From Psalm Book to Hymnal: Selections from the Lowell Mason Collection

Excerpts from an exhibit at the Yale Divinity School Library January 18-March 30, 2000

The Psalm books and hymnals in the exhibit are selections from the Lowell Mason Collection of Hymnology. The Divinity Library portion of the Mason Collection contains works dating from 1660 to 1961. More information about the Mason Collection is available in the Special Collections office.

Much of the text for this exhibit was paraphrased from articles in the following books:
American Hymns New and Old
Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship
Companion to the United Methodist Book of Hymns.

From early times, the Psalms were an important part of Jewish Temple worship. They were sung by choirs, accompanied by instruments, and chanted by priests and people responsorially. The Jews who became Christians naturally continued singing Psalms and as time went on, the Psalms were assimilated into Christian liturgy.

By the twelfth century, choral parts of the Christian worship service were sung exclusively by either clergy or a trained choir. The Reformers in Europe urgently sought to renew the participation of the people in worship through the singing of hymns in the vernacular. Martin Luther and his followers wrote many hymns utilizing popular folk tunes.

The Reformed Church in Geneva, however, was led by one who considered the folk song of the time to be frivolous and wanted no association with its tunes to intrude on worship. John Calvin was convinced that psalmody - inspired songs of Scripture - was the only fit body of poetry appropriate to be sung in the church. This "Scriptural Principle" ruled in Britain and America for 150 years in the form of metrical psalmody. It was not until the turn of the eighteenth century that freely composed hymns were considered acceptable for congregational worship, and it was well after the turn of the nineteenth century before the acceptance of hymnody could be called general.

While teaching at the University of Coimbra in Portugal in 1547, Scottish poet and scholar George Buchanan was accused of heresy and sent to Lisbon for examination by the Inquisition. Buchanan was required to spend six months in a monastery in some penitential exercise and during this time produced his Psalmorum Davidis Paraphrasis Poetica. This paraphrase of the Psalms secured Buchanan's place as an eminent modern poet, and was used to instruct Scottish youth in Latin for many years.

Buchanan's translation of the Psalms may fairly be considered one of the representative books of the sixteenth century, expressing, as it does, in consummate form, the conjunction of piety and learning which was the ideal of the best type of humanist. Versified translations of the Psalms were the favourite exercise of the scholars of every country, but, by general consent, Buchanan was acknowledged to have surpassed all competitors in the felicity of his rendering

Under Calvin's leadership the Psalms were translated into metrical form by Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze. The completed French or "Genevan" Psalter was published in 1562.

An English collection of metrical Psalms was also published in 1562 - the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter. Later known as the "Old Version", this was the most widely used English psalter for more than a century.

Throughout the seventeenth century there was a growing dissatisfaction with metrical psalmody in general and the "Old Version" in particular. The complaints revolved around three issues: 1) textual accuracy in comparison to the original Hebrew; 2) intelligibility; and 3) elegance of expression. Resolution of these issues proved difficult. Improving accuracy and intelligibility tended to make the style even more wooden. Attempts toward gracefulness of expression usually fell into paraphrasing the biblical text - a sin to Puritans.

The first book of any kind printed in the English-speaking colonies of North America was "The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Metre", commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book. Printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640, the Bay Psalm Book was the work of thirty colonial ministers who desired a metrical translation of the Psalms which expressed the meaning of the original Hebrew as precisely as possible. It was prized by those who valued "close-fitting" translation, but the resulting awkwardness of expression became apparent with use.

The Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter became the "Old Version" in 1696 with the appearance of "A New Version of the Psalms of David, fitted to the tunes used in Churches" by two Irishmen, Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady. The "New Version" gave literary excellence precedence over literal translation, resulting in much freer paraphrase. This characteristic made the Tate and Brady Psalter an important development in the outgrowth from English metrical psalmody toward the English hymn.

Psalmody had depended heavily on oral tradition, for some Psalters contained no printed tunes within them. In the transmission much had become imprecise. The disorder experienced by colonial Psalm-singers was so widespread that it resulted in the "Singing School movement" of the early 1700s, instituted by a group of New England ministers to prevent the continuance of these abuses.

Where the practice of "lining-out" was allowed, it was the parish clerk who decided the tune to be used and then "gave it out" line by line, singing words and music for the congregation to repeat. In some cases, the sense and meaning of the Psalms were distorted by this process. In Psalm 50, for example, the clerk would have sung "The Lord will come and He will not", and the people would have repeated it, before going on to the completion of the verse, "Keep silent, but speak out." Because of such awkwardnesses, in time it became the accepted privilege of the clerk to prudently alter or omit any portion of the Psalm that he regarded as inopportune.

The previous basic principle of strict adherance to Scripture was gradually deserted. The Psalm was expanded from strict translation through paraphrase and then freer paraphrase. There was imitation of Scripture and exposition of Scripture and finally a hymn more or less suggested by Scripture. This growth allowed expression of the human impulse to write devotional poetry and accommodated a need for songs of an advanced stage of revelation.

A crucial figure in the passage from psalmody to hymnody was Isaac Watts (1674-1748). The story is told of Watt's first hymn composition being a response to his father's challenge to him to improve on the psalmody in use, which the younger Watts thought uncouth and lacking beauty and dignity. He believed that church song should be evangelical in the sense of reflecting New Testament theology, freely-composed rather than strictly Scriptural, and expressive of the thoughts and feelings of those singing in the present time.

Watts first decided to make "David speak the common sense and Language of a Christian." He began his own metrical psalter which was eventually published in 1719 as "The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament." Watts "Christianized" the Psalms, writing the hymn "Jesus Shall Reign", for example, on the basis of Psalm 72.

Concurrent with his work on the Psalms, Watts began "Hymns and Spiritual Songs", which was first published in 1707. In this work, Watts no longer limited himself to the Psalms but paraphrased the New Testament and wrote according to his own inspiration.

Watts' works were in high demand. The process by which congregations became hymn-singers often included use of Watts' "Psalm Imitations." Following that initial experience of free Christian song, the hymn was often easily welcomed. But the changeover was not without controversy in some churches.

Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, prepared a new edition of Watts' Psalms and Hymns, versifying the Psalms Watts had omitted and altering others. Dwight's own paraphrase of Psalm 137, "I love thy kingdom, Lord" is probably the earliest American hymn in use.

Born in Northampton, Massachusetts on May 14, 1752, Timothy Dwight graduated from Yale College in 1769. He became a tutor there from 1771-1777. For a short time he was a chaplain for the United State Army. In 1783 he was called to Fairfield, Connecticut, where he served as pastor and taught in the Academy until his appointment, in 1795, as President of Yale College. He died at New Haven on January 11, 1817.

Dwight's work as a hymnist was well regarded, even in his time. In 1797, the General Association of Connecticut, disappointed with the revision of Watts that Joel Barlow had done, commissioned Dwight to revise Psalms and Hymns. Dwight did so, creating several paraphrases of the same psalm, and adding some hymns, mostly from Watts. The new title became Psalms of David by Isaac Watts. It was first published in 1800 in Connecticut.

Music played an important role during the period of religious excitement in America brought on by the preaching of George Whitefield. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families in every street."

Asahel Nettleton's "Village Hymns" was first published in 1824 in response to the demand for hymnals more suitable for the revivals sweeping the country. It was among the first hymnals to feature missionary hymns.

In the eighteenth century there was a Evangelical Revival within the Church of England. Those who stayed within the Church fold, the Anglican Evangelicals, were hospitable to hymnody, which they found to be an ideal vehicle for the expression of their faith and piety. The most enduring hymnwriters of the movement were John Newton (1725-1807) and William Cowper (1731-1800).

Charles Wesley

The Methodist movement founded by John and Charles Wesley was originally another facet of revival within the Church of England. The entire Wesley family was prominent in the development of hymnody. Father Samuel and his three sons all wrote hymns, but most prolific and famed among them were Charles and John. Although they were aware of the work of Watts, the Wesleys first discovered the power of congregational hymn singing while on a voyage to Georgia in 1735. The immediate result was John Wesley's publication in 1737 of his "Collection of Psalms and Hymns", the first hymnal printed in America.

Between 1738 and 1785 the Wesleys published sixty-four separate collections of hymns. Though John did write some original hymns, his main contributions to the work were translations from the German and a lifelong devotion to selecting, editing, and publishing hymns, mostly those of Charles. Charles was the poet of the Methodist revival, being credited with at least 6,500 hymns.

The most important of the Wesley hymnals, "A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists" was first published in 1780. It included 525 hymns all taken from the brothers' previous publications and all but ten written by members of the Wesley family.

Reginald Heber (1783-1826) has been described as the creator of the modern church hymn-book. For his Anglican parish in Shropshire he provided a collection containing from one to four hymns illustrative of the Gospel and Epistle lessons for every Sunday and principal holy days and for other church occasions. Heber wrote fifty-seven of the hymns himself.

Heber's work brought three new dimensions to English hymnody:

1) Hymnody broke into the established church; prior to this, hymnody was the preserve of Dissent. It was the beginning of the end for metrical psalmody in England (though not in Scotland, where metrical psalmody is still employed side by side with hymnody).

2) Hymnody was intended for and incorporated into liturgical worship, not just for prayer meetings and non-liturgical worship.

3) Heber's literary style moved beyond Watt's seventeenth century quaintness and Charles Wesley's classical opulence into romanticism. The word-imagery characteristic of the romantic movement is epitomized in the first line of Heber's familiar "From Greenland's icy mountains, from India's coral strand."

Camp meetings spread like wildfire across the South and West of America after 1800. These meetings demanded a more lively, emotionally lush, type of song. When denominations refused to recognize camp meeting songs for inclusion in official hymnals, separate collections were created.

Somewhat later in the nineteenth century, the vast evangelistic campaigns of Dwight L. Moody gave birth to a large body of gospel songs. Ira David Sankey (1840-1908), Moody's partner in these campaigns, published his "Sacred Songs and Solos" in 1873.

Throughout the years, new emphases in theology or church practice have spawned new hymnals. Important hymnwriters associated with the Oxford, or Tractarian Movement within the Church of England (1833-1841) were John Keble, John Henry Newman, John Mason Neale and Frederick Faber. Newman and Faber later became Roman Catholics. The Tractarians not only wrote original hymns, but also rediscovered early Latin hymns and translated them into English.

The translation of Latin hymns was paralleled by an interest in German hymnody. Many of the translations of Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878) are still in use.