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Songs to Sing in Tough Times?

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Songs to Sing in Tough Times?

 As I write, we have still to experience the full effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Field hospitals have been set up, mortuaries have been prepared, and some local councils have already taken steps to prepare their cemeteries for an unprecedented number of funerals. The global effects and the personal tragedies associated with this pandemic will be with us for a long, long time. In years to come we will need spiritual strength and emotional resilience in copious measure.

Part of the ministry of the Church in the days to come will be to bring comfort and consolation to our community through corporate worship. That is why it might now be a good time for us to dust off our psalters and consider again the words which God’s people used in their worship in past ages when facing times of crisis and loss. While we do not argue for the exclusive use of the Psalms for congregational singing, it is clear that we will need the theological, christological and experiential richness of the Psalms to provide us with the language that will help us to understand and express ourselves as we seek to come to terms with our tragic situation.

In recent times evangelical and reformed Christianity has struggled to stay afloat in the flood of secular and hedonistic influences. As we think ahead, we will need a bolder and more militant spirituality if we are to respond to our situation with courage and resolve. The Psalms can nurture such a robust piety and can fortify and energise Christians today as they did in the past. 

Terry Johnson[1] points out that all evangelical Protestant denominations have psalm-singing roots. The early French and Swiss Protestants, under the leadership of Zwingli and Farel, made no provision for congregational singing in their liturgies. Calvin first urged the singing of psalms in his Articles of Church Order presented to the Genevan civil authorities in January 1537. At the time no singable version of the psalms existed, but over the next twenty-five years the metrical versions of Clement Marot and of Theodore Beza were collected. They were joined to tunes written by Louis Bourgeois and others. In 1562 the complete Genevan Psalter was published.

It proved to be a huge benefit and resource for French Protestants, the Hugenots, in their days of trial. 

“They found in it a well opened in the desert, from which they drew consolation under persecution, strength to resist valiantly the enemies of their faith; with the assured conviction that God was fighting for them, and also (it must be added) would be revenged against their foes.”[2]

Families at home, and men and women in the workplace or engaged in daily tasks, were recognized as French Protestants because they were overheard singing psalms. Benson says that the psalter ingrained its own characteristics deep in the Hugenot character and had a great part in making it what it was. As they were called to fight and suffer for their principles, “the habit of psalm singing was a providential preparation”.

It was a similar story, says Johnson, for Scottish Presbyterians. John Knox and other Protestant refugees returned to Scotland from exile in Geneva in the late 1550s. They came with a desire for an English-language psalter corresponding to the Genevan Psalter. The result was the Scottish Psalter of 1564, then of 1645, and finally of 1650. Millar Patrick says, “It was a godsend”, published a few years before the enormous suffering of the “killing times” (1668-88). By that time “it had won its place in the people’s hearts and its lines were so deeply imprinted upon their memories that it was always the language thus given them for the expression of their emotions, which in the great hours we find on their lips.”[3] The language that they used to interpret and express their experience was the language of the psalms which they sang.

They turned to their psalms, Patrick says, “to sustain their souls in hours of anxiety and peril” and from them they “drew the language of strength and consolation”. He continues, “It was there that they found a voice for faith, the patience, the courage and the hope that bore them through those difficult days.”

It is clear that the singing of psalms has been an important part of the “strength and consolation” of all the churches. The first book published in North America was the Bay Psalm Book (1640), and when it and the Scottish Psalter, the favourite among Ulster-Scots immigrants, were eventually superseded it was by yet another psalter: Isaac Watts’ Psalms of David Imitated (1719). It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that hymns began to overtake the psalms in popular usage. Our ancestors were psalm singers whose vocabulary of worship was enriched and informed by the psalms.

In these difficult days of exile from one another, we look forward to gathering with God’s people in worship with the hope that the singing of the psalms may once again become an important element in the worship of all our churches. Perhaps some gifted musicians and writers will use these days to reflect on our psalms of lament so that when corporate worship is restored we will have some words which will enable the honest and authentic expression of our sadness, helplessness and our deep longing for the grace and strength of God.

[1] Terry L. Johnson, “Restoring Psalm Singing to Our Worship” in Ryken, Thomas and Duncan (eds.) Give Praise to God (Philipsburg; P&R, 2003).

[2] Louis F. Benson, “John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches”, Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 5 (1909), 77-78.

[3] Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody (London; Oxford University Press, 1949).

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

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Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Stafford Carson is a graduate of University of Ulster, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadel…

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