Prof. Gritters is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Protestant Reformed Churches are a Psalm-singing denomination. They sing Psalms in worship—and little else. The families sing Psalms (as well as good hymns) in their homes—many Psalms. Their children are taught the Psalms in the Christian schools—where Psalms have pride of place.
The PRC are gladly Psalm-singing churches. They understand what an old preacher meant when, praising the Psalms, he said: “David has for ages subdued more hearts with his harp than ever with his sword and scepter.” And they believe that one of the instruments God uses to preserve them is the singing of the Psalms. By the Psalms they teach and admonish one another. By the Psalms the Word of Christ dwells in them richly (Col. 3:16).
That the Protestant Reformed Churches are Psalm-singing churches is due in part to God’s work of preserving Reformed Christianity in the Secession of 1834. There is history behind the PRC’s Psalm-singing.
When the churches’ youth ask why the church worships God by singing Psalms, the pastor would be wise to reason from Scripture, but very quickly also direct the youth to ask another question. It is what I always call “the question of history.” Those interested in why the church believes or practices anything should always ask the “question of history.” That is, how did the church of the past worship? Did they sing Psalms?
Asking the question of history is faithfulness to God. He commanded: “Ask for the old paths, where is the good way.” He instructs the church: “Hold the traditions.” One of these traditions of the church is singing the Psalms.
The fathers of the Afscheidingcontended that separation from the existing church was necessary. Though Psalm-singing was not the central issue in the Secession, the requirement that the churches sing hymns may well have precipitated the schism. A substitution of hymns for Psalms was a departure from the old paths, the good way.
The Battle for Psalms
Some 300 years before theAfscheiding, the great Reformation of the sixteenth century restored Psalm singing. The German branch of the Reformation, under the influence of Luther, maintained the singing of many hymns; although no one may suppose that Luther did not love the Psalms and the singing of the Psalms. However, the Swiss, French, Scotch, and Dutch branches believed that faithfulness to the old paths was to sing the Psalms, and perhaps exclusively.
This was true emphatically in the Lowlands. In 1566 the reformer Petrus Dathenus published a volume containing his translation into Dutch of the Psalms in meter, after the pattern of the Genevan Psalter. Already in 1568, the Dutch churches at Wesel adopted this as their Psalter. This was the songbook of the Dutch Reformed churches for many years, although not without struggle. When the Great Synod at Dordt met in 1618-1619, the churches had to fight off an attempt by the Arminians to introduce hymns. Thus, Dordt adopted a church order that called the churches to sing Psalms (Art. 69). The synod did permit a few hymns to be sung (as well as the 10 commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed), but Dordt’s intent was to convey a message no one could miss: “We are Psalm-singing churches!”
For 150 years after Dordt, the Dutch churches maintained the practice of singing from King David’s songbook. Again, not without struggle. Confirming the adage “If you want a fight in the church, debate money or music,” the Dutch Reformed during the 1700s fought about which version of the Psalms would be used. “Datheen,” as they called the Psalter of Petrus Dathenus, was the songbook of choice, and even “went underground” when the rulers determined another would be used instead. So it is not a surprise to hear that there were riots in some of the fishermen’s towns near Rotterdam over proposals to use something other than Dathenus’ version of the Psalter.
But soon there were moves to add hymns to the church’s repertoire of worship songs. In 1789, a Psalm book was published that included an appendix with hymns. These were known as the “evangelische gezangen,” or “Evangelical Hymns.” In 1796, the provincial Synod of North Holland initiated an official adoption of hymns by proposing that all seven provincial synods in the Netherlands jointly compose a new songbook that would include both Psalms and hymns, a kind of “Psalter-Hymnal.” Some of the synods were slow to sign on, but by 1805 the joint committee presented their songbook to the acting head of the Dutch republic. By 1807 it became the official song-book of the Reformed churches.
Now it becomes clear that, although the matter of Psalms and hymns was not the central issue in the Secession, it was an important part of the struggle to maintain the purity of the church and persevere on the old paths.
The Psalm-Singing Leaders
The ministers who led their flocks out of the departing churches testified that Psalm-singing was one of the reasons for secession.
Hendrik deCock first wrote a preface to a layman’s attack on hymns. Later deCock wrote his own tract. “Will you, I say, trample and disobey and stray from the path and do away with all the decisions of the general synods of our fathers regarding their pronouncements against these songs?” deCock’s pamphlet quotes Peter Martyr, who said that by hymns, the “Roman church received copper in exchange for gold.”
He objected not because the hymns were bad hymns—modernistic and theologically unsound—but because they were hymns. One historian’s analysis of the history confirms this: “They decried the introduction of hymns into the worship as another channel of heterodoxy— hymns being the words of man as opposed to Psalms, the words of God.”
A Christian Reformed historian tells of the church discipline applied to H. Scholte. The reasons? “He had objections to the preparatory questions for the Lord’s Supper… and his flock objected to the use of the hymns.”
Anthony Brummelkamp “refused to baptize children of nonconfessing members… and declared that he would no longer give out the hymns since there were many objections to them . . . .”
Theirs were not the only testimonies of love for the Psalms. But they are representative of the people of theAfscheiding.
Reasons for Hymns
Those who promoted the hymns claimed that ministers needed songs that were appropriate for the particular Lord’s Day of the Heidelberg Catechism sermon. Or they suggested that the church needed a songbook that extolled “the fulfilled gospel; the honor of the Savior and of the Holy Spirit; the atonement; and grace.” They suggested that the hymns were the Dutch people’s attempt to have a “freer church hymn in which the Christian heart should find the satisfying expression of its holiest emotion.” The committee proposing the hymns was so bold as to claim that the hymns were “. . . to guard in our congregations the purity of doctrine in the midst of a stream of manifold dangerous modernities.” The problem with these claims is, first, that hymns are not needed to sing of Jesus Christ, as Jesus Himself said in Luke 24:27, 44, and as Paul said in Colossians 3:16 (see also Eph. 5:19). Second, some of the new hymns themselves were doctrinally unsound.
One of the Reformed ministers not on the side of the Secessionists went on the offensive against Psalmsinging. J.J. VanOosterzee’s criticism was sharp. First, he flayed the seceding ministers by labeling them as shepherds “who minister to the disease of the congregation.” Not satisfied with promoting hymns, VanOosterzee attacked ministers. He also assaulted the Psalms. “As the Dutch metrical Psalms now are, they are found to be…for the greater half, altogether unusable, and also actually out of use in the Church of the New Covenant; which can indeed read all these Psalms, but can only to a very partial extent singthem in public worship.”
The Defense of Psalms
The Afscheiding ministers defended Psalmody primarily, but not exclusively, by an appeal to the history of God’s church. The Reformation had restored Psalms. The Great Synod (Dordt) had so recently called the Dutch Reformed to be Psalm-singers. The church must preserve this precious heritage.
deCock opened his pamphlet against hymns this way:
Hymns were never introduced into the church, except to cause degeneration and contempt for the welfare of the church, or perhaps in cases of incomplete Reformation . . . . We see as well that in the best of time, in the purest churches, hymns are never found nor tolerated . . . . Where Reformation has broken out in its purest form, the hymns are completely done away with.
. . . not with us nor in France nor in Geneva, are hymns tolerated or found, and certainly not in Scotland. However, in England, where Episcopalian church government remains, and where Romish ceremonies are still partially allowed, one will perhaps find hymns being sung.
In their appeal to history, these Reformers could be sharp, too:
Where, therefore, were the hymns or other whorish songs ever used in the days of the apostles in the congregation of the Lord? Do we find any reference to them? Never!
After referring to the heretics of ancient times, deCock said:
These heretics . . . had innovations in mind and caused congregations to become perverse, blinded through errors, and they did these things by means of new songs of human composition.
Psalms in worship! The Reformers of 1834 called for Psalms. Although their concerns in reformation were more, and deeper, their reform included restoration of the churches’ pure worship.
The Protestant Reformed Churches come out of the tradition of theAfscheiding. They are one of the few denominations of Reformed with Dutch roots that has remained true to that tradition (there are a few Presbyterian denominations that maintain the Psalms in worship). We call our Reformed and Presbyterian brothers worldwide to join with us in singing God’s praises through the Psalms.
The tradition of the Afscheiding is maintained. But not without struggle.
When our fathers, many from theAfscheiding churches, came to America in the mid-1800s, they sang the Psalms. But the battle that was waged in the Netherlands repeated itself in this country. When the immigrants joined the existing “Dutch Reformed” denomination in the States, they soon found membership there unacceptable. One of the reasons was the use of hymns in worship.
In 1857, five American congregations seceded from the “Reformed Protestant Dutch Church” (known today as the Reformed Church in America) with this confession (take note what is listed first):
We are obliged to give you notice of our present ecclesiastical standpoint, namely, separating ourselves from your denomination . . . with which we thoughtlessly became connected upon our arrival in America. We are uniting ourselves with the Afgescheidene Gereformeerde Kerk in the Netherlands . . . . The reasons for this our secession . . . are as follows: 1) The collection of 800 hymns . . . .
This was the beginning of the Christian Reformed Churches.
The CRC, too, struggled long to maintain the singing of Psalms. By today, the CRC has adopted mostly hymns. In 1932, at the beginning of that struggle, that denomination prefaced their new songbook with these words: “. . . during the 77 years of its existence, the Christian Reformed Church has sung practically nothing but Psalms in public worship.” The preface said:
We were aware of the unsound or unsatisfactory character of many current hymns, and we feared that in an environment where the Psalms are seldom sung, the introduction of hymns in public worship would lead to the neglect of those deeply spiritual songs of the Old Testament which the Church should never fail to use in its service of praise.
The deeply spiritual songs of the Old Testament which the Church should never fail to use in its service of praise!
Knowing this history may be helpful for the people of God to maintain their love for the Psalms. It may assist them to show their questioning youth that they stand in the line of godly men and women who worshiped God in this way for hundreds and thousands of years.
May the Lord Christ, the “sweet Psalmist (Singer!) of Israel,” put His Psalms in the church’s heart and mouth, so she does not miss out on their depth, breadth, and God-centered focus. To say nothing of their inspired “instructions” and “admonitions” by which the people of God converse in the beauty of covenant worship (Eph. 5:19).
(Please write the editorial office for the sources of the quotations in this article. If you ask, we will be glad to send you a list of literature that explains the biblical basis for the church’s practice of singing Psalms. The literature will include an explanation of how the words of Christdwell in the church when she sings the Psalms. A subject that may be worth treating in a future special issue. Ed.)