verbatim large swaths of the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, expressly modified the latter’s liturgical injunction for congregations to engage strictly in “singing of psalms with grace in the heart”[17] to the broader (but still biblical) “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord.”[18]

In 1691 Keach published an extended defense of original hymnody: The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship; or, Singing of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, proved to be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ,[19] a definitive treatment that paved the way not only for the publication of Keach’s own hymnal,[20] but others as well, notably one by Richard Baxter.[21] It must be stressed that Keach continued to privilege the psalms in worship and did not engage, like Isaac Watts later would, in denigrating, rewriting, and omitting certain psalms from NT worship (many Baptists, such as John Gill, in fact, maintained the practice of exclusive psalmody); still, Keach represents a significant hole in the dike of exclusive psalmody in the English Calvinist tradition. The controversy that ensued was widespread and heated, especially within the dissenting church, but eventually beyond. Competing essays on the topic were exchanged over the next two decades,[22] and crested with a very civil Friday lecture series in Eastcheap (1708), sponsored by a mixed body of Presbyterians and Independents, that effectively conceded the fact that original hymns were not going away, and charted a course for cautiously including and regulating rather than resisting them.[23]

It was in the midst of this extended controversy, instigated significantly by Keach, that Isaac Watts’s philosophy of hymnody was incubated.

Radical Reformed Influences on Psalmody

While the German practice of original hymnody began centuries before the Reformation, Jan Hus and Thomas Münster are often identified as the earliest to publish vernacular hymn collections, and rank among the primary influences on Luther to do the same.[24] The same impulse that encouraged vernacular Bible translation among these pre-Reformers also encouraged vernacular hymnody—hymnody that borrowed not only the distinctive tunes of the Germanic peoples, but also original lyrics.

The popularity of German original hymnody expanded with its approval by Luther, but rapidly accelerated beyond the continent in the early eighteenth century in the Pietist movement, which in 1704 produced a hymnal, edited by Johann Freylinghausen (at the behest of his father-in-law, August Hermann Francke, a leading light in the Pietist movement): Geistreiches Gesangbuch.[25] The world was introduced to Pietist hymnody through the missionary efforts of the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine, under the guidance (and considerable financial backing) of Nikolaus Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Zinzendorf. The primitive influence of Zinzendorf’s parents toward Pietism was confirmed in Zinzendorf’s youth.[26] A lad of deep feeling, Zinzendorf began writing poems to Jesus at age six, many of which were set to tunes. As he grew into young adulthood, Zinzendorf, moved by the terrible suffering that many of his sectarian brothers were enduring at the hands of Reformed and Romanist magistrates alike, established at Herrnhut a “brotherhood” (a.k.a., the Unitas Fratrum, later the Moravian Church) where he welcomed Bohemians (Hussites), Moravians, Schwenkfelders, and other disenfranchised Protestant sectarians. These he invited to recuperate, but not to remain in the sanctuary of the brotherhood; instead, he both encouraged and financed their dispersal throughout Europe to effect revivals of true religion among the impious, and throughout the world to seek conversions among the heathen. Zinzendorf supplied not only financial backing, but also literature for his missionaries, maintaining a printing press to publish vernacular Bibles, tracts, and hymnals for their use. Herein lie the truest roots of the evangelical movement—a movement marked from the beginning by evangelistic hymnody, that is, hymnody designed to promote and compel faith in the Christian Gospel. That is to say, the hymns were designed to complement Gospel preaching in churches to the unconverted. This was a novel function of music in the gathered church, and one absent in the Hebrew Psalter.

Related:  The Union of Theology and Doxology: A Comparative Study of Jonathan Edwards and Anne Dutton

The most famous effect of Moravian piety and evangelistic hymnody in the English world was that influenced upon John Wesley, whose 1736 spiritual awakening and eventual conversion occurred under Moravian influence, especially their piety and song. John determined to bring his experience to the whole English-speaking world, and with the help of his brothers (chiefly Charles, who wrote more than 6500 original hymns), eventually succeeded. Developing hymns as “creeds . . . in witness to the world,”[27] Wesleyan hymnody began modestly,[28] but eventually rode four waves of evangelical awakening in England and in the Americas to a place of prominence.[29] John Wesley did not discount the use of psalms (indeed, he published many of his own adaptations); however, he wrote psalms in the habit of Isaac Watts (discussed below), incurring the wrath of many in his own tradition, including that of his own brother Samuel.[30] Like Watts, Wesley’s musical fame rests almost entirely on his original hymns.[31]

Isaac Watts’s Severe Modification of English Psalmody

No figure looms larger in challenging the Reformed consensus on psalmody, however, than Isaac Watts. Watts’s innovation was threefold: he (1) improved the English poetry of the standard psalms of the day (at the expense, some argued, of their clarity); (2) updated the psalms in light of the NT Scriptures and especially of Christ’s first advent; and (3) defended the composition of original, uninspired hymns—of which he wrote hundreds.[32]

A story from Watts’s youth offers an early glimpse into Watts’s philosophy of church hymnody. While still living with his parents, Isaac ostensibly complained to his father about the terrible songs they used in worship at their Southampton church. Upon being rebuked by his father and challenged to do better, young Isaac reportedly wrote an original hymn, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb,” based loosely on Revelation 5. Young Isaac’s rebellion was thereafter met not with rebuke, but with praise, and he was emboldened to write many more such hymns.[33] In short order he had written over two hundred, which he published in 1707 in a volume titled Hymns and Spiritual Songs. “Behold the Glories of the Lamb” was the first song in this collection.

Watts’s tensions with the psalms of his day ran far deeper, however, than merely bad poetry and tepid presentation. His concern was also hermeneutical. He believed the psalms to be written for another dispensation, and that they were thus of limited value for the New Testament believer.[34] In the preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Watts wrote:

The Gospel brings us nearer to the heavenly State than all the former Dispensations of God amongst Men: And in these last Days of the Gospel we are brought almost within Sight of the Kingdom of our Lord; yet we are very much unacquainted with the Songs of the New Jerusalem, and unpracticed in the Work of Praise. To see the dull Indifference, the negligent and the thoughtless Air that sits upon the Faces of a whole Assembly, while the Psalm is on their Lips, might tempt even a charitable Observer to suspect the Fervency of inward Religion. . . . Of all our Religious Solemnities Psalmody is the most unhappily managed: That very action which should elevate us to the most delightful and divine Sensations, doth not only flatten our Devotion, but too often awakens our Regret, and touches all the Springs of Uneasiness within us.

I have been long convinced, that one great Occasion of this Evil arises from the Matter and Words to which we confine all our Songs. Some of them are almost opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel: Many of them foreign to the State of the New Testament, and widely different from the present Circumstances of Christians. Hence it comes to pass, that when spiritual Affections are excited within us, and our Souls are raised a little above this Earth in the beginning of a Psalm, we are checked on a sudden in our Ascent toward Heaven, by some Expressions that are most suitable to the Days of Carnal Ordinances, and fit only to be sung in the Worldly Sanctuary. When we are just entering into an Evangelic Frame by some of the Glories of the Gospel presented in the brightest Figures of Judaism, yet the very next Line perhaps which the Clerk parcels out unto us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that darkens our Sight of God the Saviour: Thus by keeping too close to David in the House of God, the Veil of Moses is thrown over our Hearts. While we are kindling into divine Love by the Meditations of the LovingKindness of God, and the Multitude of his tender Mercies, within a few Verses some dreadful Curse against Men is proposed to our Lips; that God would add Iniquity unto their Iniquity, nor let them come into his Righteousness, but blot them out of the Book of the Living, Psal. 69, 16, 27–28. which is so contrary to the New Commandment, of loving our Enemies; and even under the Old Testament is best accounted for, by referring it to the Spirit of Prophetic Vengeance. Some Sentences of the Psalmist, that are expressive of the Temper of our own Hearts, and the Circumstances of our Lives may compose our Spirits to Seriousness, and allure us to a sweet Retirement within ourselves; but we meet with a following Line, which so peculiarly belongs but to one Action or Hour of the Life of David or of Asaph, that breaks off our Song in the Midst; and our Consciences are affrighted, lest we should speak a Falsehood unto God: Thus the Powers of our Souls are shocked on a sudden, and our Spirits ruffled before we have Time to reflect that this may be sung only as a History of ancient Saints; and perhaps in some Instances that Salvo is hardly sufficient neither: Besides, it almost always spoils the Devotion, by breaking the uniform Thread of it; For while our Lips and our Hearts run on sweetly together, applying the Words to our own Case, there is something of divine Delight in it; but at once we are forced to turn off the Application abruptly, and our Lips speak nothing but the Heart of David. Thus our own Hearts are as it were forbid the Pursuit of the Song, and then the Harmony and the Worship grow dull of mere Necessity.

Many Ministers, and many private Christians, have long groaned under this Inconvenience; and have wished, rather than attempted a Reformation: At their importunate and repeated Requests I have for some Years past devoted many Hours of Leisure to this Service. Far be it from my Thoughts to lay aside the Book of Psalms in public Worship; few can pretend so great a Value for them as myself: It is the most noble, most devotional, and divine Collection of Poesy; and nothing can be supposed more proper to raise a pious Soul to Heaven, than some Parts of that Book; never was a piece of Experimental Divinity so nobly written, and so justly reverenced and admired: But it must be acknowledged still, that there are a thousand Lines in it which were not made for a Church in our Days to assume as its own.[35]

Note some of the specific hermeneutical concerns Watts had. First, Watts doubted that all the psalms are “divine,” but rather contained many words of strictly human origin (“nothing but the Heart of David”) that were not appropriate to worship even in the OT economy, much less that in the NT Church. Second, Watts asserted that some of the material expressed in the psalms is “opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel,” and that the faith expressions of OT saints reflected in the Psalms were “carnal” and “worldly.” Note that Watts viewed the OT liturgical expressions not merely as antiquated—he calls them worldly and carnal, suggesting that theirs was an experience of Law alone, devoid of the grace of gospel. Thirdly, Watts suggested that many of the sentiments expressed in the Hebrew Psalms were “contrary to the New Commandment of loving our Enemies,” and “Falsehood unto God.” Watts approved joyful psalms about God’s “Mercies” and “Loving-kindness,” but forbade all imprecation (repeating of divine “Curses”) as “unrighteous” and “vengeful.” Fourthly and summarily, Watts cast aspersions on a substantial percentage of the Hebrew psalms. Only “Parts” of the corpus might be salvaged; indeed, among the 2,461 verses in the Psalms, Watts found “a thousand Lines . . . which were not made for a Church in our Days to assume as its own.” It is little wonder, then, that the church became “affrighted” to sing them!

Watts proposed that parts of the psalms be recovered by means of “Paraphrase”: their “dark Expressions enlightened, and the Levitical Ceremonies, and Hebrew Forms of Speech changed into the Worship of the Gospel, and explained in the Language of our Time and Nation; and what would not bear such an Alteration is omitted and laid aside. After this Manner, should I rejoice to see a good Part of the Book of Psalms fitted for the Use of our Churches, and David converted into a Christian.”[36] Again, only a “good Part” of the Psalms could be salvaged, but a greater part, apparently, than could be used before Watts paraphrased them.

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Watts also included an extended appendix to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs titled “A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody Or, An Enquiry How the Psalms of David Ought to Be Translated into Christian Songs, and How Lawful and Necessary It Is to Compose Other Hymns According to the Clearer Revelations of the Gospel, for the Use of the Christian Church.” This essay (together with all of the psalms) was removed in all subsequent printings of Hymns and Spiritual Songs, then, in 1719, substantially updated as a preface for Watts’s complete psalter, Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.[37] In these essays, Watts doubled down on the principles outlined in his 1707 preface, calling for the omission of “worldly” and “carnal” elements in the psalms, and identifying whole psalms that could not be “accommodated to our times.”[38] He further (and continuing our enumeration above, fifthly), rejected the hermeneutical principle of originalism, opining that the psalms “ought to be translated in such a Manner as we have reason to believe David would have compos’d ‘em had he lived in our Day.”[39] He suggested, for instance, that “Judah and Israel may be called England and Scotland, and the Land of Canaan may be translated into Great Britain.”[40] Sixthly, Watts added a new and troubling hermeneutical feature, calling for a greater incidence of joy, praise, and thanksgiving in contemporary song than is found in the Psalms, criticizing the OT penchant for lament as a relic of times “when the Saints were kept in hard Bondage, and had not half so much Occasion for Praise.”[41]

Watts’s greatest concern, however, and seventhly, was that the psalms needed to be Christianized, that is, subjected to an extreme Christological hermeneutic and “omitted and laid aside . . . [all] . . . that cannot bear such an Alteration.”[42] To this end Watts appealed repeatedly to Psalm 2 as his prime exemplar. Note how he adapted this psalm:

1 Why did the Jews proclaim their rage,
The Romans, why their swords employ
Against the LORD their pow’rs engage,
His dear anointed to destroy?

2 “Come, let us break his bands,” they say,
“This man shall never give us laws”;
And thus they cast his yoke away,
And nailed the monarch to the cross.

3 But GOD who high in glory reigns,
Laughs at their pride, their rage controls;
He’ll vex their hearts with inward pains,
And speak in thunder to their souls.

4 “I will maintain the king I made
On Zion’s everlasting hill;
“My hand shall bring him from the dead,
And he shall stand your sov’reign still.”

5 His wond’rous rising from the earth,
Makes his eternal Godhead known;
The LORD declares his heav’nly birth,
“This day have I begot my Son.”

6 “Ascend, my Son, to my right hand,
There thou shalt ask, and I bestow,
“The utmost bounds of heathen lands;
To thee the Northern Isles shall bow.”

From this versification, we find good illustration of Watts’s plan to “Christianize” the psalms. Watts applied the psalm strictly to Christ, stripping it of all possible application to the Davidide generally, much less to the experiences of the broader community of faith. The psalm ceased to be a celebration of God’s sovereignty and providence in the world at large, and reduced to a single act of God’s sovereign will, viz., the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Watts also supplied a provincial/contextualized translation of the Psalms: the “nations” (the גוֹיִם) are Rome (never mind the plural); the “peoples,” rather improbably, are Israel; the “anointed one” is strictly Jesus; the announcement of sonship is eternal generation, not coronation/installation; the “ends of the earth” are the “Northern Isles.”[43] In Moy-er’s words, Watts “effectively weaned the church off of the Psalms by over-contextualizing them, causing the people of God to believe that the Psalms in their original form were irrelevant to the New Testament church.”[44]

In view of these adjustments, the psalms lost, in a single generation, their place in the church as a comprehensive manual for the appropriate redress of God, much less Calvin’s “anatomy of all the parts of the soul” (i.e., a display of the full range of faithful affections, coram deo, in the light of God’s gracious, providential orchestration of all things).[45] The psalms reduced to a prophetic testimony to a particular act of God (Christ’s redemptive work) and lost all of their rich value in demonstrating the general ways of God (his providence). In view of this emasculation of psalmody, it is no surprise that the Church suddenly developed an overwhelming appetite for something more.[46] Isaac Watts had plundered the psalms and had left miserable Christians with nothing to sing.[47] In Leaver’s words, while “Watts is rightly regarded as the father of the English hymn, . . . he can also be seen as the assassin of the English metrical psalm.”[48]


The reasons for the decline of psalmody and lament in congregational worship are manifold, but determinate. The initial impetus was reactionary—a response to bad poetry, strict hermeneutics, and an overly “grave” style. But this reaction was a façade for other concerns. Chief among these was a hermeneutical/theological concern that the Hebrew psalms were neither written for the church nor suitable to its worship. Written in the dispensation of Law, the Psalms were much too Jewish, too miserable, and too lacking in Gospel themes to offer suitable fare for New Testament worship. Some of the psalms could be updated, but not all; some were fit only for the dustbin.

Prevailing hermeneutical methods employed to update the psalms also reduced their general value: (1) extreme contextualization rendered the psalms suitable only for British imperialists and exceptionalists; (2) Christocentrism fixated unnaturally on Messianic implications of the psalms at the expense of their general application to the life of faith lived in the shadow of divine providence.

The rise of the evangelical movement sealed the fate of the psalms, and especially of lament. As the function of the gathered church shifted away from communal catechesis, renewal, and assurance to evangelistic urgency, the music shifted with it. Evangelical preachers needed music “better suited than the metrical psalms to [their] fervid style of preaching.” The content of the song, too, increasingly focused on introducing the gospel and its distant hope rather than on developing the sundry and complex implications of the gospel for theology and faith in the crucible of the now. The psalms were far too doctrinaire, too moralistic, and (above all) too dour to serve the evolving needs of the evangelical church.

The ascendancy of the Western church has crested; evangelical triumphalism is gasping its last. We desperately need the psalms to navigate the dark days ahead—not select psalms, excerpts from the psalms, or gospelized resignifications of the psalms, but the whole psalter as it stands written. Because when our aggrieved souls can no longer articulate our desperate need for God’s manifold providence and grace, we need to have something to sing.

[1] Mark A. Snoeberger, PhD, is professor of systematic theology and apologetics at the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI. He first presented this paper on November 20, 2020, at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, originally scheduled in Providence, RI, but presented virtually due to the COVID pandemic.

[2] Paul’s use of the term ψαλμοῖς in Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 points with near certainty to the OT Hebrew psalms, as the term finds virtually no representation outside a Jewish context. We may rightly question what qualifies as a “hymn” or a “song,” but the psalms are plainly identifiable as the 150 canonical psalms. We must sing them.

[3] I hesitate to identify these as congregational hymns, because we simply don’t know that this is what they were. They may simply be mnemonic devices for public and private use in creeds, catechisms, and the like.

[4] Clint Arnold, for instance, notes that, unlike the term ψαλμοῖς in Ephesians 5:19, the terms ὕμνοις and ᾠδαῖς have Gentile antecedents, and thus that Paul was legitimating Gentile, even pagan musical elements in NT hymnody, repurposed for Christian themes (Ephesians, ZECNT [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010], 353; Barry Leish, The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church, exp. ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001], 41). Others see in these terms diverse functions: respectively, songs of praise/prayer, doctrine, and the Christian experience (e.g., Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal [Wheaton: Hope, 1993], 146). Still others see in these terms diversities of style (Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God [Wheaton: Crossway, 2008], 104). While all of these offer reasons for Paul’s use of three terms rather than one, I am troubled by the anachronism and circular reasoning in these and other popular treatments (i.e., “By approving of ὕμνοις and ᾠδαῖς, Paul has legitimized my favorite contemporary novelties”).

The best of minds suggest instead that firm distinctions of content/style cannot be definitely made (so F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984], 158; Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 395; Harold Hoehner, Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002], 710; Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, PNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 289;—though, oddly, all four of these commentators, having denied that firm distinctions between the terms can be made, all spend time attempting to do so). James D. G. Dunn suggests that the first two terms are synonyms, but cannot countenance Paul’s “needlessly tautologous” use of three synonyms, so hazards that the last term references charismatic worship, possibly inspired and even glossolalic in nature (The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 238–39). Andrew Lincoln (Ephesians, WBC [Nashville: Word, 1990], 361) and Frank Thielman (Ephesians, BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010], 346) argue contrarily that Paul’s penchant for redundancy—frequently in the form of triplets—offers good evidence for the synonymy of the three terms.

For a helpful summary of the debate, see Scott Aniol, “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Assessing the Debate,” Artistic Theologian 6 (2018): 13–18.

[5] Among many others, see Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed according to Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2002), 36–40.

[6] Luther’s most enduring hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” for instance, is a loose but consistent rendition of Psalm 46. This loose dependence on inspired material is a hallmark of Luther’s hymnody.

[7] A few years ago, a hymn ostensibly written by Calvin, “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art,” became a popular repast for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The poetry is ancient, first appearing in French (Je Te salue, mon certain Rédempteur) in the 1545 Strasbourg Psalter La forme des prières et chants ecclésiastiques used, among others, by John Knox. Further discovery of the poem in an “old Genevese prayer book” (so Philip Schaff, Christ in Song [New York: Anson D. F. Randolph and Co., 1868], 678) may suggest earlier and Calvinist provenance, but this is not verifiable. It was not until 1867 that the poem was attributed to Calvin and included in his Strasbourg Works (6:23). This dubious attribution was cemented in the Presbyterian Hymnal (1869, no. 457), whereafter it became known as “Calvin’s Hymn.”

Related:  An Old New Song

[8] The Aulcuns Pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant first appeared in 1539 and was revised and/or expanded four times during Calvin’s lifetime (minor revisions in 1542 and 1543; major revisions in 1551 and 1562), the last of which saw all 150 Hebrew psalms represented. The fourth edition (1551) contained “Calvin’s Hymn” and also, for the first time, the venerable rendition of “Old Hundredth” so deeply cherished still by a great many of God’s people.

We should note, however, that the Genevan psalter had a function greater than public worship. It also supplied fodder for private use by Christian families. It is possible that the original hymns in the Genevan psalter were restricted to the latter function. If this is the case, then Calvin’s exclusive psalmodist credentials, at least in terms of public worship, may be restored.

[9] Anglicanism was slow to abandon many of the ceremonial forms and clerical hierarchy common in Romanism. Laudian or “High Church” Anglicanism perpetuated this trend through the eighteenth century and cultivated a robust choral element in worship, including both chanted psalms and original anthems. The “Low Church” tradition, with its evangelical interests and antipathy toward ceremony, embraced original hymnody from its inception.

[10] Available at https://www.wdl.org/en/item/3600/view/1/21/.

[11] A Directory for Publique Worship of God throughout the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Together with an Ordinance of Parliament for the Taking away of the Book of Common Prayer, and for Establishing and Observing of this Present Directory throughout the Kingdome of England and the Dominion of Wales (London: T. R. and E. M. Company of Stationers, 1651), 55–56 (available at books.google.com).

[12] Robin Leaver, “The Hymn Explosion,” Christian History, no. 31 (1991): 14–17.

[13] The Divine Companion; or, David’s Harp New Tun’d. Being a Choice Collection of New and Easy Psalms, Hymns, and Anthems. The Words of the Psalms Being Collected from the Newest Versions. Compos’d by the Best Masters and Fitted for the Use of Those Who Already Understand Mr. John Playford’s Psalms in Three Parts. To Be Used in Churches or Private Families, for Their Greater Advancement of Divine Music (London: J. Robinson, 1701).

[14] In 1622, Wither received a patent from King James I to publish some of his original hymns (Hymnes and Songs of the Church) together with the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter in a single volume. The furor raised by this unwarranted royal intrusion into ecclesiastical life, however, added to the scandal of the hymns themselves, all but guaranteeing their exclusion from public worship. James I later revoked the patent, resulting in Wither’s financial ruin. Herbert’s poems were not immediately set to music, and when they were, tended to choral anthems.

[15] For a great many obscure details on these and other early attempts to introduce original hymnody to the English-speaking church, see Louis F. Benson, The English Hymn: Its Development and Use (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915), 19–107. In Benson’s estimation, by pushing too hard for the use of hymns in worship, “the actual influence [of these early hymnals] was by way of prolonging the period of Psalm singing” (182).

[16] Joseph Boyse followed this pattern as well, publishing a hymnal in 1693 containing strictly paraphrased Scriptures—save one original hymn: a hymn on baptism by immersion. Joseph Stennett, a seventh-day Baptist, did the same, releasing a collection of Lord’s Supper hymns in 1697 and a collection of baptism hymns in 1712.

Boyse’s hymnal is often recognized as the first Baptist hymnal, but wrongly on both counts. Keach’s hymnal was released earlier, and Boyse remained resolutely Presbyterian until his death (Benson, The English Hymn, 100).

[17] Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5.

[18] Second London Baptist Confession 22.5.

[19] (Southwark: For the Author, 1691).

[20] Benjamin Keach, Spiritual Melody, Containing Near Three Hundred Sacred Hymns (London: Printed for John Hancock, 1691).

[21] Richard Baxter, Paraphrase on the Psalms of David in Metre, with Other Hymns (London: Printed for Thomas Parkhurst and Jonathan Robinson, 1692).

[22] For a detailing of these, see James Hamilton, Psalter and Hymn Book: Three Lectures (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1865), 65­–67; also Benson, The English Hymn, 97–106.

[23] See Benson, The English Hymn, 89–90; The original 1708 publication of these lectures, Practical Discourses of Singing in the Worship of God; Preach’d at the Friday Lecture in Eastcheap, by several ministers (London: Printed by J. Darby for N. Cliff) has been republished many times.  

[24] Kenneth H. Marcus, “Hymnody and Hymnals in Basel, 1526–1606,” Sixteenth Century Journal 32 (2001): 730.

[25] (Halle: In Verlegung des Wassenhausen). A 1734 ed. is available at books.google.com.

[26] Zinzendorf’s godfather was Philipp Jakob Spener, a leading representative of continental Pietism; Zinzendorf was also schooled at Francke Foundations in Halle (founded by the aforementioned August Hermann Francke).

[27] Old, Worship, 51.

[28] John Wesley’s first hymnal, published in Charlestown in 1737, was poorly received and largely forgotten. His bark rose, however, on the wake of Whitefield’s preaching.

[29] George Whitefield’s advocacy of hymns in the colonies, beginning in 1738, is isolated by David Music as the “key event in introducing hymnody into American churches.” “Whitefield championed Watts’s hymns,” Music notes, because they “were better suited than the metrical psalms to his fervid style of preaching.” In less than two years, both Watts’s and Wesley’s hymns had gone through several printings in the colonies. By 1742, Jonathan Edwards would complain that his church had an appetite for nothing else (“America’s Hesitation over Hymns,” Christian History, no. 31 [1991]: 27).

[30] Samuel wrote the following poem in opposition to the Christianizing of the Psalms (Poems on Several Occasions [London: E. Say, 1736], 242–43):

Has David Christ to come foreshowed? Can Christians then aspire,
To mend the harmony that flowed From his prophetic lyre?
How curious are their wits and vain, Their erring zeal how bold,
Who durst with meaner dross profane His purity of gold!
His Psalms unchanged the saints employ, Unchanged our God applies;
They suit th’ Apostles in their joy, The Saviour when He dies.
Let David’s pure unaltered lays Transmit through ages down,
To Thee, O David’s Lord, our praise, To Thee, O David’s Son!
Till judgment calls the seraph throng To join the human choir,
And God, who gave the ancient song, The new one shall inspire.

[31] Watts and Wesley did not share identical philosophies of hymnody, but their legacy of supplanting inspired psalmody hymnody with original hymnody was shared. For a fascinating contrast of Watts’s and Wesley’s hymnody, see Benjamin A. Kolodziej, “Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and the Evolution of 18th-Century Congregational Song,” Methodist History 42 (July 2004): 236–48.

[32] Watts did not pioneer these ideas. He claimed as a precedent one John Patrick, whose 1679 Century of Select Psalms and Portions of the Psalms of David, Especially Those of Praise was seminal. Watts, however, was more progressive and popular than Patrick (see the discussion in Benson, The English Hymn, 52ff).

[33] The original accounting of this story rests, by the author’s frank admission, on hearsay (Thomas Gibbons, Memoirs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D. D. [London: James Buckland, 1780]: 254), but has been variously but relentlessly retold by Watts’s modern hagiographers. Sometimes the story is set in 1690, other times in 1694; often the story is embellished with conflicting bits of dialogue (see, e.g., David G. Fountain, Isaac Watts Remembered [Southampton: Mayflower Christian Bookshop, 1974], 34; N. A. Woychuk, The Poetic Interpretation of the Psalms, with a Biography of Watts [St. Louis: Miracle Press, 1974], 238; Douglas Bond, The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts [Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2013], 15; Graham Beynon, Isaac Watts: His Life and Thought [Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2013], 22; Philip Moyer, “Isaac Watts and the Death of Psalmody,” Clearnote Songbook blog entry, June 4, 2015, available at http://clearnotesongbook.com/blog/ 2015/06/isaac-watts-and-death-psalmody). The tale may be mythical, but it has a ring of truth that has convinced many of Watts’s biographers to retell it as history.

[34] By using the term dispensation, I do not suppose that Watts was a dispensationalist, as some do (see, e.g., Robin A. Leaver, “Isaac Watts’s Hermeneutical Principles and the Decline of English Metrical Psalmody,” Churchman 92 [1978]: 58). Such an identification is anachronistic and based on credentials far too narrow to place him in the dispensational fold. Watts’s Christological hermeneutic, view of Israel as typological of the Church, and commitment to the Covenant of Redemption as the governing basis for redemptive history place him firmly outside the dispensational camp (for a demonstration of this see Scott Aniol, “Was Isaac Watts a Proto-Dispensationalist?” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 16 [2011]: 91–112). The theory that the Hebrew Bible belongs principally to OT Israel and the Greek Bible principally to the NT Church is an aberration that has surfaced periodically throughout the whole history of the church, and has sometimes, admittedly, found expression in dispensational life, but it is neither essential nor unique to that system. As a dispensationalist myself I grant no credence to this theory.

[35] I cite for this section (incidentally, the oldest volume in my personal library), a 1789 London printing of Watts’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs in Three Books, new ed., corrected, iii–vi.

[36] Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, ix.

[37] (London: J. Clark, R. Ford, and R. Crittenden), iii­–xxx.

[38] “A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody,” 247.

[39] Watts, “A Short Essay,” 252.

[40] Watts, “A Short Essay,” 246.

[41] Watts, “A Short Essay,” 264.

[42] Preface to Watts’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs, ix.

[43] The Northern Isles are an archipelago of 26 remote islands in the North Sea annexed by Great Britain in 1707.

[44] “Watts and the Death of Psalmody.” By agreeing with Moyer I am not suggesting that our Lord Christ cannot be referenced in application of Psalm 2—He surely may be! But to conclude that he is the only such application robs the psalm of its richness.

[45] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Psalms, trans. James Anderson, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 1:xxxvi–xxxvii.

[46] I do not wish to criticize in this article the richness to be found in the original hymnody of Isaac Watts. Indeed, I persist in my regard of Watts as the greatest of all the English hymnists. But he never could have achieved this superlative status had he not first created a market for his hymns by undermining English psalmody. This is the great disappointment I have with Watts.

[47] I borrow this line from Carl Trueman’s “What Do Miserable Christians Sing?” (Themelios 25 [2000]: 1–3), a complaint about the loss of psalms and specifically of lament in the modern church. Trueman notes that since “a high proportion of psalms are taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented and broken,” and that Christians accustomed to “one long triumphalist street party” simply cannot find any place for them—they even find lament contrary to evangelism or to the spirit of the Gospel (1–2). To the contrary, Trueman observes, the Gospel does not remove our agony or despair or misery. Rather, it introduces us to the manifold means of grace by which we may endure them. A church that asks it membership to suppress these sentiments in lieu of “the Gospel” betrays a woeful misunderstanding of that Gospel.

[48] “Watts and the Decline of English Psalmody,” 59.