Meet Your New Psalter (Part 2)

Songbook Committee Report Excerpt

(Update, 11/3/2014: A fuller analysis and more accurate statistics on the Psalm Proposal appear in my article “The Outlook on the Psalm Proposal,” in The Outlook, Sept./Oct. 2014, vol. LXIV, no. 5., published by Reformed Fellowship.)

Readers, thank you for your hearty response to yesterday’s post.  Not even a few hours had gone by since publishing when comments, emails, and Facebook messages started to pour in with helpful and supportive reactions to the Psalm Proposal from across our federation.

I’d like to follow up on yesterday’s post by exploring some specifications and statistics of the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal.  Due to my lack of time for detailed study, these figures are rough and possibly a little out-of-date (since the Psalm Proposal is undergoing continual revision).  Nevertheless, for the purposes of a general overview, I hope they will suffice.  As always, please comment or contact me to provide corrections.

For much of the following data I am indebted to the ever-helpful URC Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen, and to Rev. John Bouwers and the congregation of Immanuel Orthodox Reformed Church (URCNA) in Jordan, Ontario.  Information on the Reformed Presbyterian psalters comes from a Geneva professor and the former director of my college choir, Dr. Robert Copeland.  See his essay “The Experience of Singing the Psalms” in the front matter of The Book of Psalms for Worship (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2009), xvi-xvii.

Size and scope

Currently the Psalm Proposal contains about 273 selections, a very respectable number compared to the existing Psalter Hymnal’s 310.  The distribution of psalm settings is slightly more balanced in the proposal than in the PsH, with most psalms receiving one to three versifications as opposed to the blue book’s pattern of giving “favorite” psalms four or five settings at the expense of less frequently sung psalms.  Besides the 22 songs assigned to Psalm 119, the greatest number of selections for a particular psalm is only four (for both Psalms 22 and 150).  Also, the Psalm Proposal utilizes the Reformed Presbyterian method of numbering, which adds a letter suffix to the number of each psalm (103A, 103B, &c.) rather than a sequential system.  Less literal arrangements are marked with the words “Partial” or “Paraphrase.”

Where the blue Psalter Hymnal fits in

Psalm Proposal Pie

URC members hoping to see a mere revision of the blue Psalter Hymnal may be unprepared for the extent of the Songbook Committee’s work.  Only about 45% of the proposed selections utilize psalm tunes from the blue book, and only 35% or so preserve the original tune for the equivalent psalm section in the PsH.  (Another 15% of the proposal’s tunes can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal’s hymn section.)  For the texts, conducting an accurate survey is much more time-consuming, but I think it’s safe to say that relatively few selections maintain the original wording of the Psalter Hymnal; for most songs the committee has either modernized the language of the 1912 Psalter or taken up entirely different (though faithful) versifications.

Examples: 1A, 32A, 51ph, 103ph

(Note that in order to access these links you will need the username and password for the digital Psalm Proposal, available by contacting the Songbook Committee chairman at

Not burning the wooden shoes

The Psalm Proposal will offer United Reformed congregations a chance to preserve the rich psalm-singing heritage handed down to them from the Dutch Reformed tradition which utilized the 1551 Genevan Psalter.  At a glance I see no less than 23 Genevan tunes listed in the index of the proposal, of which at least four do not appear in the blue Psalter Hymnal.  By and large the texts for these settings are derived from the Canadian Reformed Churches’ ongoing work on their own Book of Praise.

Examples: 42A, 51A, 98B

Scottish psalmody: welcome (back?)

ABERYSTWYTH, LLANGLOFFAN, TARWATHIE, LLEF—whence are all these extraordinary tune names?  One of the biggest sectors of the Psalm Proposal’s contents brings in selections of Scottish origin (along with their distinctly Anglo-Saxon tune names) from the Reformed Presbyterian Book of Psalms for Singing and more recent Book of Psalms for Worship.  Both songbooks have their origins not in the continental Genevan Psalter, but in the Scottish Psalter of 1650.

psalmodyflowchartA bit of historical background may be helpful here.  Recall that the CRC’s red and blue Psalter Hymnals derived their psalm settings almost exclusively from the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter, which the joint work of several Reformed and Presbyterian denominations (as I mentioned in yesterday’s post).  Although the Reformed Presbyterian Church initially contributed to the effort, this denomination objected to the United Presbyterians’ prioritization of good poetry over Scriptural accuracy, eventually withdrawing from the project to produce its own revision of the 1650 Scottish Psalter.  Further revisions of this psalter were made in 1929 and 1950, leading to the RPCNA’s production of the Book of Psalms for Singing in 1973 and the Book of Psalms for Worship in 2009.  The dichotomy between the poetic approach of the 1912 Psalter and the literal stance of the Book of Psalms for Singing / Worship is still evident today if one compares Christian Reformed psalm settings with Reformed Presbyterian versifications.

All of this is to say that the Songbook Committee’s decision to prioritize RP settings over our more familiar ones could be interpreted in one of two ways: unfaithfulness to our own psalm-singing heritage, or a much-needed return to the Scriptural accuracy upheld in the descendants of the Scottish Psalter.

Examples: 2046A, 98A

The fruits of our own labor

One of the most exciting marks of a new psalm or hymn collection is the presence of good songs that have arisen in recent years from within our federation itself.  Songbook Committee members have contributed their own talents to the Psalm Proposal by composing new tunes, creating new versifications, and writing new verses to finish formerly incomplete psalm settings.  Several selections from the proposal are mostly or entirely the work of URCNA members.

Examples: 36pr

As this brief exploration demonstrates, the Psalm Proposal draws from an incredible diversity of sources.  Of all the complaints that could be leveled against its contents, limited scope is not one of them.  However, there are many other considerations involved in the lengthy process of transitioning to a new Psalter Hymnal.

Lord willing, we’ll continue tomorrow by examining the strengths and weaknesses of particular Psalm Proposal selections.  Your comments, as always, are appreciated.


16 Responses to “Meet Your New Psalter (Part 2)”

  1. 1 Sean McDonald October 31, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    One of the main criticisms that I have had regarding our Psalter revisions in the RPCNA (starting to some extent in our 1911/1912 revision, but especially starting in 1973) is the move away from having at least one version of every Psalm in the same simple meter (historically common meter). Almost more than the issues of accuracy and historicity, this has been one of the main “selling points” for individuals and families that I know that have started using the Scottish Psalter of 1650. It enables everyone to sing every verse of every Psalm, whether or not they are musically talented or inclined.

    I am not in favor of reinventing the wheel on this one, or in favor of abolishing such things as “thee,” “thou,” or “Jehovah” from our Psalters. But if that is set in stone, please consider having at least one common meter version for every Psalm in its entirety. This would enable people to focus more on singing the pure Word of God, since they would be able to use any common meter tune for any common meter selection, rather than focus on learning 400+ tunes. If that is not feasible, please consider having either the common meter selections of the Scottish Psalter, or of the revised versions of the Scottish Psalter (the RPCNA, UPCNA, and PCI all made such revisions), as a words-only appendix to the proposed Psalter-Hymnal.

  2. 2 Ian Barclay November 6, 2013 at 1:30 am

    Hi Michael. The psalter history infographic is great! I suppose you could tack the CanRC Psalters onto the lower right side of the chart. I am sure you have heard that they have a revised version in the works. I have wondered what they used prior to their 1970s(?) psalter – do you know?

    I am not a member of any of the denominations in question (due primarily to geography) so my thoughts may be taken with a grain of salt. I would like to say I share Sean’s concerns about matching meters within psalms. As much as I like the RPCNA tradition and its emphasis on faithfulness to the text, it is unfortunate that one can no longer sing through all the the psalms in their entirety, to the same tune if desired. This is certainly a much greater issue in the 2009 Book of Psalms for Worship than previous editions, although I do enjoy some of the new tunes. Singing a medium to longer psalm all the way through seems to be somewhat undervalued in my experience in the RPCNA (and CRC when they used to sing more psalms). I believe singing a psalm beginning to end to the same tune/meter ought to be possible for each psalm (possibly excepting 119) in case a congregation wishes to do so. A few of the longer psalms can simply be set to their Genevan tunes as a way of singing them all the way through. It is probably too late in your selection process to make significant changes based on this advice but I thought I would mention it anyway.

  3. 3 Joel November 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Ian, the URCNA proposal does include at least one full psalm paired with one tune for each Psalm, save for Psalm 119 (which is broken into the 22 sections corresponding to the Hebrew alphabet as found in Scripture). Hope that allays your concerns. Thus, 149 of the 150 Psalms can be sung from its beginning to its end with the same tune.

    Sean, you have worthy aspirations, but if I understand you correctly, there are very difficult issues with having each psalm shoehorned into the same meter. The diversity of poetry (e.g. length of lines, where complete thoughts begin and end, etc.) in the Psalms makes this very difficult, as many Psalms would have to be heavily modified by either removing parts of Scripture or adding extra-biblical material to Scripture in order to meet the demands and limitations of one specific meter. The reality is that the diversity of Hebrew poetry in the Psalms does not easily translate to modern meters.

  4. 7 Norm V. November 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Fantastic infographic that vividly illustrates the progression of the psalter through the centuries!

    I’d echo the interest to have the CanRC Psalter added to the tree if it is possible because of the previous effort the URC made to cooperate with their development of an update to their Psalter. Rev. George VanPopta might be a source of info if you need it.

    Prediction time: will many of the congregations in the URC adopt a two-book solution? Keeping ol’ Blue and adding the New Psalter Hymnal would be wise for many of the congregations who have expressed alarm at the prospect of favourites being ‘dropped’.

    • 8 Michael Kearney November 13, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks, Rev. VEP! I would like to continue adding to that flowchart as time goes on, though it is hard to make it exhaustive and refined. I suppose I subconsciously placed the CanRC Book of Praise under the general category of “Dutch Psalters” since it is, indeed, basically a modernization of the original Genevan/Dutch Psalter. However, their role in shaping our new songbook has been (and perhaps will continue to be) very important.

      I also tend to concur with you about the “two-book solution.” The conclusion to this series, which I’m currently working on, expresses some of my own concerns about how this change will impact the URC, and how it can be carried out in the smoothest way possible. I’ll be sure to mention something of this as a possible alternative to a hard break between the old and new songbooks.



      • 9 Norm V. November 14, 2013 at 5:08 pm

        Have you written any posts on the use of “archaisms” and the push-pull dynamic that inevitably comes up when words are modified? Just curious.

        A songbook that has broken bindings and worn pages because of constant use is a beautiful (and compelling) thing. It suggests the passage of time and the persistence of a way of praising God and responding to His Word.

        • 10 Michael Kearney November 14, 2013 at 8:24 pm

          Rev. VEP,

          Jim Oord and I have often touched the issue of archaic language in a psalter, but usually only tangentially. It’s a big topic, and one that I didn’t want to tackle on the blog, especially back in early 2012 when the controversy over modernized hymn lyrics was still simmering in the URCNA.

          Although not entirely related, here is the first of a short series I composed regarding the place of psalm paraphrases in our worship. It’s amazing how much I’ve learned in a year and a half, and if I were to comb through these articles now I’d probably have to disagree with myself on some points. However, perhaps it will still be helpful in some way:

          I’ll also send you a PDF which contains some more specific comments on alterations to hymns.

          I hope those resources may be helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time to interact on this important step in the URCNA.


  5. 11 Derrick Vander Meulen November 13, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    I’d like to make a few comments to clarify your conclusion:

    “All of this is to say that the Songbook Committee’s decision to prioritize RP settings over our more familiar ones could be interpreted in one of two ways: unfaithfulness to our own psalm-singing heritage, or a much-needed return to the Scriptural accuracy upheld in the descendants of the Scottish Psalter.”

    First, when you use the phrase “the Songbook Committee’s,” it must be understood that the psalm proposal being discussed is offered by 2 committees – the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee, and the OPC Psalter Hymnal Special Committee. Both committees “gave in” and compromised at several points.

    Second, there was no initial intention to “prioritize RP settings.” The greater number of RP settings is due to the fact that the majority of individuals from our two committees found, when comparing the various settings, that one was better suited, more faithful to the text, more singable, etc than the other. The resulting selections revealed what you have noticed.

    Third, the URC committee is bound to follow the Principles and Guidelines approved by Synod 2004. In particular, guidelines 2 & 3 regarding Psalms:

    2. The Book of Psalms is foundational for the Church’s songs. Therefore, all of these Psalms, in their entirety, ought to be included in the Church’s songbook.

    3. When Psalms or other portions of Scripture are set to music, the words must be faithful to the content and form of the inspired text. (2 Timothy 3:16)

    Sadly, an honest and objective reading of many of the psalm settings in the blue PH fall far short of these URCNA approved guidelines. So we struggled when we came across well-loved settings that fall short. Hopefully people will realize that our sentiment is NOT “unfaithfulness to our own psalm-singing heritage.” Rather, our motivation has always been to provide psalm settings where “the words [are] faithful to the content and form of the inspired text.”

    • 12 Michael Kearney November 13, 2013 at 8:50 pm

      Rev. Vander Meulen, thank you for this clarification. I apologize for that kind of sloppy conclusion to the section on Scottish psalmody. Your explanation of the process of selecting psalm settings based on Scriptural accuracy is much appreciated.


      • 13 Derrick Vander Meulen November 13, 2013 at 9:34 pm

        BTW, Michael, I should have said this in the post above – thank you for your work on this. Overall I think you are very fair and respectful.

    • 14 Norm V. November 14, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      Rev Vander Meulen: “an honest and objective reading of many of the psalm settings in the blue PH fall far short of these URCNA approved guidelines.”

      I’m glad to hear you articulate that! You’re absolutely right. I hope for an equally honest and objective reception of that statement by the members of the URC who will receive the new book.

      A group of singers in our congregation is 8 for 99 with the new tunes right now (this Sunday we hope to pick 8 more to add to our tally) and it’s becoming clear that these new selections are of a very different calibre than the current versions in the BPH.

      The tunes have been excellent (good work!) thus far. (Psalm 90b is my current favourite) The text is matched well with appropriate tunes. The text, in comparison with the style of the BPH, is much ‘wordier’. I don’t think we’re alone in recognizing that. There’s very little repetition and the new texts compel us to sing a lot more psalm than we’re used to. I do think that will be one of the hardest parts of gaining widespread acceptance of the new psalter hymnal. Our congregations are, by and large, unacquainted with this manner of singing ‘dense’ or ‘thorough’ psalms. By comparison, the BPH features a lot of singable paraphrases that cherry-pick key lines and ignore the rest of the psalm it purportedly represents. That means that a lot of people’s assumptions about psalm-singing have been shaped by nearly 100 years of ‘hymn-like psalm-singing’.

      Where Article 39 of the Church Order has prompted us to give ‘principal place’ to the 150 Psalms, the BPH has never really promoted a thorough-going Psalm singing (even when selections are made from songs 1-310). Our churches are going to struggle, it seems, with this robust embrace of psalm-singing (‘principal-placing’ to coin a phrase) because it has never really found itself doing so before. I may be out on a limb to say that we have (often?) given lip service to the “principal place” which the Psalms occupy in our corporate worship … and many will be hard-pressed to appreciate the profound implications of “true” psalm-singing.

      I’m echoing a lot of comments that have been made on this site and in the Songbook Committee’s own reports and remain confident that we can learn, again, to sing the psalms in continuity with the church universal!

      • 15 Derrick Vander Meulen November 14, 2013 at 6:29 pm

        Thank you, Norm, for your comments and encouragement.

        I was baptized as an infant in the CRC and have sung from the Blue Psalter Hymnal (BPH) all my life. While I was aware of shortcomings in the BPH, I didn’t realize how many settings of the psalter are loose paraphrases, or partials that as you say “cherry-pick key lines and ignore the rest of the psalm.” Being on the Psalter Hymnal committee and pouring over the psalter has been an eye-opener.

        What people need to do when they are evaluating our psalm collection is have their Bible open and compare our selections with the BPH and the Biblical Psalm in question. I think they will reach the same conclusion as you have.

        While faithfulness to the text of Scripture is, in my opinion, the most important factor, it isn’t everything. Obviously we also need to deal with aesthetics, poetry, accessibility (singable for an average congregation), and appropriateness of tune to text. It is in these areas particularly that I am hoping to get helpful feedback.

        As you go through the collection, please let me know if you run across any clunkers.


        • 16 Michael Kearney November 14, 2013 at 8:39 pm

          I can’t say enough how grateful I am to you both for helping me to think through these difficult issues. For the past two weeks or so, as time permits, I’ve been working on a post to tie together and/or wrap up the various strands related to the Psalm Proposal. It’s been hard seeking to form a conclusion that surpasses all of my personal opinions and preferences, with all due humility and grace.

          I especially appreciate your honesty in focusing on the impact the new songbook will have on the churches. It often troubles me that in our federational debates, little is done to “tie down” the high-level theology and ideology in relation to the average congregation. Many times I think the question needs to be not merely, “What is best?” but “What is best in our current situation?”

          Many challenges confront us with the adoption of a new songbook. May the blessings that result from it make those challenges worthwhile.


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