Why has psalm-singing fallen by the wayside in so much of the Western church? Many people blame the rise of hymn-singing for the decline of psalm-singing. But in 1906, two men from the Christian Reformed Church reversed the argument. Instead they blamed a deficiency in psalm-singing for the rise of hymn-singing.
Today I’d like to take a short excursion from this summer’s Behind the Psalter Hymnal series—which is almost over, don’t worry—to present another fascinating document from the vaults of church history. It’s a report submitted to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1906 on “the new American rhyming of the Psalter.” That “new American rhyming” would become the United Presbyterian Psalter published in 1912, whose psalm settings have become beloved favorites in many Reformed churches. The 1912 Psalter was the source for most of the psalm settings in the blue Psalter Hymnal and several other psalters of the 20th century.
As the finishing touches were being applied to the text of this new psalter in 1906, Henry Beets and Henry Vander Werp submitted this report to the CRC’s synod to provide some background and personal commentary on the project. The original report was in Dutch; since then it’s also been converted into English by an unknown translator, and the version I’ve posted on URC Psalmody is a slightly edited version of this translation.
In their report, the two Henrys compare the psalters that were then being used in the English-speaking and Dutch-speaking churches of the CRC. The former often used the 1887 United Presbyterian revision of the Psalter (pictured at the top of this page). The latter used the Genevan Psalter according to its 1773 translation into Dutch (pictured at right). In colorfully blunt language, Beets and Vander Werp expose serious deficiencies in the English psalter. They call it “kreupelrijm, en in meerdere gevallen kreupel aanbeide voeten”—“a crippled rhyming, and in most instances crippled in both feet.” They compare the Dutch psalter to the sun, and the English to “the moon, and not even a full moon!” They even write that the English translation “must take a back seat for the Dutch sister”—who knows where that expression came from.
Readers from the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), you might think the authors would at least have a higher regard for your psalm settings. Nope—in their opinion, the psalter “of the Covenanter Church here and in Scotland is much poorer and less poetic” even than the “crippled rhyming” of the United Presbyterians. Ouch!
We could easily write off these pastors’ criticisms of the English psalter as mere ethnic favoritism. Of course two ministers whose first language was Dutch would prefer a Dutch psalter to an English one! But I think there’s more to it than that. Beets and Vander Werp write:
The greatest defectiveness…with respect to the rhyming of the Psalms in our country is the spiritual poverty. In order to cling scrupulously to the Hebrew text, they have, so to speak, placed handcuffs upon the spirit thereof in many places. The glorious worshipful spirit of the Psalms cannot spread out its wings far enough in such narrow boundaries.
I’m sure Beets and Vander Werp would emphasize that any translation of the Psalms must faithfully represent the original Scripture. But they make an interesting point: by attempting to be slavishly literal, the translators of past English psalters often made the psalms actually more difficult to understand. How can the average psalm-singer even begin to worship while struggling to decipher perplexing lines like “For thee to keep in all thy ways/His angels charge He shall”? Such language may have been (slightly?) more colloquial in 17th-century Scotland, but in our contemporary American context, must we really settle for this?
Not only do these ministers propose that a rhyming of the psalms can be done better, they say it needs to be done better. They write:
From this is to be understood the great urge for spiritual songs [i.e. hymns] which are used in the American churches. At first these hymns found entrance because the Scottish rhyming did not do enough for the Christian heart, which felt a need greater than the stiff, crippled, spiritually poor rhyming used for centuries in the Scottish churches could supply. Hence there are very few Psalms found in the hymnbooks of most American churches. (emphasis mine)
Here my ears really perked up. If you ask why the Psalter has fallen out of use in most American churches, people will blame a variety of sources: Isaac Watts’ psalm paraphrases, Ira Sankey’s gospel hymns, or the genre of “CCM.” But what if these pastors are on to something? Maybe part of the reason we stopped singing the psalms was because our translations didn’t do them justice.
There’s good news, of course. The 1912 Psalter, which Beets and Vander Werp called “unquestionably a great improvement,” has ingrained its psalm settings into the hearts and minds of multiple generations of believers, including many of us in the URCNA. Now, in the 21st century, we have at our disposal a wealth of resources for psalm-singing that is not only literal but also beautiful and memorable. The Reformed Presbyterians’ recent Book of Psalms for Worship includes many excellent psalm settings, both new and old, recast in simple, straightforward English. For those who still prefer the Genevan tunes, like Beets and Vander Werp so obviously did, there are the Canadian Reformed Churches’ new Book of Praise and New Genevan Psalter. And, of course, we have the promise of a further contribution to modern metrical psalmody in the URCNA and OPC’s forthcoming Psalter Hymnal.
When it comes to hymns and psalm settings, I’ve always tended to be a stickler for the “original lyrics.” I love some of the quirky wording of old psalters, and I’ll be sad if I ever have to see them go: “All earth to Him her homage brings,” “Who only doeth wondrous works in glory that excel.” But if we insist on clinging to archaic, deficient psalm settings merely for the sake of history or tradition, we may need to be reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “[I]f with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?…For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (I Cor. 14:9,33).