16th Annual Reformation Hymn Festival

by Colin Howland October 18, 2015

For the last 16 years Tenth Presbyterian Church has devoted an evening at the end of October to celebrating its Reformation heritage. Implicit in this is the notion that spiritually and intellectually we humbly stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. This echoes the Reformers’ passion concerning the belief and practice of the Church; they wanted to stand on the shoulders of the Apostles as understood by the early Church Fathers. They rightly championed the concept of Sola Scriptura, meaning the Scriptures alone are the only rule of faith and practice. We welcome to our pulpit for the evening Dr. R.  Kent Hughes who will preach on “Conscience and the Reformers.”

Sola Scriptura significantly influenced the reforms of liturgy. Renewed emphasis was placed on the public reading and singing of Scripture in the peoples’ language. Interest in singing the Psalms was an inevitable result. Since the Bible was to guide every aspect of worship, and since prayer is an essential element of worship and music a form of prayer, what better resource could be available than the Psalms? John Calvin beautifully and helpfully describes this in his preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1543:

As to public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists of words alone; the other includes music. And this is no recent invention. For since the very beginning of the church it has been this way, as we may learn from history books. Nor does St. Paul himself speak only of prayer by word of mouth, but also of singing. And in truth, we know from experience that song has a great power and strength to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a heart more vehement and ardent. One must always watch lest the song be light and frivolous; rather, it should have weight and majesty, as St. Augustine says. And thus there is a great difference between the music that is made to entertain people at home and at table, and the Psalms which are sung in church, in the presence of God and His angels…For even in our homes and out of doors let it be a spur to us and a means of praising God and lifting up our hearts to Him, so that we may be consoled by meditating on His virtue, His bounty, His wisdom, and His justice. For this is more necessary than one can ever tell.

So what are we to do? We should have songs that are not only upright but holy, that will spur us to pray to God and praise Him, to meditate on His works so as to love Him, to fear Him, to honour Him, and glorify Him. For what St. Augustine said is true, that one can sing nothing worthy of God save what one has received from Him. Wherefore though we look far and wide we will find no better songs nor songs more suitable to that purpose than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit made and imparted to him. Thus, singing them we may be sure that our words come from God just as if He were to sing in us for His own exaltation. Wherefore, Chrysostom exhorts men, women, and children alike to get used to singing them, so as through this act of meditation to become as one with the choir of angels.

It is appropriate to say in today’s terms that, as a result of the Reformers’ work, Psalm singing in churches literally went “viral.” For example, Calvin’s Genevan Psalter of 1562 was published in nearly 100 editions in many languages in its first hundred years! With the help of several gifted poets and composers, Calvin provided poeticized translations of the Psalms set to new music. This allowed for entire Psalms to be sung in strophic verses with the same music for each verse, making the entire Psalter easily accessible to congregations. The early Psalters became the poetic and musical basis for modern hymnody. 

This year’s festival will explore the rich heritage and variety of metrical Psalms, including settings for congregational singing, children’s choir, brass, and adult choir.

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Colin Howland. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org