The Front Page

Welcome to the Front Page, the digital cover of the Wayne Press.  Here we will share with you things that can't be captured in our newsletter--videos, music, color photographs--as well as articles that reflect on faith and life.  


Jeff on the Psalms

During Lent, we are singing the appointed Psalm of the day in place of the second hymn.  The custom of singing Psalms in worship transcends Christianity itself.  For most of the church’s history, Psalm singing was the norm.  This tradition has been turned on its head in the relatively recent past.  The following article published in Reformed Worship in 1987 gives some insight into how this came about.  [The article has been slightly abridged.] 

We Used to Sing Only Psalms: What Happened?

Reformed and Presbyterian people have always felt strongly about psalm singing—strongly enough to quarrel about it and to split churches over the issue. During the 1750s members of the only Presbyterian congregation in New York City argued continually among themselves about whether they ought to replace their Scottish Psalter with Isaac Watts' hymns. A century later other groups were still unsettled over the issue: Dutch immigrants in Holland, Michigan, separated themselves from the denomination they had joined because this group used a "collection of 800 hymns, introduced contrary to church order." "We are obliged to give you notice of our present ecclesiastical standpoint," the immigrants wrote, "namely, separating ourselves from your denomination, together with all Protestant denominations with which we have thoughtlessly become connected upon our arrival in America.

"Why such strong feeling about the singing of psalms? Much of the fervor stems back to John Calvin himself. Calvin wrote: "When we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him." The Reformer also helped implement the singing of psalms by vigorously promoting the Genevan Psalter, the grandfather of most later Presbyterian and Reformed psalters. (Ironically, Calvin was not quite as consistent as some of his followers: he included a number of non-psalm items, such as the canticles and the Apostles' Creed, in his Psalter.)

Calvin's position took root in most Calvinistic churches. In the Reformed churches on the continent, such as the Dutch and Hungarian Reformed Churches, the Genevan Psalter cast a long shadow that continues to have influence today. Psalm singing was equally tenacious in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, although there the Genevan tunes often gave way to English melodies.

However, exclusive psalm-singing did not go uncontested. Some denominations with Reformed and Presbyterian roots shelved the psalms altogether, at least temporarily. Others continued to sing psalms, but not exclusively; they published psalter hymnals, reflecting their new openness to singing hymns as well as psalms in church. Still others—a minority—continued in the old tradition.  The history of each church and its current practice would fill many scholarly pages and ponderous footnotes.

Because of the various Presbyterian secessions and mergers the history of psalm singing in U.S. Presbyterian churches appears complex (certainly to outsiders). So here we will have to simplify the history and single out the major streams—the northern and southern branches, separated at the time of the Civil War and only recently reunited into the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Until the Civil War the various Presbyterian bodies used psalms predominantly, singing hymns only now and then, especially in informal gatherings. Their songbook, Psalms and Hymns, had a clearly defined psalter section. After the Civil War the use of hymns increased greatly. In the Presbyterian Hymnal published in 1874 by the northern branch of the church, psalms were mixed in with hymns. The 1901 Psalms and Hymns of the southern church followed suit.

A third Presbyterian branch, the United Presbyterian Church of North America, retained exclusive psalm singing much longer. Its Psalter was published in 1887 and 1912, the latter edition still used by some denominations (e.g., Protestant Reformed). Its first Psalter Hymnal, published in 1927, included 295 psalm settings of all 150 psalms and 155 hymns. This Psalter Hymnal was republished several times, until the church merged with the northern branch of the Presbyterian Church and began to use The Hymnbook of 1955.

The reason for the inroads of hymns? Dr. Arlo Duba, worship scholar, explains: "Horace Allen has said that Presbyterians can blame their departure from the psalter on the excellent hymns of Watts and Wesley. These new 'hymns of human composure' became so popular that by the end of the nineteenth century the churches acknowledged what had already become evident: Watts, Wesley, and the whole English hymn tradition had simply enticed Presbyterians away from the psalter." The influence of the great revivals only added to this trend.  [end of Reformed Worship article]

As a denomination which professes a practice of continual reformation, the PCUSA is releasing a new hymnal next fall.  The new hymnal will give even greater weight to the singing of Psalms, as did the current hymnal when it was released, seeking to do so in a way that speaks to us today.


The first book published in what is now the United States was The Bay Psalm Book, so vital were the Psalms to the worship of the early colonists.  It was published in 1640.

From the Huffington Post

Bay Psalm Book Sale: Old South Church To Sell First Book Published In North America

BOSTON (AP) Dec. 2, 2012 — Congregants of one of the nation's oldest churches have voted to auction off a 372-year-old hymn book that's expect to fetch $10 million to $20 million at auction.  Members of the Old South Church in Boston authorized the sale of one of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, which was published in 1640. It is among the first books ever published in North America, and only 11 copies remain. Board of Trustees Chairman Phil Stern says the church wants to continue growing its endowment and take care of some "critical capital needs." He says although there was loud opposition to the sale, the vote wasn't close, with 271 votes cast in favor and 34 against. Members also authorized the sale of 19 pieces of Colonial-era silver.

Posted by Casey Thompson at 11:30 AM
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