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III. Inauguration Of The Calvinistic Psalmody At Strassburg.

Banished from Geneva, Calvin went to Strassburg early in September, 1538, and found congregational singing an established ordinance among the German churches. Becoming pastor of the congregation of French refugees in that city, Calvin was now quite free to inaugurate the singing of Psalms among his own countrymen. The great difficulty in the way was the practical one of finding material suitable for the purpose. But within two months of his arrival he had his congregation singing French Psalms after some fashion, as appears from a letter of Zwick, dated November 9, 1538:

“A church has been given to the French at Strassburg in which they hear sermons from Calvin four times a week, but also celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and sing psalms in their own tongue.”2121Opera, vol. xb, 288.


The printed material then available for such a purpose was of the slightest.2222As to Psalms in French already existing, see Herminjard, vol. iv, p. 163, n.; but compare Bovet, pp. 15, 16. Two or three songs based on Psalms were included in the earlier Neuchâtel Noelz nouueaulx, but if Calvin employed them, such use has left no traces. He had begun to gather together such manuscript Psalm versions as he could find, and, because he was much pleased with the tunes sung by the German congregations in Strassburg, he set about composing French Psalms in metres adapted to these tunes.2323“Quia majis arridebat melodia germanica”: Calvin to Farel, 29 December, 1538. Opera, vol. xb, 438.

It is possible that the actual effect upon Calvin of the congregational singing at Strassburg may have been to convince him that to make congregational Psalm singing practicable and effective required not only a translation into the vernacular but also into metrical form; and that his original thought had been merely to have the prose version of the Psalter set to the simpler Gregorian chants. This is consistent with the language of the Articles of January 16, 1537, and would explain Calvin’s proposal to start congregational singing at Geneva at a time when metrical Psalms hardly existed. It may be added that prose as well as metrical pieces were included in the first issue of Calvin’s Psalm book when it appeared. From this point, in any case, Calvin’s project is that of metrical Psalmody, and contemplates a complete version of the Psalter.

By the end of December, 1538, Calvin’s manuscript materials had sufficiently accumulated to justify his announcing to Farel, then at Neuchâtel, his purpose of printing them forthwith for the use of his congregation.2424Opera, xb, 438. “Statuimus enim brevi publicare.” For the correct date (December 29, 1538) see Herminjard, v, 452, n. The actual date at which this purpose was accomplished, marking as it would the appearance of the first Calvinistic Psalter, was for long an object of interested inquiry. The available data were these: On June 28, 1539, Pierre Toussain, pastor at Montbeliard, 15 wrote to Calvin: “I pray you to send me the French Psalms.”2525Opera, vol. xb, 357. There was also this passage in a letter of Calvin himself to Farel on October 27 of the same year:

“I have not been able just now to write to Michael. Do you, however, urge him to write by the first messenger what has been done about the psalms. I had given orders that a hundred copies should be sent to Geneva. Now for the first time I am made to understand that this has not been attended to. It was certainly very negligent to delay so long to inform me.”2626Opera, vol. xb, 426.

The question was whether these (with one or two later) references implied the appearance in that year, 1539, of a printed Psalter. Herminjard maintained that they did.2727Op. cit., vol. v., p. 452, n. The learned editors of Calvin’s works had doubted it, thinking that the hundred copies were to be made by hand from Calvin’s draft.2828Opera, vol. vi, prolegomena, xxi. Bovet also held that the Psalms were not yet in print.2929Op. cit., p. 15. The question was settled finally by the discovery in the Royal Library of Munich of a copy of the long-lost Psalm book.3030For an account of the discovery and full description of the book, see Douen, vol. i, pp. 301-303: for the title page in facsimile, see Doumergue, vol. ii, p. 511. It is a little book of sixty-three pages, without name of editor or printer, with the title: Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant. A Strasburg. 1539. “Here is the first Reformed Psalter: let us greet it,” says Calvin’s enthusiastic biographer, “with the respect it deserves;”3131Doumergue, vol. ii, p. 511. and he quotes appropriately a remark of Zahn:3232Ad. Zahn, “Calvin als Dichter”: Zeitschrift für kirchliche Wissenschaft, 1889, vol. vi, pp. 315-319.

“This novel book is the source from which the whole literature of the [metrical] psalms has issued; those psalms which for four centuries have resounded in all the world.”


The book contains twenty-one pieces in all, each having its melody printed with the first verse. Eighteen are Psalms; seventeen in verse, one in prose. There are also the Nunc Dimittis and the Commandments in verse, and the Apostles’ Creed in prose. The melodies are some of those used by the German congregations of Strassburg, with which Calvin had been so much pleased. Of the metrical Psalm versions, two we know to be the work of Calvin’s own hand, from his own testimony.3333“Two Psalms, xlvi and xxv, are my first attempts; the others I added afterwards.” Calvin to Farel, December 29, 1538. Opera, xb, 438. Three others, as well as the Nunc Dimittis and Commandments, are in all probability his.3434See Bovet, “Sur les Psaumes de Calvin,” op. cit., pp. 211-224. For the text of all the verse attributed to Calvin, see Opera, vi, 211-224. The twelve Psalms remaining are the work of Clement Marot, the most accomplished French poet of his time.

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