The history of Psalm-singing is a portion of the history of the Reformation,–of that great religious revolution which separated for ever, into two unequal divisions, the establishment of Christianity. It has not, perhaps, been remarked that psalm-singing, or metrical psalms, degenerated into those scandalous compositions which, under the abused title of hymns, are now used by some sects.[A] These are evidently the last disorders of that system of psalm-singing which made some religious persons early oppose its practice. Even Sternhold and Hopkins, our first psalm-inditers, says honest Fuller, “found their work afterwards met with some frowns in the faces of great clergymen.” To this day these opinions are not adjusted. Archbishop Secker observes, that though the first Christians (from this passage in James v. 13, “Is any merry? let him sing psalms!”) made singing a constant part of their worship, and the whole congregation joined in it; yet afterwards the singers by profession, who had been prudently appointed to lead and direct them, by degrees USURPED the whole performance. But at the Reformation the people were restored to their RIGHTS! This revolutionary style is singular: one might infer by the expression of the people being restored to their rights, that a mixed assembly roaring out confused tunes, nasal, guttural, and sibilant, was a more orderly government of psalmody than when the executive power was consigned to the voices of those whom the archbishop had justly described as having been first prudently appointed to lead and direct them; and who, by their subsequent proceedings, evidently discovered, what they might have safely conjectured, that such an universal suffrage, where every man was to have a voice, must necessarily end in clatter and chaos.
Thomas Warton, however, regards the metrical psalms of Sternhold as a puritanic invention, and asserts, that notwithstanding it is said in their title-page that they are “set forth and allowed to be sung in all churches,” they were never admitted by lawful authority. They were first introduced by the Puritans, from the Calvinists of Geneva, and afterwards continued by connivance. As a true poetical antiquary, Thomas Warton condemns any modernisation of the venerable text of the old Sternhold and Hopkins, which, by changing obsolete for familiar words, destroys the texture of the original style; and many stanzas, already too naked and weak, like a plain old Gothic edifice stripped of its few signatures of antiquity, have lost that little and almost only strength and support which they derived from ancient phrases. “Such alterations, even if executed with prudence and judgment, only corrupt what they endeavour to explain; and exhibit a motley performance, belonging to no character of writing, and which contains more improprieties than those which it professes to remove.” This forcible criticism is worthy of our poetical antiquary; the same feeling was experienced by Pasquier, when Marot, in his Rifacciamento of the Roman de la Rose, left some of the obsolete phrases, while he got rid of others; cette bigarrure de langage vieux et moderne, was with him writing no language at all. The same circumstance occurred abroad, when they resolved to retouch and modernise the old French metrical version of the Psalms, which we are about to notice. It produced the same controversy and the same dissatisfaction. The church of Geneva adopted an improved version, but the charm of the old one was wanting.
To trace the history of modern metrical psalmody, we must have recourse to Bayle, who, as a mere literary historian, has accidentally preserved it. The inventor was a celebrated French poet; and the invention, though perhaps in its very origin inclining towards the abuse to which it was afterwards carried, was unexpectedly adopted by the austere Calvin, and introduced into the Geneva discipline. It is indeed strange, that while he was stripping religion not merely of its pageantry, but even of its decent ceremonies, this levelling reformer should have introduced this taste for singing psalms in opposition to reading psalms. “On a parallel principle,” says Thomas Warton, “and if any artificial aids to devotion were to be allowed, he might at least have retained the use of pictures in the church.” But it was decreed that statues should be mutilated of “their fair proportions,” and painted glass be dashed into pieces, while the congregation were to sing! Calvin sought for proselytes among “the rabble of a republic, who can have no relish for the more elegant externals.” But to have made men sing in concert, in the streets, or at their work, and, merry or sad, on all occasions to tickle the ear with rhymes and touch the heart with emotion, was betraying no deficient knowledge of human nature.