From the mid-16th to the 17th century, psalm-singing in England exploded in popularity. English psalters were published at an incredible rate, and the people sang from them not only in church, but throughout their work day, and at home in the evening. Singing metrical psalms in four-part harmony was as much a form of family entertainment then as watching a movie is for us now.
John Jewel, an Anglican Bishop, wrote to a friend from London in 1560 describing a typical Lord’s day, “As soon as they had commenced singing in public, in only one little church in London, immediately not only the churches in the neighborhood, but even the towns far distant began to vie with each other in the same practice. You may sometime see at St. Paul’s Cross, after the service, six thousand persons, old and young, of both sexes, all singing together and praising God.”
Such wide-spread enjoyment of Psalm-singing was evidence of the influence of the Puritans who were hoping to bring to England the full-bodied reformation that was roaring along on the European continent. In their desire to reform the English Church from within, the Puritans took many of their cues from the Genevan reformation effort and placed Psalm-singing as a cornerstone of their liturgical reforms.
Yet this broad delight in the singing of the songs of Scripture was soon brought into question, and the peace disturbed by those whose hearts were three sizes too small.
There were some Puritans, the Separatists, who quickly became disillusioned about the possibility of any real reform in the English Church, and began to take issue with everything about it. These Separatists would later identify themselves as Independents, Congregationalists or Baptists.
One of the first practices that the Separatists began to attack and ridicule was the singing of Psalms. Near the end of the 16th century, some of the more radical Separatists developed such a distaste for everything that the state church was doing that they burned their Psalters, proposing, “That all cathedral churches may be put down where the service of God is grievously abused by piping with organs, singing, ringing, and trowling of Psalms from one side of the choir to the other.”, referring in that last phrase to antiphonal or responsive Psalm singing.
Henry Barrowe, one of the founders of congregationalism wrote that he was not “against that most comfortable and heavenly harmony of singing Psalms, but against the rhyming and paraphrasing the Psalms; nor yet, so much against that as against the apocryphal erroneous ballads in rhyme sung commonly in the churches instead of the Psalms and the holy songs of the canonical Scriptures.” Barrowe would have accepted singing through-composed or plain-chanted Psalms in English, had there been any widely available, but because these Separatists were largely academics and not musicians, and since they objected to the whole body of music being used in the church, they were left with no music at all. They couldn’t write their own music, and so were left with only the barest of liturgies – prayer and a sermon.
Others rejected singing in the churches because singing in a group with voices joined together required a “set form”. Though for some of these, extemporaneous singing by a single person was apparently acceptable. A separatist named Katherine Sutton wrote a tract published in 1663 titled “A Christian Woman’s Experiences of the Glorious Working of God’s Free Grace” in which she illustrates the importance of immediate (unmediated through forms or others) spiritual experiences. By extension, she proposed that all singing must be extemporaneous, uninhibited, made up on the spot. She includes in her book some of the hymns that she wrote extemporaneously and concludes her book with these words, “I assure you courteous reader that these are not studied things, but are given immediately.” Those who shared this perspective could not sing psalms together as congregations, because it would not be “immediate”, and therefore contrived or insincere.
John Smyth, early Baptist and pastor of the Gainsborough Separatists wrote, “We hold that the worship of the New Testament properly so-called is spiritual—proceeding originally from the heart and that reading out of a book is no part of spiritual worship. We hold that singing a psalm is part of spiritual worship therefore it is unlawful to have th book before the eye in time of singing a psalm.” He later asks the rhetorical question, to paraphrase, “Does not meter, rhythm and tune quench the spirit?”
They all had their own reasons for rejecting the singing of psalms (which would lead one to believe that none of these objections were the “real” reason), but they all ended up in the same place—worship without singing. These Baptist and Congregational traditions, in burning their psalters, created a vacuum that was to be filled very soon by revivalism and “gospel music” a genre that includes some of the poorest music and weakest texts that the church has ever known.
One generation very piously rejected the songs of Scripture, and then subsequent generations did not return to the Psalms, but grabbed hold of the very worst that they could find and have been in steady decline ever since. This is why today in the English-speaking world, there are major branches of the church which haven’t sung the psalms in four hundred years.
In the same way, we today can come up with some very pious-sounding reasons for not wanting to sing the complete texts of the Psalms, or we can object to the singing of other Scripture texts—like the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, Gloria, Benedictus—or we can make a fuss over singing the ancient hymn texts of the church—Te Deum, Agnus Dei, Kyrie. But as we reject good, beautiful, praiseworthy things, our children and following generations follow our example. And the music, from there, only gets ugly.