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IX. The Psalmody of the Reformed Churches of France.

The Genevan Psalter, words and tunes, became the authorized praise book of “The Reformed Churches of France.” With the organization of French Protestants into congregations with regular worship and administration of sacraments, the singing of Psalms was everywhere a recognized feature of the cultus. In 1559 these congregations ventured to hold a general synod at Paris, adopting a confession of faith of the Genevan type, and effecting their church organization 72 under the Presbyterian form. The order of worship adopted was that of Calvin’s La forme des prieres. In the church discipline formulated at the first and subsequent synods, Psalmody was given constitutional recognition. Of chapter x, “of Religious Exercises performed in the Assemblies of the Faithful,” canon ii reads:

“Singing of God’s praises being a divine Ordinance, and to be performed in the Congregations of the Faithful, and for that by the use of Psalms their hearts be comforted and strengthened; Every one shall be advertised to bring with them their Psalm-Books unto those Assemblies, and such as through contempt of this holy Ordinance do forbear the having of them, shall be censured, as also those, who in time of singing, both before and after sermon, are not uncovered, as also when the Holy Sacraments are Celebrated.”104104Quick, Synodicon, vol. i, p. xliii.

The gesture of outward respect and the individual Psalm books here inculcated became characteristic of the Reformed Psalmody in general. The little books containing the words and notes, brought forth from his garments by every member of the congregation at the announcement of the Psalm, were remarked as a striking feature by more than one observer of the early Reformed worship; the token of each believer’s active part in the exercises.105105See Doumergue, vol. ii, p. 490, and Dickinson, Music in the History of the Western Church, N. Y., 1902, p. 361.

The singing by the congregation, led by a precentor, was without instrumental accompaniment. The Psalms were sung in their order, and the practice was to sing right through the Psalter from beginning to end, without selection or omission, within a given period. Before leaving Geneva Bourgeois devised a table distributing the Psalms into suitable portions, and from which the Psalm or Psalms appointed for the day could be determined. For this he was rewarded by the Council, and printed copies of the table were ordered to be posted in the churches.106106See Doumergue, vol. ii, p. 515. Such tables of distribution of the Psalms came frequently to be printed in the Psalm books, 73 and where the end of the daily portion came before the ending of the Psalm itself, the point of division was indicated by the word “PAUSE.” No thought of any discrimination in the use of the Psalms was in the minds of either the framers or the early users of the French Psalter, or was required by the robust faith of the sixteenth century.

To the early French Protestants the Psalm book was a unit—the Word of God in the personal possession of the humblest, the symbol as well as the vehicle of their new privilege of personal communion with God. To know the Psalms became a primary duty; and the singing of Psalms became the Reformed cultus, the characteristic note distinguishing its worship from that of the Roman Catholic Church.

The familiar use of Psalms in worship only emphasized the power of their appeal to the individual experience, and made Psalmody as much a part of the daily life as of public worship. The family in the home, men and women at their daily tasks, were recognized as Huguenots because they were heard singing Psalms. The Psalter became to them the manual of the spiritual life. It ingrained its own characteristics deep in the Huguenot character, and had a great part in making it what it was. A character nourished and fed by Old Testament ideals must inevitably have the defects of its qualities. But to the Huguenot, called to fight and suffer for his principles, the habit of Psalm singing was a providential preparation. The Psalms were his confidence and strength in quiet and solitude, his refuge from oppression; in the wars of religion they became the songs of the camp and the march, the inspiration of the battle and the consolation in death, whether on the field or at the martyr’s stake. It is not possible to conceive of the history of the Reformation in France in such a way that Psalm singing should not have a great place in it.107107For ample illustration of this phase of the subject consult Douen, chap. i, “Rôle du Psautier dans l’église réformée”; Bovet, chaps, vi, ix; and R. E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life, London and New York, 1903, chaps. vii, viii, “The Huguenots.”


Under such conditions the inextinguishable hatred of the Genevan Psalter felt by the enemies of the Reformation is easily understood; and the peculiar vindictiveness with which Psalm singing was proscribed and hunted out and punished108108Consult Bovet, pp. 126 ff, and note viii, “Arrêts contre le chant des Psaumes.” becomes natural to the point of view. The Roman Catholic position was that Psalms inspired by the Holy Ghost and committed to the church, were not to be rashly put forth for promiscuous use by the people in connection with secular surroundings and thoughts. They should be reserved for the holy offices and congenial surroundings of the established worship, and confined to the utterance of holy persons thereto appointed. It is worthy of note that even to a contemporary skeptic, Montaigne, this position seemed not only reasonable but profitable. He says:

“It is not without very good reason, in my opinion, that the church interdicts the promiscuous indiscreet, and irreverent use of the holy and divine psalms, with which the Holy Ghost inspired King David. We ought not to mix God in our actions, but with the highest reverence and caution; that poesy is too holy to be put to no other use than to exercise the lungs and to delight our ears; it ought to come from the conscience and not from the tongue. It is not fit that a prentice in his shop, among his vain and frivolous thoughts, should be permitted to pass away his time and divert himself with such sacred things. Neither is it decent to see the Holy Book of the holy mysteries of our belief tumbled up and down a hall or a kitchen; they were formerly mysteries, but are now become sports and recreations.”109109Essays, book i, chap. lvi, tr. by Cotton.

To these objections against Psalm singing in private life Church writers alleged others equally strong against congregational Psalmody. They fouled the memory of Marot as its author, and ridiculed the Psalm tunes as carnal songs; they accused the young men and maidens of singing to each other rather than to God, and contended that the efforts of an ordinary congregation were not endurable as a musical performance. In spite of the atmosphere of contempt thus thrown around Psalmody by its opponents, and in spite of 75 continued legislation, penalty, persecution and death visited upon the singers by the church authorities, the new Psalmody covered France, spread from country to country, and was transplanted into the new world as an established institute of Reformed worship.

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