The Psalter Hymnals Through the Years

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:16-17)

Our churches have been molded throughout the centuries by many different factors. Our churches have been shaped by their geographic locations, their place in history, and their surrounding culture. The Word of God has molded our churches by the theology taught by her clergy, and by the generations of members that have come and gone.

As our churches have been shaped and changed throughout the ages, so too has her worship been shaped by these and many other factors. In fact, if we were to look closely, we would see that as our understanding of the Bible and our confessions changes, so to does the very nature of our worship. This is played out in the liturgies that we accept, and especially in the songs that we sing together, songs that become our own.

We, as Reformed believers, have also been shaped not only by our theology, but also through our own worship and our songs. This is vividly illustrated in our songbook, the Psalter Hymnal. As the foundations of Dutch Reformed Churches were being laid, the foundations of Reformed worship were also being laid. Those who had come off the boats held their kerkboeks, their church books, close to their hearts. Here they not only had the Word of God, but they also had their confessions, their creeds, their order, and their Psalter. These immigrants, without any knowledge of a new land and language, knew that they had come to worship their God in a land of opportunity and in a land where their children could be raised up in the promises of the covenant.

Time passed and the next generation began speaking English. New modes of worship needed to be created. No longer could the church remain stagnant in her ethnic heritage. Instead she had to reach a new generation and its new culture. This meant the creation of an English language Psalter, a songbook that would be used unto the worship and adoration of the Lord.

This article is a look at the development of what we have come to know as the Psalter Hymnal. By no means is this article exhaustive in its look, for that would create the need for a volume beyond the scope of this present work, going back all the way to the time of David himself. Here we will begin by looking at the Psalters accepted for use in worship in the Christian Reformed Church of North America, and subsequently the United Reformed Churches in North America. A synopsis of each hymnal will be given, along with comment on the changes that have been made from revision to revision, as well as my own editorial comments, with the purpose of examining and reflecting on the rich heritage of Psalmody that we enjoy as Reformed believers.

1914: The Psalter (Black 1)
• Number of Psalm Selections:413
• Number of Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Doxologies:205
• Publisher: Eerdmans-Sevensma Company

The 1914 Psalter, or the Black Psalter (often hymnals are identified by their color, especially in our Reformed context for ease in reference) was not an invention of the Christian Reformed Church at all. In 1912, the United Presbyterian Church of North America published the Psalter that the Christian Reformed Church would adopt in June 1914.

This hymnal facilitated the young Dutch Reformed Church’s need for an English Psalter. It gave the denomination a place to start in their desire to continue the development of this book into the best possible Psalter for worship. “May the book also receive the approbation of the God of all grace, and be blessed by Him to the furtherance of His praise in Zion.” As the people entered into a new land, it was their prayer that this book would receive God’s blessings as they sought to bless Him.

This Psalter also included the Songs of Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah, eight doxologies, the song “America”, and “52” hymns that were submitted by Classis Hackensack. These songs were submitted for use with the congregations’ study through the catechism. Thus, there was a part of the hymn for each divided part of each question and answer, which meant that there were far more than fifty-two hymns. These hymns were all listed after the Psalter section, and a meter was attached to each hymn so that a suitable tune could be placed with the hymn. The Psalter book also contained the Heidelberg Catechism, A Compendium of the Christian Religion, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordrecht, and the accepted liturgical formulas.

All told, this was a valiant first attempt at a denominational hymnal. The church had been provided with an abundant collection of Psalter selections. The tunes were written in large font underneath the titles of the selections for aiding the memory not only of particular songs, but also of their tunes.

In short, the Christian Reformed Church had been given a good body of material with which to work. They needed to work with it. The Psalter was far from its desired usefulness. Many tunes were either musically inferior or un-singable. The format of the pages allowed for only one stanza to be displayed within the staff thus making the singing of parts difficult to follow. Multiple songs were printed on the same page, and some songs overlapped on to the following page, again detracting from the hymnal’s usefulness. Weaker still was the hymn section, for the sole reason that tunes were not assigned, and the use of hymns was frankly nonexistent in the majority of Christian Reformed Churches at this time. Revision needed to occur.

1927: The Psalter (Black 2)
• Number of Psalm Selections: 413
• Number of Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Doxologies: 12
• Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (“The Reformed Press”)

“Psalms are to be used in public worship as the chief manual of praise.” This was the confident tone set up for this hymnal in its explanation given by the stated clerk of the CRC, Henry Beets. In the introduction to this Psalter, Beets gave four principles for why the Psalms were to be used as this “manual”. These were, in summary, the divine authority for the use of Psalms; the use of the Psalms for praise among Christ and His apostles; the hymns, songs and psalms of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 do not refer to New Testament songs, but rather to the Old Testament Psalms; and the Psalms meet the great requirements of praise.

After this tremendous setting out of the superiority of the Psalms, one would have expected a hymnal worthy of such an introduction. Surely this hymnal would be the best attempt at reviving interest in the Psalms, and showing their excellence in our worship services. But this “new” hymnal, was not a new hymnal at all. Nothing had changed in this hymnal from the 1914 manifestation except for the fact that the hymns had been eliminated, except for the Songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon, and the doxologies. No lyrical or musical changes had been made to the Psalter of the United Presbyterian Church in that thirteen-year span to make the hymnal a “Christian Reformed” hymnal.

There were, however, many needed format changes. As many stanzas as possible were now placed within the staffs. This by itself might have been enough reason to publish and distribute another hymnal. Also, the standards, liturgies (including ‘Consolation of the Sick and Instruction in Faith and the Way of Salvation, to Prepare Believers to Die Willingly), and the Church Order approved in 1920 in the back of the hymnal were also given a “face-lift” and made more readable from a format perspective. Still, many songs were still forced onto the same page as other songs or forced to “spill over” onto the next page, again causing difficulty in the hymnal’s use. Surely more could have been done to affect the “usability” of this book.

This was surely a disappointing occurrence in the life of the churches, but there were positives to this release to go along with those of format that I have already mentioned. First, Beets introduction is very strong, especially in at-tempting to lay out principles defending Psalm singing, and the belief in the written creed. Beets gave a wonderful overview in his introduction of each of the creeds and confessions, as well as of the liturgical forms and the church order. Still, more could have been done to make this a Psalter of excellence in the time span between the releases of these black hymnals. This lack of excellence may have prompted the Synod of 1928 to approve the appointment of a committee to select hymns for inclusion in the Psalter. This approval assured the members of the CRC that their next hymnal would be significantly changed.

1934-5: Psalter Hymnal (Red)
• Number of Psalm Selections: 327
• Number of Hymns, Spiritual songs, and Doxologies: 141
• Publisher: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church

Six years after Synod 1928 approved their hymn selection committee, the Christian Reformed Church was presented with yet another Psalter, the Red Psalter. The Psalter changed the way that the church would receive and change her Psalter Hymnal forever. This was the first time that the Psalter had been selected by and published by the CRC, thus making it their songbook for the first time in their existence as a denomination. “The committee was instructed to publish the new book of praise together with the doctrinal standards and the liturgical forms, in such a manner that the right of the Church to have full command over the contents would be maintained.” No longer would their copyright be in the hands of a company, the songbook was now theirs to change and develop as they saw fit.
Where the second Black Psalter had fallen short, the red Psalter surged ahead as an example of excellence and dedication to the production of a better songbook. Not only were hymns to be added, but also the Psalm selections were thoroughly scanned for improvement, correction, and sometimes, even removal. Some of the tunes of the Psalm selections were changed as well, since many members of the congregation desired to sing the Psalms as they used to be sung in their old kerkboeks. Many changes in the choral arrangements were made using the Dutch Koraalboek for Organists. Other changes were made to eliminate tunes that were too high in register or that were poor in quality. These tunes were replaced by other tunes, and often the same tune was used several times, because other high quality tunes were not available at the time. (A list of the changes made in text and tune are listed in the Acts of the Synod of 1936.)

The hymns were not capriciously selected based on song popularity. The hymns that were eventually added also had to pass the requirements set up by the committee. These were doctrinal soundness, New Testament character, dignity and depth of devotional spirit, and clearness and beauty of expression. With these criteria in mind, the committee presented 197 hymns for review and acceptance, and out of these selections, about 140 were selected and approved for use in the churches. However, it is interesting to note that some hymns were selected not because of these criteria, but because some of the songs had “already endeared themselves to the hearts of our people.”

This hymnal had already far surpassed the work of the 1927 Black Hymnal. But the work had only just begun. At the time when the Psalter Hymnal was ready for production, the liturgical forms were being reevaluated and revised. This pushed back the release date until 1935. Other major changes in this hymnal were again changes of format. Greater effort was put forth to place one song on each page. Some songs because of length still needed the use of two pages, but again effort was made at placing as many lines within the staff as possible. The pastors and congregations were also guided in their singing through the use of more musical notation, such as fermatas and a large comma that stood for one-half a fermata and a short breath. The confessions, creeds, and Church Order once again were given a format “face-lift” for readability and usefulness.

Of the hymnals we have looked at thus far, this clearly is the most advanced Psalter Hymnal that the churches had ever seen. This hymnal may have been the pinnacle of the advancement of the Psalter in the CRC. From this time forth in the history of the denomination, Psalm singing would begin to decline among the churches in the denomination. People felt more drawn to the hymns. They convinced themselves that they could resonate more with the meaning and wording of the contemporary hymns. The Red Hymnal truly may have been the greatest attempt by the denomination at a hymnbook truly reflective of the desire to remain faithful to the singing of Psalms, while at the same time being faithful to living a out a contemporary faith. In 1956, a second edition of the Red Hymnal was published for use within the churches, again with minor corrections and revisions.

1959: Psalter Hymnal Centennial Edition (Blue 1)
• Number of Psalm Selections: 310
• Number of Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Doxologies: 183
• Publisher: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, Inc.

The Synod of the CRC in 1951 approved appointing a committee to set forth the principles of good church music, and in so doing to improve the Psalter Hymnal. This committee then formulated such principles and their implications.

The principles were twofold. First, the music of the church should be liturgical, that is, should serve the ministry of the church. Second, the music of the church should be beautiful, both in form and substance as art. With these two tenets as their guiding principles, the committee went on to revise the 1934-5 Psalter Hymnal by giving metrical settings to all 150 Psalms in a concise manner (a.k.a. less Psalm selections). They also added a number of hymns, changed tunes and texts as submitted by members of the denomination, and the indices were expanded and completed. These changes were then to be released in a hymnal to be distributed in the year of the birthday of the denomination, as the “Centennial Edition”.

There are some interesting similarities, differences, and circumstances when it comes to comparing the Centennial Edition and the Red Hymnal. First, the introductions are identical until the rationale for the Centennial Edition is given. This hymnal committee also renewed their effort to have every song on its own page or pages, and this time succeeded on every page except page 568.

The same doctrinal standards and liturgical forms are found in both hymnals. The differences are seen once again, as in most hymnals, in their format. The title of the tune of each song, which is especially significant in the Psalter section, continued getting smaller. Also, the font has been updated throughout the song portion of the book.

The interesting circumstance of the release of this Psalter is its timing. This Psalter was in the works, at least in principle, already in 1951. Yet the CRC released a second edition of the Red Psalter Hymnal just three years before the release of this new Centennial Edition. Why did they need another hymnal if they had just released a “perfectly good” edition of their own Psalter? To this question I have been given no answer. A revision at the time of the next hymnal would have been in better form, rather than publishing an entirely new hymnal simply to celebrate the centennial of the denomination (which turned out to be an expensive one for some churches).

1976: Psalter Hymnal (Blue 2)
• Number of Psalm Selections: 310
• Number of Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Doxologies: 183
• Publisher: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church

Here we are presented with another “new” hymnal. It had been seventeen years since the release of the Centennial Edition. Many people were looking forward to the release of another hymnal that would continue in the line of Psalter Hymnal improvements. Yet, as those in 1927 were disappointed with the release of the second Black Psalter, so too, were those in 1976 disappointed with the second Blue Psalter. The Preface was the same as were all of the Psalms and Hymns. Nothing had been changed since the 1959 edition when it came to the song portion.

There were other very important reasons for releasing this Hymnal at this time in the life of the CRC. First, the new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism that was approved by the Synod of 1975, and some new Synodically approved liturgical forms needed to be distributed for use in study and worship services. Also, changes were made to the order of the forms in the back of the Hymnal bringing the creeds to the front, then the confessions, and then the liturgical forms. Also, the church order once again appeared in the back of the Hymnal after its first absence from the hymnal in the Centennial Edition (although in later reprints it was added). These were the main reasons for the release of this edition.

In retrospect, as I alluded to in my discussion of the Centennial Edition, the timing for another Hymnal makes much more sense in 1976 than in 1959. Significant research and study could have been put into a better edition of the Psalter that could have been released in 1976 along with all of the revisions to the confessions. But as the second Black Hymnal was a prelude to major changes in the next Hymnal, so too was the second Blue Psalter a prelude to massive change.

1987: Psalter Hymnal (Grey)
• Number of Psalm Selections: 150 (Officially)
• Number of Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Doxologies: 491
• Publisher: CRC Publications

Never before in the history of the CRC did the release of a Psalter Hymnal come with such mixed emotion. There were those in the churches who were just getting comfortable with the Psalter that they had received in 1976. They had just become familiar with some of the tunes and hymns. There were others in the denomination who were ready for a change. They wanted more diversity of song, more song choice as they crafted worship services. Still others did not want another hymnbook because they did not use the old one. They certainly were not going to use this one.

But the mixed emotions were not just caused by the release of yet another Psalter. Issues were swirling and making their way around the denomination. From women in office, to homosexuality, to churches becoming concerned as to the direction of the denomination.
These factors also contributed to some of the emotions and questions. Will the Hymnal be gender inclusive? Will the Hymnal have my favorite songs? Will the Hymnal become liberal?

And so the new Grey Psalter Hymnal was distributed in 1987. It was touted as the salvation of Psalm singing. It was to be a hymnal that was not only musically and artistically sound, but it would also be a hymnal that would reunite the denomination under one book of worship, under one song of unity, that would bring solidarity once again to a denomination that was full of turmoil. The hymnal, which weighed almost twice what the Blue Hymnal weighed, was filled to the brim with newness, not only with new songs, but with new liturgical forms, responsive readings, a contemporary statement of belief, inclusive forms, and other resources.

The 1987 Psalter was conceived at the Synod of 1977 where a committee was formed to “revise and improve the psalm and hymn sections of the 1959 edition of the hymnal” and to make it a book of worship that would “help God’s people move into the twenty-first century.” This goal evolved into the Grey Psalter. The Psalter itself has a massive amount of hymns, which reflect a number of songs being written today, as well as the diversity found within the denomination and the worldwide church. This said, the Psalter, for the first time, was divided into three parts, Psalms, Bible Songs, and Hymns.

To accomplish their objective, the Revision Committee set up this statement as their guiding principle, The music of the church should be appropriate for worship- that is, it should be liturgical and have aesthetic integrity. The music of worship should serve the dialogue between God and his people. It must be true to the full message of the Scriptures and reflective of biblical Christian experience. Along with the biblical motif, the music of worship should give expression to the other motifs of liturgy: the catholic, the confessional, and the pastoral. The music of worship should satisfy the aesthetic laws that are conditions of good art, such as imaginative craftsmanship and seriousness of expression. It should reflect the church at worship today and throughout the ages in ways that are relevant, enduring, festive, and dignified.

Thus, the four motifs are set up to complement each other and to be used together, not one without the others or to the neglect of others. These once again are the biblical, catholic, confessional, and pastoral. These categories are what are at the heart of the Grey Psalter.

In terms of the Psalm selections, the committee returned to what they felt was a “long-standing reformed tradition” (Page 7) of presenting each psalm in its full versification (even though this had not yet been done in a CRC, or reformed tradition for over 100 years). Each psalm was then given its own tune, a majority of which are new tunes (even Psalter number one was changed, after having the same tune since 1912). The versification was also looked at for its content and its poetry by learned members of the Calvin College faculty. All of these things went into revamping the Psalm section for the first time since 1934-5. Bible songs were also added to the hymnal to express the song writing of passages outside of the Psalms, from Genesis to Revelation, and scrutinized in similar fashion.

What is perhaps the most astounding about the Grey Psalter is the number of hymns. “The number of hymn texts has more than doubled from previous editions.” The hymns not only reflect our North American context, but there are selections in different languages, and with different tunes and rhythms. There has even been a shift, in some songs, back to Genevan tunes. All of these factors have led to a diverse songbook, an organized songbook, and a fulsome songbook.

The Grey Psalter was also released at this time with updated and gender-inclusive forms of the Creeds and Confessions of the CRC. Also, new baptismal and professions of faith forms were added, as well as a section of responsive readings for the Law and for the Sacrament, and a Contemporary Declaration of Faith entitled “Our World Belongs to God.”

These all were major revisions, and the scope of this article does not include dissecting each and every change. In looking at the history of such a recently released hymnal, it is hard to take an “unbiased approach” to critiquing and praising this hymnal simply because of the influence I have listened to and read about on both sides of the like/dislike debate.

If we are to look at the positives together, it is easy to see that there is a lot of variety. There are songs that it would be hard to get to, even if you sang all different songs at every service. There is a variety and newness that can be refreshing and invigorating. This is what the committee desired. They have also shown a commitment to musical and literary excellence throughout the Psalm section. This Hymnal project is a tribute to the work of the committee, and the talent that is to be found within the CRC.

But as I sit and look at this hymnal before me, and as I reflect on the other hymnals that we have looked at, there is something missing. With all of our songbooks up until the Grey, there was a shared core of songs that had remained since the 1914 Psalter. We have grown up with these songs, and they have saturated our lives from our very earliest remembering. These songs have been in our families for generations, teaching us the promises of God, and reminding us of our dependence on Him. But with the release of the Grey Psalter, that was lost. Too many of the songs that we had shared with our great-grandfathers and grandfathers, shared in our catholicity with the worldwide church, have been discarded as old, poor quality, too high, too low, not who we are today.

Granted, the intentions of the committee in charge of the Grey Psalter were good and much of what is sung in our churches today is of poor quality lyrically and musically. But as Rev J.D. Eppinga wrote, “As for the psalms, the good intentions expressed in [the introduction of] the gray book are not working out. Average lay people consider many of its psalm tunes too difficult. I’m afraid that our psalm-singing days are mostly over.”

We have lost psalm singing because we have lost a sense of who we are. We are not African, or Spanish, or Russian. We are what we are. We are either Dutch, or implants into that tradition. And our songs must remember that heritage; we must remember that heritage, for this is what gives songs lasting quality. We must be able to rejoice with the saints past, present, and future, and one way we do this is through our songs. That is what gives people unity through a Psalter, when young and old, boy or girl, indeed all Christians can sing their songs together and praise the Living God. This is what will revive our psalm singing, a remembrance, of who we are, what we have come from, and what we have been saved from.

I pray that we will see the development of another Psalter in our day. I pray that we will see a Psalter that will unite all of us in love for God, and wholehearted Reformed worship. May this truly be! Soli Deo Gloria! Amen!

Mr. Matthew Nuiver is a graduate of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He is serving as Stated Supply at the Covenant United Reformed Church of Balmoral, Ontario in Canada.

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