- For several centuries, the churches of the Reformed tradition followed the lead of John Calvin in using the biblical book of Psalms as the only source for their hymnody. To make the Psalms accessible to contemporary congregations, they were recast into the most common meters of the day and set to popular tunes.The first Protestant lyricist to adapt the Psalms was the poet Clement Marot (1496-1544), whose work Calvin used in his 1539 Strasbourg Psalter. Finding his work rejected in France, Marot fled to Geneva in 1542, where he worked for a time with Calvin on additional versions of Psalms. After Marot's death, Calvin worked with Theodore de Beza, who in 1562 published a collection of all 150 Psalms. Beza's Geneva Psalter spread throughout the French-speaking Protestant world and was translated into Dutch (1566), German (1573), and English (1592). in the meantime, some of the more talented Protestant musicians worked on alternative tunes and arrangements that added variation and life to the Psalms.An earlier English Psalter had been published by Marian exiles in Geneva in 1556, using pre-Reformation texts by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins. The Whole Book of Psalms, which as the name suggests had all 150 Psalms arranged for singing, was republished in London; it became the common hymnal for British Puritans for the rest of the century In Scotland, John Knox developed his own English-language psalter after his return from Geneva.All these efforts culminated in the 1696 publication of A New Version of the Psalms of David, Fitted to the Tunes Used in Churches, by Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate. Tate, the poet laureate, dedicated the book to the king, and it was assumed by many to be an "official" volume. It took its place beside the 1556 volume; both competed for the favor of the dissenting churches.in 1640, within a decade of settling in America, the Massachusetts Puritans produced their own psalter, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, popularly known as the Bay Psalm Book. it was their first literary effort.In the 18th century, there was no lack of writers who tried to perpetuate the tradition of Psalm singing by coming up with new revisions for use with contemporary songs. Nevertheless, Psalms increasingly fell by the wayside in favor of popular new hymns.The first major blow to the dominance of the Psalms in the Reformed churches was delivered by Isaac Watts. According to Watts, church songs should clearly present the Gospel that Christians actually proclaimed. The Psalms, however, were written centuries before the appearance of Christ, and expressed the Gospel only in anticipation. Rather than strictly adhering to a biblical text, Watts wanted Christian hymnody to manifest the feelings of Christian worshippers in relation to their savior.Watts's breakthrough text was the 1707 collection Hymns and Spiritual Songs, which included some of his most popular songs such as "Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." His songs created a new day for church music. As a bridge from the past, Watts also wrote new Psalm renditions, including "our God, our Help in Ages Past," based on Psalm 90, and "Joy to the World," based on Psalm 98.Watts set the stage for the Wesleys. As Charles Wesley's thousands of hymns spread through the Methodist movement, they tipped the scale against Psalms in the Protestant churches. George Whitefield republished the hymns for use by Americans in the Great Awakening, and Psalm singing noticeably declined. only a few small conservative Presbyterian churches still use the psalter as their primary or only hymnbook.See also hymns/music.Further reading:■ Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody (London: Oxford University Press, 1949)■ William Jensen Reynolds and Milburn Price, A Survey of Christian Hymnody (Carol stream, ill.: Hope, 1987)■ Erik Routley, The Music of Christian Hymnody (London: Independent Press, 1957)■ Richard R. Terry, Calvin's First Psalter, 1539 (London: Ernest Benn, 1932).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.