A History of Psalm/Psalter-Singing in the PRC

While it is true that the PRC has a reputation for being a psalm-singing, Psalter-using denomination, this is not to say that this ‘exclusiveness’ has not been challenged in our ninety-year history. It has been, and on a number of occasions. The most significant challenge (proposing the addition of non-psalm-based songs to our Psalter, that is, in addition to the select few already found in “the back of the Psalter”) came from what might sound like an unlikely source, namely, the first editor of the SB, Rev. H. Hoeksema himself (identified in the SB by the initials HH—and in what follows).

We realize that if that old stalwart were still living, the previous statement would almost certainly prompt a strongly worded letter to the SB’s present editor(s) requesting (demanding?) an apology and a correction to such a misleading and inaccurate statement. After all, the overture addressed to the 1959 Synod to revise Article 69 of our Church Order (CO) and to allow for synodically-approved hymns (and by implication, to revise our Psalter) came from his First Church consistory (GR), not over his signature.

Be that as it may, read the SBs of the years 1959-1962 (vols. 36-38) and it is transparent who ‘gently persuaded’ his consistory to write the overture and then added his considerable weight (in large measure as editor of the SB) in promoting the proposed revision. It was an overture that created no small stir. All one has to do is read the letters to the editor (contributions on the issue invited by HH himself—‘Surely we can discuss this issue in a calm, logical, and brotherly way! Why not?’) and it is readily evident what issue became the hotly debated issue throughout the churches. And not necessarily always in such a brotherly spirit. One old worthy wrote the esteemed editor to state that he heard “the bark of the wolf ” in the overture!

The sheep were more than a bit agitated.

The issue became known as ‘the hymn question’—the churches were being asked to revise Article 69 of the CO in order to make room for adding ‘man-made hymns’ to the Psalter. There was reason for this label. First Church’s overture (1959) proposed revising Article 69 to read: “In our church services only the 150 Psalms and any hymn [!] as approved and adopted by the Synod shall be sung.”

In HH’s defense, his motivation for favoring the above change of Article 69 was not an interest in opening the PRC to all kinds of popular hymns. From his editorials it is clear that his chief concern was that the psalms were of Old Testament vintage, whereas we are in the New Testament age, when the great redemptive events only foreshadowed in psalms were fulfilled in clarity and by name. Why shouldn’t the New Testament church, which confesses these things so clearly in creedal form, not also have the freedom to confess them in song—as for instance, explicit reference to Pentecost and the Holy Spirit? And to Christ JESUS crucified and risen bodily from the dead? The New Testament church displeases God by singing songs that explicitly mention His name? How can that be? Let the New Testament church, which has received the Holy Spirit to expound New Testament Scripture, compose biblically-based songs that set forth Christ’s New Testament saving work to His glory and praise (cf. SB, vol. 37, pp. 436-7, etc.). HH thought some hymns of that caliber already existed. More could be composed.

Synod placed the overture in the hands of a study committee, which was to report to the 1960 Synod with advice on the issue. This it did, a recommendation that followed a lengthy historical survey of the ‘psalmody/hymnody issue’ as it has faced the Christian church since the days of the church fathers—a historical review that can be found in the 1960 Acts. We recommend it for your reading.

Based on their study, the committee proposed a revision of the overture so that it would now read: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung, as also such Hymns which are faithful versifications of the Holy Scripture (!), in each case the General Synod being the judge.” This revision met with the general approval of the 1960 Synod, but, due to a lack of attached grounds, was referred back to the committee with the mandate to report to the 1961 Synod with grounds clearly stated. It did—six of them. Oddly enough, though the committee’s grounds were adopted, synod did not yet approve the revision of Article 69, which was what the grounds were meant to support. A divided synod came to the conclusion that more denominational discussion was needed.

It was this overture with its revised wording—now speaking only of faithful versifications of Scripture passages in addition to those of the psalms—that became the subject of ongoing debate. What the people thought of the overture as now reworded (both pro and con) is plain from the numerous contributions found in the SB, volume 38. HH indicated his hearty approval of the revised wording, reminding his correspondents that, from this point on, the issue before the churches was no longer one of singing hymns, but now was about adding faithful versifications of Scripture to those of the psalms. In fact, in 1961 the committee recommended replacing the word ‘Hymns’ with ‘songs’ due to the unhappy connotations ‘Hymns’ had. So, let there be no more referring to the issue as ‘the hymn question.’

It made no difference. The designation could not be shaken.

Adding more ‘hymns’ to our worship services was what First Church’s overture originally proposed, and that was the word that remained in the revised proposal as well.

And that’s what stuck.

HH made reference in the SB to the synodically approved grounds (vol. 37, pp. 412-3). As he pointed out in editorials following the 1961 Synod, what the special committee was proposing as a revision of Article 69 (and, for that matter, what his First Church had originally proposed!) was not introducing anything substantially new to Article 69. Nor, for that matter, would the revision add anything new to the current practice of the PRC.

Say what one will, the great Synod of Dordt in its CO and Article 69 as we have it did not bind the Reformed churches to exclusive psalmody. To be sure, it promoted the primacy of singing psalms, but not exclusive psalmody. Consider: it approved the singing of the Ten Commandments. That is not psalm-singing. And then there is reference to the evening and morning hymns. And as for current PR practice, what shall we say of our well beloved trinitarian doxology “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”? And what is more, by including Rev. J. Heys’ renditions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Psalter, the PRC had already in principle conceded what the overture proposed. And what are the Songs of Mary, of Zacharius, and of Simeon but versifications of Scripture passages in addition to the psalms?

What principle objections could there then be against adding more of the same?

One might think the case was proved and won. Not so. In the year following the 1961 Synod, voices of growing dissent to adding songs to those already in place for worship could be heard. And it was the voice of the people, agitated sheep, and of a number of their undershepherds, that prevailed in the end.

The overture as reworded was presented to synod one last time in 1962 and acted upon. The editorial following that synod was written over the initials of another HH (this one not with the last name ‘Hoeksema’). He wryly commented:

The “hymn question” came up for final decision at this Synod. Although there was still difference of opinion on the entire question, and perhaps in part because there was difference of opinion, the motion to change Article 69 of the Church Order was voted down unanimously. The Synod felt that there were pressing practical reasons why a matter of this nature should not be brought into our Churches at this time. One could almost say that the ‘hymn question” died in three minutes—unmourned (SB, vol. 38, p. 431).

Evidently, putting to rest at last this source of growing friction within the denomination was a relief to all.

But what is also clear is that synod’s defeat of the overture (with its recommendation of adding versifications of more Old Testament and New Testament passages to our songbook) was not based on principle objections. No grounds were given for the unanimous defeat of the overture—just the words “The motion fails.” Rather, what is clear both from the above quotation of one who was personally involved in the whole issue and from various letters found in the SB prior to the 1962 Synod, is that the deciding factor was practical. It was becoming plain that the “pro’s” and the “con’s” on the issue were becoming increasingly exasperated with each other. And this in a denomination that had just come through the searing split of 1953 and was now in the middle of the divisive issue of how to receive schismatics back again. Was this really the time to deal with ‘the hymn question,’ which, throughout church history, has always proved so divisive?

Voices of wisdom prevailed.

But, while it is true that the 1962 Synod defeated the proposed change without giving its grounds, it is not a mystery what the reasoning for those so adamantly opposed to changing Article 69 was. A perusal of the letters published in the SB makes plain their arguments.

Chiefly these three:

1. The Psalms have always been recognized by the church as the Spirit-inspired songbook for the church of all ages. Why introduce something new? To be sure, other passages of Scripture are inspired, but they were not written as poetry to be sung.

2. History proves the danger of introducing hymns into worship services: first, because many of them have proved to be vehicles introducing false doctrine into the church; and second, because where hymns have been introduced, in time they have invariably supplanted the psalms to the impoverishment of the church.

3. Though, admittedly, the psalms were written in the age of types and shadows, sufficient material anticipating the Messiah’s great New Testament redemption works can be found if one searches carefully enough.

Let it be noted that these are not principle reasons for exclusive psalm-singing, for disallowing all hymns. If they were, Article 69 as it now stands would have to be revised and all those songs referred to in addition to the 150 Psalms of David would have to be expunged, starting with the evening and morning hymns. But these practical arguments were the reasons why, at least in part, the PRC synods of the early 1960s decided it was the better part of wisdom not to tamper with Article 69 and let it stand as written.

Indeed, at times discretion is the better part of valor.

Interestingly, the early 1960s was not the first time our synods had to deal with the issue of adding hymns to the denominational songbook. In the 1940s our churches were confronted with the issue as well. The issue did not begin with a request to turn the Psalter into a Psalter-Hymnal. It began with a synodical decision indicating a growing sentiment that our Psalter could and should be improved.

The 1943 Acts reads: “Synod instructs the Synodical [Psalter] committee to appoint a broad committee consisting of those having musical, poetical, and theological ability, to consider the metrical and poetical revision of the Psalter and to submit the proposed improvements to the Synod of 1944” (Art. 82). When that committee (from the West) indicated it did not have the means to accomplish this monumental project, the 1944 Synod appointed another committee, giving it the following mandate: “That a committee be appointed to purge the Psalter of doctrinal errors and if possible, to make recommendations for some revisions” (Art. 53).

The committee to which synod entrusted this work was not composed of lightweights. Names such as Revs. G. Ophoff and M. Schipper are listed, along with H. Hoeksema as advisor, as well as that of a certain D. Jonker. Adherents of orthodoxy one and all, and for those familiar with the Jonker name, at least one who was gifted in both poetry and music.

The committee reported to the Synod of 1945 and informed synod that it understood its mandate, among other things, to be: to search out and suggest correction of doctrinal errors; to determine whether or not the content of each psalm has been included in the versification and, if not, to suggest additional verses to correct such exclusions; to suggest new tunes as well as the elimination of some tunes in the present Psalter; and to determine to what extent the present tunes fit the words and, if necessary, suggest any improvement (cf. 1945 Acts, Art. 19, pp. 26, 27).

A perusal of the 1945 through 1947 Acts reveals a remarkable amount of work done. A rather long list of recommended versification revisions can be found in those Acts, along with a list of tunes to be eliminated and suggested tunes to be added. The various synods took note of their work, indicated approval, and instructed them to continue.

In 1949 the committee requested the expansion of its mandate, namely, for permission to search for scripturally- based songs appropriate for the various redemptive events of Christ’s life—His birth, death, resurrection, etc.

The resulting motion brought to the floor of the 1949 Synod reads: “Motion….to grant permission to work on versifications of other passages of Scripture and to advise the committee to search the field of existing hymns [!] for doctrinally sound hymns for special occasions” (Art. 27).

The motion was defeated.

Evidently all that was forbidden by the defeated motion was their spending of time looking for doctrinally sound hymns, because the committee continued to work on revising the Psalter, though they did not report back to synod until 1952. They informed that synod of the progress in their work. That synod took note of the report but did little else. It 1955 the committee reminded synod of its ongoing existence, reporting on its work once more. Interestingly enough, having thanked the committee for its years of labor, the synod disbanded it. Some thanks! Its work was to be put in an archive and kept for future reference.

But as planes sometime mysteriously disappear from the radar, all that work has mysteriously disappeared into some unknown void as well. A mystery to this present day.

Why the synods of the early to mid-1950s did not see fit to use all the hard work of the committee and to revise the Psalter accordingly we are not told. The simple reality, of course, was that in the late 1940s the storm that culminated in the ‘split of 1953’ already loomed on the horizon. Those synods did not have the unity or energy needed to publish a new Psalter. And post-1953 those early synods did not need to add new issues of potential debate to their agendas.

So, a revision committee labored mightily for some ten years and was disbanded. And, in the end, the Psalter and Article 69 remained as written.

There was one other overture to revise Article 69 of the C.O. that made it to the synodical level in our churches. That was an overture that came from Edgerton PRC in 1999. The overture did not aim directly at Article 69, but requested a wide-ranging revision of the C.O. to remove outdated references and bring it up-to-date for our era. But, interestingly enough, the article that ended up receiving the most attention was Article 69.

A study committee was appointed to review Edgerton’s suggested revisions and to come to the 2000 Synod with advice. It did, with synod adopting most of its recommendations. But not its advice on Article 69. When it came to Article 69, the committee was mandated to review the history of the issue back through the church age and report to the 2002 Synod. It returned with the survey of the history found in the 1962 Acts. And it came with both a majority and a minority report.

The majority proposed revising the Article 69 to read: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung, along with the Lord’s Prayer, the Songs of Mary, Zacharius, and Simeon, and the doxologies.” In other words, advice to bring the article into keeping with the current practice in the churches.

This was defeated!

The minority report proposed: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung.” Essentially what was being proposed was exclusive psalmody—although in the following motion the report requested synod to retain the doxology “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” designating it as an honorary psalm.

The motion promoting exclusive psalmody was defeated, and, as a result, no action was required on our much beloved trinitarian doxology.

Once again, Dordt’s Article 69 and the Psalter ‘weathered the storm’ and remained as written.

Maybe history and the Spirit through this history are trying to tell us something? I am convinced He is and has. What that is this writer intends to reflect on in a couple months when the duty of writing editorials falls to him again.

Stay tuned.