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I. The Historical Background.

The subject of these lectures is the origin and development of congregational song in the Reformed or Calvinistic branch of the Protestant Churches. We are to study a peculiar type of Protestant Church Song:—which was introduced into public worship at Geneva in connection with the Calvinistic Reformation; which spread, along with the Calvinistic doctrines, into France, the Netherlands and other continental countries; which became, under Genevan influence, the characteristic song of the Reformed Churches of Scotland and England; and which finally was carried across the ocean by immigrants from these various European countries, and took its place as a part of the cultus of American churches, whether Episcopal, Congregational or Presbyterian.

The type of Church Song with which we have to deal consisted in the singing by the congregation itself of metrical 2 versions of the songs of Scripture, preferably “the Psalms of David.” It is therefore conveniently designated as Metrical Psalmody. We need, however, to understand the precise force and significance of both the words composing this designation. There was, of course, no actual novelty in making the singing of Psalms a part of church worship. The practice had obtained from the beginning, having passed into the Christian Church from the Jewish. In the Daily Office of the Latin Church, as contained in the Breviary, the Psalter had always held the place of honor. Provision was made in the Breviary for the orderly rendering of all the Psalms in the course of each week. But the Psalms were not in the language of the people, the Latin prose version being exclusively used; and they were set to the Gregorian Chant, which could only be rendered by trained officiants. In such a Psalmody the people could take no part, and in actual life they were hardly even in contact with it. The rendering of the Daily Office was practically confined to the choirs of monastic establishments. In the parishes it was accounted sufficient that the priest should recite the Office as his daily meed of private devotion. As over against this historic “Psalmody” of the pre-Reformation Church, the distinction of the Calvinistic Psalmody lay in its congregational character. The Psalms were rendered into the vernacular that the people might understand them, and they were put into metrical form so that they might be set to simple melodies which the people could sing. To mark this distinction the Calvinistic type is designated as Metrical Psalmody.

But the metrical form into which the Calvinistic Psalmody was thus cast was not peculiar to itself. Metrical hymns in the vernacular had been composed by Ambrose and given to the people at Milan before the end of the fourth century. Gradually and not without opposition the Metrical Hymn established itself as a fixed element of the Daily Office throughout all Europe, and a great number of such hymns found place in the Breviaries. But in the course of this process the language of the Hymns, as of the Psalms, had 3 become an unintelligible tongue, and the rendition of the Hymnody, along with the Psalmody, was largely relegated to the monasteries. The Hussite movement in Bohemia in the fifteenth century was marked by a great revival of the composition and use of metrical vernacular hymns, the introduction of the congregational Hymn-Tune and of the popular Hymnal. Following this, and partly based upon it, came the great outburst of popular song in connection with the Lutheran Reformation, in which almost every type of the metrical hymn was made familiar. As over against this Hymnody, whether of the Latin Church or the Hussites or Lutherans, the distinction of the Calvinistic Psalmody lay not in its form but in its authorship and subject-matter. The Hymn was a religious lyric freely composed within the limits of liturgical propriety by anyone who had the gift. The Calvinistic Psalm, on the other hand, was simply the Word of God, translated and versified in hymn-form, so as to be sung by the people. To mark this distinction of the Calvinistic type of Church-Song, it is designated as Metrical Psalmody. When the purpose is merely to distinguish the two types of congregational song within the bounds of Protestantism, it will be sufficient to designate the singing of metrical Psalms in the Reformed Churches as Psalmody, as over against the freer Hymnody of Lutheran and other bodies.

The subject presents itself to us as a historic movement having unity and completeness within its own limits. The congregational Psalmody of the Calvinistic Reformation was, of course, an incident of the general movement to establish vernacular worship. Behind the Hussite and Lutheran Hymnody and the Calvinistic Psalmody lay the common motives of arousing and deepening the religious feelings of the people, of teaching them evangelical truth and of giving them the means of expressing their own devotions. But with the Calvinistic Reformation congregational song entered upon a new phase, and made a new beginning. In this, Church usage and Lutheran precedent alike were disregarded. The Scriptures were searched to find Apostolic authority on which to rest the ordinance of praise, and conformity to 4 Scripture became the determining motive. To this supreme test the subject-matter of the songs themselves had to be submitted; and a literal adherence to the very words of Scripture songs, even though of the old dispensation, came to be preferred to any setting forth of gospel facts or truths in words of merely human composition. A system of Psalmody so conceived and ordered was obviously much more than a mere extension of the Lutheran Hymnody; and through all its history, the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches constituted a distinct type of Church Song.

And even less than was the case in the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, did the movement to establish Psalmody in the Reformed Church find any beginnings of popular religious song on which it could build. The movement had no element of spontaneity. It was not even a popular movement, but the conception of one man’s mind and the enterprise of one man’s will. It was a carefully planned element of that liturgical programme which Calvin prepared to express his ideals of worship, and it was the element of that programme for which he found least sympathy among his colleagues and least preparation among the people.

Least of all did the work of Calvin’s great predecessor, Zwingli, afford any foundations upon which congregational Psalmody could be established. It will be remembered that the Reformation in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, which began at Geneva, formed the second period of the Swiss Reformation. The earlier period had been confined to the German-speaking cantons, beginning with Zurich. It was Zwingli whose mind dominated this earlier period; which, whether independent of Luther’s influence or not, was characterized by marked divergences from the Lutheran model. The ecclesiastical tastes and veneration for tradition which led Luther to conserve the altar and mass, and as much as possible of the Church ritual, his desire to consecrate music and the other arts to divine service, were wanting in Zwingli, or if there at all, were sternly repressed. The stripping from the Zurich churches of their altars and images and decorations, and the covering their frescoes with 5 whitewash, was not actually done by Zwingli. He thought it done prematurely; but the results nevertheless accorded with his mind. The churches became plain auditoriums, and in this they corresponded with Zwingli’s conception of the normal attitude of the worshiper as that of an auditor of the Word and prayer. The essential in worship was the inward receptivity and response of faith to the spoken Word. Everything else Zwingli included under “ceremonies.” “The Holy Supper,” he says, “is itself a ceremony—though one instituted by Christ himself—which is sufficient:”11Introduction to “Order of Administration for the Lord’s Supper,” 1525. Daniel, Codex Liturgicus, vol. iii. Tr. Mercersburg Review, vol. ix, pp. 594 ff. but it should have as few accompanying ceremonies and as little church pomp as possible. The extent to which he was prepared to “yield to human weakness” in the matter of ceremonies appears from his Order of Administration for the Lord’s Supper, 1525. It includes some responses, and also the Creed, the Gloria in Excelsis and the CXIIIth Psalm, all arranged to be recited antiphonally by the minister, men and women of the congregation.22The men and women were on opposite sides of the main aisle.

In this service, and in all Zwingli’s liturgical programme, music had no place. His position as regards music is to be determined both by what he did and by what he refrained from doing. With church music as he found it—that of choir and organ—he dealt summarily. As early as 1525 he abolished the singing by the choir, and on December 9, 1527, he ordered the organ of the Great Minster broken up, directing similar action in the churches of the city and canton. Bullinger justifies this action with a reference to St. Paul’s objection to strange tongues without interpretation and things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp (I Cor. 14:6-9).33Bullinger, Reformationsgeschichte, Frauenfeld, 1838-40, vol. i, p. 418; and see Gieseler, Text Bk. of Church History (N. Y. ed.), vol. iv, p. 548. This doubtless was Zwingli’s own explanation of his course. In reality it furnishes a motive for abolishing the unintelligible Latin in which the choir sang, but not 6 for abolishing the choir itself. Zwingli must have been actuated by additional motives. He must have felt that there was no office for the choir to fill in the Reformed Church; or else that it was as a matter of fact so inevitably associated with a ceremonial type of worship that expediency demanded its abolition.

We have also to consider that Zwingli refrained from any steps toward substituting congregational singing for the forms of music thus abolished: a fact less easy of explanation in view of his personal fondness for music and proficiency in it, and his own composition of religious songs which he caused to be set to music. That Zwingli did not share Luther’s deep sense of the indispensable functions of congregational song, is obvious enough. The question is rather whether Zwingli deliberately contemplated the permanent establishment in the Reformed Church of the anomaly of a religion without music. His competent biographer, Christoffel, answers confidently in the negative. His explanation is that Zwingli did not introduce music, solely from want of time, in the pressure of affairs, to select fitting hymns, and arrange divine worship for it in a manner consistent with his own views.44Christoffel, Huldreich Zwingli, Elberfeld, 1857. Tr. by Cochran, Edinburgh, 1858: p. 150, note. The explanation is somewhat disingenuous. In other parts of German Switzerland, at the same date, available materials for congregational song were found at hand. Moreover Zwingli did find time to arrange worship according to his views, and in so doing, as has been seen, he omitted music. His views as to music in worship may fairly be gathered from his introduction to the Order for the Lord’s Supper, and they can hardly be interpreted as implying more than the toleration of congregational song. Singing, to Zwingli’s mind, is a ceremony. His words are: “It has not been our design to set aside for other congregations any such ceremonies as have perhaps been promotive of devotion among them, such as singing and some others of the same nature.”55Mercersburg Review, vol. ix, p. 595. Here, then, we appear 7 to have the answer to our question. The matter of congregational song had not been postponed by Zwingli for a fuller opportunity, but carefully considered and disposed of. It was a ceremony, and one he declined to introduce at Zurich, but recognizing it as “perhaps promotive of devotion,” he had no intention of prohibiting it elsewhere.66Zwingli’s later biographers appear to go beyond the above statement of his position. Mörikofer reluctantly admits that he shared the opinion of the Anabaptist faction that singing had no rightful place in public worship, and that the singing enjoined in the New Testament was the silent melody of the heart and not vocal and audible praise. (J. C. Mörikofer, Ulrich Zwingli, Leipzig, 1867-69, vol. ii, p. 93.) Stæhelin thinks that several causes may have contributed to exclude congregational song at Zurich, but that the decisive cause was neither Anabaptist opinion nor consideration for Anabaptists’ feelings, but Zwingli’s distrust of fixed forms of devotion and his judgment that devotion was not furthered by singing but by prayerful consideration of God’s Word. (R. Stæhelin, Huldreich Zwingli, Sein Leben und Wirken, Basel, 1895-97, vol. ii, pp. 60, 61.)

So far as Zwingli’s influence extended, his attitude in the matter proved practically prohibitive. At Zurich itself the Reformed worship continued without music for seventy years. As the Reformation spread through German-speaking Switzerland, the influence of Luther was more felt and that of Zwingli less. And where congregational singing was introduced before Calvin’s time it may be safely said that the impulse came from Lutheranism and that the song was of the Lutheran type.

We have thus before us the historical background against which the work of Calvin is to be set, and we have now to consider the beginnings of the Reformed Psalmody at Geneva.


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