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Volume 13, Issue 1: Musica

History of the Genevan Psalter - Part 1

Duck Shuler

How did the Genevan Psalter, 1562, come into existence? It was a long process that took place over many years through the efforts of John Calvin. Yet, in the final edition, he penned neither metrical psalm text nor tune. But he had a desire to see the church sing the Psalms. The story is rather complex and involves a study of the thinking of Calvin in regard to music itself. Of all the great reformers, Calvin had the least training in music.

Our first insight into Calvin's thinking1 on music is found in the Institutes 1536. At this point his thoughts are not highly developed. The reference to music and singing is found in chapter three on prayer. Calvin writes, "From this, moreover, it is full evident that unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of the heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God."2 The "this" referred to by Calvin is that prayer is "an emotion of the heart within."3 He sees and discusses prayer more as a private activity than public. He also considers it generally in terms of being silent rather than vocal when he says, "unless voice and song." In Calvin's mind the music is only done as an aid to the emotions and should only be done if the heart is engaged. "Yet, we do not here condemn speaking and singing provided they are associated with the heart's affection and serve it... since the glory of God ought, in a measure, to shine in the several parts of our bodies, it is especially fitting that the tongue has been assigned and destined for this task, both through singing and through speaking. For it was expressly created to tell and proclaim the praise of God."4
At this point in Calvin's thinking, it is difficult to know exactly what he means by singing. This reference, however, is clearly understood in the light of private prayers, not public. Concerning singing in public, he makes mention of it in context of the taking of the Lord's Supper (Chapter 4). In preparation for the meal he says, "either psalms should be sung, or something be read."5 After the meal he says, "At the last, thanks should be given, and praises sung to God."6 What we don't see here is a well developed theology of the use of song in worship or a burning need to have the Psalms be a major part of the lives of God's people.
There was a change by 1537. Calvin was not in France but in Geneva. No longer a scholastic having little or no contact with people, Calvin, along with William Farel, was now the pastor of the flock at Geneva. He had the task of changing the hearts and minds of people who did not necessarily want to be changed. In order to accomplish this task, he wrote the Articles for the organization of the church and its worship in Geneva, January 16, 1537. In the Articles Calvin instituted several steps for the people to "live according to the Gospel and the Word of God."7 The essentials included: (1) excommunication used as an effective tool of church discipline, (2) the singing of Psalms in public worship, (3) catechizing children in biblical doctrine to maintain the covenant, and (4) the drafting of ordinances for marriage.
Calvin makes it clear in these articles that congregational singing is foundational for the reform of the church. He writes the following: "it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love."8
Here is the true beginning of Calvin's desire to see psalmody as a part of the life of believers. It grows out of a desire to see God's people sanctified. He also makes it clear that it is the Psalms that are to be learned and sung, although he does not say that other texts should not be sung.
"The psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardor in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of His name. Moreover by this, one will recognize of what advantage and consolation the pope and his creatures have deprived the church, for he has distorted the psalms, which should be true spiritual songs, into a murmuring among themselves without any understanding."9
Calvin wished to accomplish this, and he had the testimony and example of the Apostles to inspire him for the duty before him. He called for the Psalms to be sung by the whole congregation, not just the priests; and that they should be sung in a known language so that they could be understood.
Calvin also suggests that these be taught to children so that they could be part of the singing. "The manner of beginning in this seemed to us well advised if some children who have previously practiced a modest church song in a loud and distinct voice, the people listening with complete attention and following with the heart what is sung with the mouth until little by little each one accustoms himself to singing communally."10
I experienced this when I taught children in a school in New Hampshire. They learned the Psalms in school so well that when we sang it in the worship service, their voices could at first be heard above the adults. There was no excuse for the adults not to learn it after that. Eventually the adults were singing with the same enthusiasm.
It is remarkable that at the same time, Martin Bucer had come to a similar understanding for congregational singing in Strasbourg. And it was here that Calvin would next find himself.

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