Tag Archives: Psalm-singing

The Liberation of 26 Hungarian Reformed Ministers

I’m currently reading Spiritual Desertion by Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Hoornbeeck.  This seventeenth-century work  includes a helpful historical introduction by M. Eugene Oosterhaven.  In this introduction is a fascinating story that I’ve never heard of before, related to the picture above.  To set the context, Oosterhaven has another picture that includes this caption:

Among the theological students of Voetius and Hoornbeeck were scores of Hungarians who pondered the possibility of their kin and country being abandoned by God.  Muslim Turks had occupied Hungary since 1526.  Their cruelty and exploitation of the people shocked all of Europe.  However, Jesuits and Hapsburg rulers, in the service of Rome, were the cause of even greater suffering.

Then this is the caption that goes with the picture I’ve included above:

The liberation of Hungarian ministers at Naples by Admiral de Ruyter, 1676.  The men pictured had been sold to a Spanish fleet to serve as galley slaves.  Chained to oars day and night for nine months, some had struggled with the fear of abandonment by God as well as their fellow believers.  The twenty-six survivors sang Psalms 46, 114, and 125 as they were being transferred to a Dutch ship on February 11, 1676.  When the transfer was complete, they knelt on the deck in their rags and emaciated condition and sang Psalm 116.  The Dutch seamen, who seldom shed tears, wept openly.

How did the Dutch know that the Hungarians (who spoke no Dutch) were singing Psalms 46, 114, 125 and 116?  Because they were singing them in Hungarian on the Genevan tunes.  The Psalms are still being sung in Hungary in this fashion.


Genevan Psalm-Singing “Lectionary”

I’ve been reading John Witvliet’s The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources.  Witvliet suggests that there is value to singing through all the Psalms on a regular basis.  He also remarks that has a historical basis:  “In Calvin’s Geneva, despite the rejection of the Roman lectionary for Scripture readings and sermon texts, the Psalms were sung in public worship according to a regular regimen that was printed in the back of published Psalters (indeed, it was a lectionary for singing)”  (51).  I had a look at a couple of old Genevan Psalters (1565 and 1674), but I didn’t find any such “lectionary.”  However, with some help from one of my colleagues (thanks, George!), I found the original source which Witvliet references, Pierre Pidoux’s Le Psautier Huguenot du XVIe siecle.  Pidoux reproduces a chart that is apparently found at the back of a 1562 Genevan Psalter.  You can find it here.

There are a few interesting features on this chart.  The entire Psalter is sung through in a half-year.  However, this involves a Wednesday service (Jour des Prieres), as well as the use of pre-service songs before the morning and evening Sunday services.  It also sometimes involves determining the song before and after the sermon, thus taking this song selection out of the hands of the minister.  Also, the singing of whole Psalms is the norm, although where the Psalm is long, it will be split up over two or more services.

I think something like this could be used in twenty-first century Reformed worship services as well.  I’m going to tinker with it and see what I can come up with.  I agree with Witvliet that there is value in singing all the Psalms on a regular basis.


Singing Psalms — Why Not the Whole Enchilada?

Frank Ezinga has another interesting post over here about the singing of Psalms. Specifically, he’s interested in tracing the history of why so many Reformed churches only sing very select parts of the psalms, rather than whole Psalms.  He believes there’s a historical reason for this and he provides a musical sample to prove his point.  If you’re familiar at all with the Genevan tunes as sung in Canadian Reformed Churches, this sample will probably be unrecognizable.

I’ve always agreed with Frank:  we ought to strive for singing whole Psalms.  I know that sometimes it’s impractical — Psalm 119 being the classic example.  My personal guideline is that if it has five stanzas or less, we normally sing the whole thing.  I don’t think that’s unreasonable.  By that guideline, with the latest revision of the Book of Praise there are some 72 Psalms that can easily be sung in their entirety.  There are quite a few more that have six or seven short stanzas that could also be sung whole.  Psalms of eight or nine stanzas can be split and the whole psalm can still be sung in the worship service, even if not all at once.

I know that if I’m sitting in church and the minister selects, say stanzas 1 and 5 of Psalm 146, I always feel cheated.  It’s only five stanzas — why not sing the whole thing?  It’s a beautiful Psalm.  Sometimes, however, even ministers get squeamish about some of the content of the Psalms.  A classic example is Psalm 95 and its last two stanzas.  The Psalm starts off encouraging praise for God and then stanza 4:

Today, would you but hear His voice:

Do not repeat your father’s choice

who stubbornly with Me contended;

at Massah’s rock and Meribah

they tested me although they saw

how they by Me had been defended.

And stanza 5:

For forty years they wearied Me,

I said, “They show no loyalty.”

Their hardened hearts resist My favour;

My ways they foolishly ignore.”

And so I in my anger swore:

“Into my rest they’ll enter never.”

I can remember attending a Psalm-sing at a Free Church of Scotland congregation some years ago.  I requested Psalm 95 (from the RPCNA Book of Psalms for Singing).  The minister presiding asked the congregation to sing it, but left off the last part because he thought it was awkward for us to sing that.  I’ve seen many CanRC ministers do that too and I’m just as guilty as anyone.  Why are we so squeamish?  We have no problem reading the whole of Psalm 95, why such a problem with singing it?  Are we afraid that someone might be offended?  Then we may just as well drop the reading of the Law.  It makes no sense.  Let’s sing whole Psalms as much as possible.


Being Subversive

Over the weekend, I finished reading Charlie R. Steen’s A Chronicle of Conflict: Tournai, 1559-1567.  Tournai was the city where the Belgic Confession was penned and where it first became public in 1561.  This book covers the years before and after, though the Belgic Confession is never actually mentioned.  This book is a disappointment in some respects.  The author portrays the Reformed churches and their pastors as revolutionaries.  He seems to adopt the view of the government of this period that Guy de Bres and the other Reformed believers were actually seditious people intent on overthrowing civil order.  In that regard, Steen also makes several crucial errors in fact.  For instance, he argues that de Bres was involved with leading nocturnal psalm-singing in the streets of Tournai (30).  In point of fact, de Bres warned the Reformed believers not to do this.  Moreover, Steen often confuses the rabble that used the Calvinistic label  as a pre-text for their civil disorder with devout Reformed believers who opposed it.  In short, this account of this period in Tournai’s history is not sympathetic to the Reformed churches, nor does it even really present a balanced view of things.  Instead, in some places it seems like Steen has an axe to grind with the Calvinists.  Finally, even though it is a scholarly work, many of the author’s statements are unsubstantiated.  There are end notes, but there could have been many more.

Nevertheless, it is an engaging read and there are some interesting and helpful points to take away from it.  One thing that I was reminded of was that there were at least three main things that the Reformed held to which were considered subversive and seditious by the government in Brussels:

1)  Psalm-singing.  This was mostly because of the obnoxious chanteries, or public psalm-singings that always took place at night in Tournai.  Margaret of Parma eventually made psalm-singing a capital crime.  The psalms (the Word of God!) were considered to be seditious words — it became treasonous to read or sing them.

2)  The deaconate.  When the time seemed right, the consistory of the Reformed church in Tournai began taking collections for the care of the poor.  A deaconate ministry was established.  Margaret of Parma regarded this as a “obvious and pernicious conspiracy.”  The Reformed were seizing privileges and prerogatives that belonged only to the civil magistrates.  Welfare belonged to the state and the church was out of bounds to try and work in this area.

3)  Christian education.  The consistory in Tournai wanted to establish Christian schools for the children of the Reformed church.  This was also regarded as seditious since education belonged to the realm of government.  After Philip II regained control of Tournai in 1567, a law was made which stated that Reformed children had to be sent to Roman Catholic schools.  If they were not, they could be taken away from their parents.

One item that Steen doesn’t mention is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  This was actually the reason why de Bres was hung on May 31, 1567.  He was hung for celebrating the Lord’s Supper against the orders of the civil magistrate.  In fact, the celebration of both sacraments by the Reformed was regarded as seditious.  Babies who were baptized in the Reformed church during its brief time of relative freedom later had to be rebaptized in the Roman Catholic Church.

The three main items mentioned above could still be regarded as subversive, even if they are no longer regarded as seditious.  They are counter-cultural.  The singing of psalms is virtually unheard of in churches today.  Ironically, some of our own Reformed people would be happy to get rid of most of them too.  The deaconate too is a rare institution in Christian churches, though I don’t think the government would complain if our deacons were to do more.  As for Christian education, it is also a niche endeavour for the most part.  As for the civil government, in most Canadian jurisdictions Christian schools are just barely tolerated.


Psalm-singing Churches?

I’ve uploaded my recent articles on psalm-singing in Reformed churches.  Look to the right under “Articles” or just click here for a direct link.