To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken.—Jer. 6.10

[Psalms of Hymns, from The Original Covenanter.]

Excerpted from:

VOL. III.      MARCH, 1881.       NO. 1.
Shall psalms or hymns be offered as a sacrifice of praise to God?—inspired psalms or uninspired hymns? This is the question, the only one worthy of discussion in its bearing upon the purity of this part of religious worship. Within the current century this question has been often discussed, assuming the form of controversy, and too often betraying the acrimony and bitterness of disputants. It is certain, however, from the nature and importance of the subject, that ever and anon discussion will be renewed until the question be settled on a scriptural basis. Of this {14} tendency to renewed discussion the Christian public has had evidence in the religious publications of Britain and America ever since the recent meeting of the Presbyterian Council. Deep feeling, heartburnings, which could not be wholly smothered during the proceedings of the Conference on the part of those who use hymns in worship, found expression—strong and acrimonious utterance in print, immediately after the close of the Council's proceedings.

Another question growing out of the transactions of the recent Convention may have been suggested to other minds as well as to our own—What connection had a "service of praise" with the deliberations of the body? We are aware that the very moving of this question may startle the minds of such as are satisfied with the average piety of our time. Prayer for divine guidance was equally dutiful and appropriate, but other "devotional exercises" in our opinion were incongruous. We do not find in history that all religious ordinances were celebrated by general councils; yet we have read the lamentations of some, that the Presbyterian Conference "adjourned without the celebration of the Lord's Supper!" This, we think, is "being righteous overmuch." Indeed the piety of this age, which at almost every social gathering craves some sort of "devotional exercises," but chiefly finds expression in a service of song, which it fondly calls a "service of praise," is too obviously of such evanescent nature as to cause the devotion to evaporate. Even church courts, since the introduction of extra devotional exercises, do not seem to be more enlightened, devout, harmonious, or faithful than they were previous to this specious innovation.

In the late Council the representatives of the General Assembly Presbyterians of the United States had a preponderating influence. They are the largest body in the world of the name, and they are almost to a man very zealous in urging their supposed "Christian liberty" in the use of evangelical hymns in worship. Some are also likeminded with them in the larger Presbyterian bodies of the British Isles, but neither so unanimously nor enthusiastically. Nor were the General Assembly Presbyterians of America always so devoted to hymns in worship as they {15} are now. We are familiar, personally and by credible information, with the time, the occasion, and the mode of introducing this innovation. Within our own memory it was the custom in many congregations of that now fashionable body to use the psalms only in public worship. The pastor on Sabbath morning explained the psalm; the precentor conducted the singing, selecting suitable and simple tunes, reading the lines, so that all might join this part of the worship—"just like the Covenanters!"

The first impulse given to depart from the exclusive use of the psalms as the matter of praise to God in his sanctuary, came from a work of Dr. Isaac Watts, entitled An Imitation of David's Psalms. These became very popular among Presbyterians in the United States. As an antidote to this corruption of a divine ordinance, the late Dr. James R. Wilson, of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, published a pamphlet entitled, "Dr. Isaac Watts an Arian, proved from his own Writings." This work opened the eyes of many who had fallen into the very common mistake of inferring Dr. Watts' orthodoxy from his seeming piety. There is no greater fallacy than this, and yet it is quite common. The Arian and Socinian, who "deny the Lord that bought them," can speak and write as piously as the most orthodox divine; and it is only "by good words and fair speeches they deceive the hearts of the simple." If they did openly and boldly avow their heresies, denying the supreme deity of the only Saviour, many would take alarm and escape the snare of the fowler.

Watts' Imitation prepared the way for uninspired "evangelical hymns" to supplant the psalms of the Bible. And here we give one example, illustrating the mode by which the innovation was sometimes introduced:—

In the early part of this century, and in the locality in central Pennsylvania, a minister who had been for many years pastor of a Presbyterian congregation was removed by death. During his long pastorate the Psalms had been exclusively used in praising God. The precentor who survived his beloved pastor was stricken in years. In due time a successor to the old pastor was called by a majority of the congregation. He was in the vigor of early manhood, {16} fresh from the theological seminary, and fully up to all the improvements of the more fashionable congregations in the Atlantic cities. On the morning of the Sabbath on which the new pastor first occupied the pulpit, instead of the customary order observed by his venerable predecessor, invocation of the divine presence and favor, the explanation of a portion of psalmody, that the worshippers might be prepared to sing God's praise with the spirit and with the understanding; the first movement of the new pastor was to rise with the air and majesty of a perfect and polished gentleman. He held in his hand a hymn book and "gave out a hymn!" The old precentor had occupied his usual position just before the pulpit. The young minister lingered on his feet, expecting the old precentor to lead the congregation in the novel "service of song." Instead of complying, the old gray-headed man arose from his seat, lifted his three-cornered hat, and slowly moved to a suitable position in an aisle of the meeting house. He then turned and addressed the pastor as he was still standing in the pulpit as follows:—"Sir, I have been for forty years precentor in this congregation, and you have this day done to me what all the devils in hell could not do; you have shut my mouth from praising my God in this congregation." He then went slowly out at the door, weeping as he went, and never returned. Such is an authentic narrative of the affecting scene by one who was a personal witness. Indeed we have often heard of instances in our own day, bearing more or less analogy to the above example.

Now there are persons who deprecate all controversy in religion. While we can respect their feelings, we cannot approve their judgment. We are to "contend earnestly for the faith." Can any person propose or name any other subject of controversy so worthy of our contending as "the faith?" No, this bears upon the glory of God and involves the present welfare and eternal destiny of man.

The mode of introducing hymns "with force and with cruelty," of which a sample has been given above, was in time discovered to be bad policy. A more quiet and successful method was to operate by indirection. The Sabbath {17} school opened a promising avenue. Children would surely be quickly charmed with the novelty. They understood the hymns in some measure, whereas the Psalms were so wrapped in mystery and clouded under types that even the learned Dr. Watts complained of their obscurity. The ministers had now laid aside that part of order which required a portion of psalmody to be explained on the morning of the Sabbath. In process of time the generality of the ministers became as ignorant of the Psalms as the children. Pastors, superintendents, and teachers, disregarding the prohibitions of the third commandment, trained youth to the familiar and irreverent use of the divine names, attributes, &c., and in this way gradually obliterated the distinction between an inspired psalm and an uninspired hymn. It is true the innovators disavowed any intention to relinquish or disparage the Psalms. Indeed they did, and they still do profess to prize them highly, and occasionally eulogize them. They offer in sacrifice to God either psalm or hymn indiscriminately. This is too much like "setting their threshold by his thresholds, and their post by his posts;" [Ezek. 43.8.] or the two altars of king Ahaz; the Damascus altar for sacrifice, and the brazen altar for his majesty "to enquire by." 2 Kings 16.15. But our God is a jealous God; he exercises his exclusive prerogative in prescribing the worship he will accept. Worshippers and their services under the New Testament are described by Old Testament names. Heb. 13.15. Both the worshippers and their offerings are to be without blemish; and there is a fearful malediction denounced against the "deceiver that hath in his flock a male, and voweth and sacrificeth unto the Lord a corrupt thing." Mal. 1.14. He is to be worshipped "in truth." John 4.24.

The advocates of hymns in worship have always used intemperate language in discussing the question at issue; and by applying opprobrious names and epithets to their opponents have thereby unconsciously betrayed the weakness of their arguments. They have thus provoked acrimonious retaliation. This custom of using "railing for reasoning" has been unhappily renewed as a sequel to the late Presbyterian Council. The following are given as {18} samples from a large variety. Those who contend for the exclusive use of the Psalms in worship are represented as "sticklers for Hebrew Psalmody;" a people of "superstitious whims," influenced by "prejudice—a narrow prejudice;" holding "one of the strangest delusions of the Church"—"nonsense and stupidity;" "singing of the Messiah in Jewish prophecy, but not the dying Redeemer of Calvary," and much more in the same spirit, and in the same inconsequential style of argument! As Dr. Cuyler of Brooklyn, exceeds most others in sneers and vituperation, he likewise "betrays amazing ignorance of the songs of inspiration;" he does not recognize the identity of "the Messiah of Jewish prophecy" and the dying Redeemer of Calvary!" Why, this was just the mistake of the Jews when their Messiah actually appeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and their posterity are still of the same mind, with a very few exceptions now as of old.

The friends of the exclusive use of the Psalms in worship can afford to bear with equanimity the jibes, sneers, and ridicule of their opponents, assured that their position is impregnable against all future assailants, as it has been heretofore; but when the Psalms themselves are assailed by learned ignorance, as by Dr. Watts and many others, their defenders must feel deeply, and they may be expected to speak strongly; but at present discussion on this important and deeply interesting question must be suspended. It may be resumed in our next or subsequent numbers [magazine issues].


Excerpted from:

VOL. III.         JUNE, 1881.        NO. 2.

In our last issue (page 13) we adverted to the time and some of the modes employed, by which hymns began to be used in public worship by Presbyterians in the United States. Dr. Watts' "Imitation of David's Psalms" in time ceased to be popular, and his hymns also gradually went into desuetude. The ęsthetic taste generated by the innovation soon called for greater variety, and the demand was supplied by a succession of poets or poetasters more or less acceptable. This kind of literature in great variety still continues to accumulate. The doctrines popularized by this material are of course as different and antagonistic as the sects by which it is manufactured.

The New Testament rightly interpreted supplies sufficient evidence that our Lord and his apostles used in {41} worship—"the sacrifice of praise," (Heb. 13.15.) those "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" only, which were found in the inspired Book of Psalms. Nor does history indicate any change by their immediate successors. It is true indeed that this corruption of divine worship kept pace with others in the early part of the Christian era. Nevertheless in the third century so highly were the psalms prized that they were committed to memory, as they still are by the children of the church. So important and common was this kind of early training by parents and pastors, that the children so educated were called pueri psalmorum, "boys of the psalms." Arians, Donatists, and other sectarians had so spread their erroneous and heretical sentiments by their hymns in the fourth century,—"inflaming the intoxication of their minds by singing hymns of human composition, that the council of Laodicea, about the year 360, prohibited the ecclesiastical use of all uninspired hymns; and the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, confirmed the decree." (Dr. Binney, p. 368.) Every one who reads church history knows how hymns were composed and multiplied by the different orders of Romish monks, along with their heretical dogmas and other corruptions by which the gospel was eclipsed and the "Dark Ages" superinduced upon the Christian world.

When the Lord brought the testimony of his witnesses out of obscurity in Piedmont, Bohemia, &c., by the ministry of Luther, his contemporaries and successors; then the psalms were restored to their place in the churches of the Reformation. Luther was skilled in music, himself composed many hymns; but he carefully distinguished between the Psalms and his hymns. An old lady in eastern Pennsylvania is said to have in her possession "a German Psalm-book, published by Luther himself." The book closes with a collection of Luther's hymns; but the old lady says that in her young days in Germany, "its directions were rigidly obeyed, and in public worship they sang only the Psalms of David." The same order, as is well known, prevailed in all the other reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles. {42}

Now, while the ultimate authority by which this ordinance of praise to God must be finally adjusted is the Bible, we ought not either to ignore or treat with levity the subordinate authority of the church, or disregard the honest and enlightened convictions of her best reformers. Nor will men of literary culture and solid judgment give credit for modesty to the reunited Assembly of the United States, however learned and numerous, whose haughty bearing "because of their holy mountain," appeared in the late Presbyterian Alliance; and whose published sentiments ever since have become increasingly offensive.

The title prefixed to most editions of the authorized metrical version of the Psalter is calculated to mislead; but such was by no means the intention, nor even the fault, of those who called the book "The Psalms of David." No foresight could prevent or anticipate the wresting of these words equally by the illiterate and the learned to a meaning which their author never intended, yet the perversion has been very common among both classes. We give an example for illustration. Some forty years ago, when Dr. Watts was more popular than now among both hymn-singers and hymn-makers, a very zealous exhorter expressed his creed and feelings thus: "I bless the Lord for Watts' psalms; and I bless the Lord for David's psalms." The man, obviously, viewed Watts and David as equally authorized to furnish the matter of praise. Had the title to the metrical version been retained as in the prose translation—the title which Christ and his inspired amanuensis gave to this part of the Bible—the learned as well as the ignorant might have escaped such shameful mistake. In Luke 20.42, and Acts 1.20, the Holy Spirit, the Author, calls it "the book of Psalms." Yet Dr. Watts, with all his class training, poetic taste, and skill in logic, betrayed amazing and shameful ignorance when professedly and confidently teaching others on the subject of the praise of God. And learned doctors, many of them, such as Doctors Cuyler, of Brooklyn, and Musgrave, of Philadelphia, follow in the wake of Watts, or of some other unreliable leader. Perhaps no man has done more {43} by his poetic gift than Dr. Watts, to disparage the Psalms, and invalidate the authority of the Old Testament, while professing love to both. He seems to have been perfectly unconscious that he was writing infidelity and propagating constructive blasphemy, when profanely professing to "convert David into a Christian!" He says that in the Psalms "the royal psalmist expresses his own concerns, his own thoughts, agreeable to his own personal character, and in the language of his own religion." Now this is all true in a sound sense, but in the Doctor's sense David's religion was not the Christian religion. Then it follows, of necessity, that the religion taught in the Old Testament—especially in the book of Psalms—is not the religion of Christ! Nay, more, the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New, and Paul "erred, not knowing the Scriptures," when, in the very strongest form known to speech, he averred that the God of the Jews is the God of the Gentiles also, Rom. 3.29. And if we admit the inspiration of the Bible, on the principles inculcated by Dr. Watts, the Holy Ghost must have contradicted Himself! We do not say that this is the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, but it is surely a perilous approximation to that unpardonable sin.

And when Dr. Cuyler, his emotions excited and "inflamed" by uninspired hymns, hints a doubt of identity between the "Messiah of Jewish prophecy" and "Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified on Calvary," is he not too closely following the example of Dr. Watts? Or, when Dr. Musgrave, under the like inspiration as Dr. Cuyler, avers that the 51st Psalm is unsuitable for the lips of a christian, "unless he be guilty of the same crimes as David;" how can he, consistently with such a sentiment, maintain the inspiration of the Bible, the harmony of the Old and New Testament, or the unity of God? We are not insensible to the gravity of the doctrines involved in this discussion, nor of their deep penetrating and far-reaching consequences; but Christ's witnesses may not be "ignorant of Satan's devices;" and sometimes in defence of divine truth and the purity of divine ordinances, they may be constrained to explore even "the depths of Satan." {44} To the faithful ambassador of Christ his most agreeable employment is to develop the mysteries of the kingdom of God; but he is sometimes called to the less agreeable duty of opposing popular error by "putting to silence the ignorance of foolish men, whose mouths must be stopped, and who subvert whole households." [1 Pet. 2.15; Titus 1.11.]

Perhaps no error has gained more extensive currency among Protestants, in this age of the church, than this:—That every one has an equal and divine right to compose hymns, to be offered in praise to God. Now let no one suppose that we have ought to say against poetry, in general, or against evangelical hymns, in particular—provided they are kept in their own place; but when they come in competition with the Bible, or are used as substitutes for any part of the Bible, then, indeed, the profane intrusion must be met and restricted by scriptural authority and solemn protest. For, if we may accept an "imitation" as a substitute for the book of Psalms without impious presumption; on the same principle imitations of all the other books of the Bible may be accepted as substitutes; and then we arrive at the infidel goal to which the teachings of Drs. Watts, Cuyler, and Musgrave have unconsciously conducted us. Of course we use these three names of distinguished divines merely as typical of a great multitude of equally cultured men—hence the church's peril.

Innovators of this age are not more popular and self-confident, perhaps, than those whom Isaiah was commissioned to warn, thus: "Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow." [Isaiah 50.11.] Should the advocates of the purity of God's worship in the matter of his praise sometimes utter "nonsense," or even seem to be obnoxious to the imputation of "stupidity;" their criminality and punishment must be allowed to be comparatively light, when contrasted with the crime and doom of those contemplated in the above awful commination [threatening] by the Lord's prophet.