Psalm Singing in Calvin and the Puritans

This is the first half of a chapter in Sing a New Song, a new book that covers the topics of psalm singing in history, psalm singing in Scripture, and psalm singing and the twenty-first-century church. Among the contributors are W. Robert Godfrey (foreword), Joel R. Beeke, Terry Johnson, D. G. Hart, Derek Thomas, and John V. Fesko. It will be available fall 2010 from Reformation Heritage Books (

Following Jewish synagogue practices, the early church sang psalms. The Synod of Laodicea (AD 350) and the Council of Bracatara (AD 563) forbade the singing of non-scriptural hymns. In the Middle Ages, however, Gregorian singing allowed choirs to trump congregational singing. For nearly a millennium church choirs sang hymns, usually in Latin, with difficult tunes; congregational psalm singing dissipated and, in many places, virtually disappeared.1

The Reformation revolutionized congregational singing, particularly through the efforts of Martin Luther and John Calvin (1509–1564). Calvin and the Puritans felt convicted to sing psalms in public worship and loved doing so. In this chapter, after showing how Calvin developed psalm singing, we will look at the Puritan view of psalm singing, following the outline of John Cotton’s representative book on the topic: (1) the duty of psalm singing, (2) the content of the singing, (3) the singers, and (4) the manner of singing. This chapter will conclude by presenting some spiritual benefits of psalm singing for believers today.

Calvin on Psalm Singing

Calvin viewed the book of Psalms as the canonical manual of piety. In the preface to his five-volume commentary on Psalms—his largest exposition of any Bible book—Calvin writes, “There is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this exercise of piety.”2 Calvin’s preoccupation with this book was motivated by his belief that the Psalms teach and inspire genuine piety in the following ways:

As revelation from God, psalms teach us about God. Because they are theological as well as doxological, they are our sung creed.3 Psalms clearly teach our need for God. They tell us who we are and why we need God’s help.4

Psalms offer the divine remedy for our needs. They present Christ in His person, offices, sufferings, death, resurrection, and ascension. They announce the way of salvation, proclaiming the blessedness of justification by faith alone and the necessity of sanctification thorough the Spirit in the Word.5

Psalms demonstrate God’s amazing goodness and invite us to meditate on His grace and mercy. They lead us to repentance. They teach us to fear God, trust His Word, and hope in His mercy.

Psalms teach us to flee to the God of salvation through prayer and show us how to bring our requests to Him.6 They teach us how to pray confidently in the midst of adversity.7

Psalms show us the depth of communion we may enjoy with our covenant-keeping God. They show how the living church is God’s bride, God’s children, and God’s flock.

Psalms provide a vehicle for communal worship. Many of the psalms use first-person plural pronouns (we, our) to indicate this communal aspect, but even those with first-person singular pronouns include all who love the Lord and are committed to Him. They motivate us to trust and praise God and to love our neighbors. They prompt reliance on God’s promises, promote zeal for Him and His house, and advocate compassion for the suffering.

Psalms cover the full range of spiritual experience, including faith, unbelief, joy in God, sorrow over sin, trust in divine presence, and grief over divine desertion. As Calvin says, they are “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.”8 We see our affections and spiritual maladies in the psalmists’ words. Their experiences draw us to self-examination and faith by the Spirit’s grace. David’s psalms, especially, lead us to praise God and find rest in His sovereign purposes.9

For twenty-five years, Calvin immersed himself in Psalms as a commentator, preacher, biblical scholar, and worship leader.10 Early in his ministry, he began working on metrical versions of psalms for use in public worship. On January 16, 1537, shortly after his arrival in Geneva, Calvin asked his council to introduce psalm singing into church worship. Since there was no French psalter available, Calvin recruited the talents of men such as Clement Marot (1495–1544), Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510–1560), and Theodore Beza (1519–1605) to produce the Genevan Psalter. The work took twenty-five years to complete. The first collection (1539) contained eighteen psalms, six of which Calvin put into verse. The French poet Marot, forced to flee to Geneva for political asylum in the early 1540s, arranged the rest. Calvin was eager to enlist Marot’s talents, despite his worldly ambitions and anti-Reformed convictions.11 Interestingly, the eighteen psalms selected for the first edition were of a far different balance from most hymnbooks today: six were psalms of repentance, six were about judgment, three dealt with the law and righteousness, while only three were psalms of praise.12

An expanded version (1542) containing thirty-five psalms came next (Marot arranged thirty, Calvin five), followed by an edition with forty-nine psalms (1543).13 Calvin wrote the preface to both of those psalters, commending the practice of congregational singing. After Marot’s death in 1544, by which he had set about fifty psalms to meter, Calvin encouraged Beza to put the rest of the psalms into verse after he happened to find a beautifully rhymed version of Psalm 16 on Beza’s desk. Though Marot was a more careful student of the French text than Beza, Beza’s Hebrew and theology were better. By the early 1560s, Beza completed his work; two years before his death, Calvin rejoiced to see the first complete edition of the Genevan Psalter.14

The Genevan Psalter offers a remarkable collection of 125 melodies written specifically for the psalms, plus two biblical canticles that remained in use: the Song of Simeon and the Decalogue. The best known of these outstanding musicians is Bourgeois—chosen by Calvin himself.15 Arriving from Paris in 1545, Bourgeois became a music teacher in Geneva. He did most of his work on the Genevan Psalter in 1549 and 1550, arranging 80 of the 125 melodies, thus becoming one of the three main composers of the Genevan Psalter.16

The Genevan tunes are melodic, distinctive, and reverent.17 Sung in half and whole length notes, they clearly express Calvin’s convictions that the psalms deserve their own music and that piety is best promoted when text takes priority over tune. Since music should help us receive the Word, Calvin says, it should be “weighty, dignified, majestic, and modest”—fitting attitudes for sinful creatures in the presence of God.18 This type of music promotes the sovereignty of God in worship, properly conforming a believer’s inward disposition to his outward confession. It enables a believer to sing under the impulse and direction of the Holy Spirit.19

Psalm singing is one of the four principle acts of church worship, Calvin believed. It is an extension of prayer and congregants’ most significant vocal contribution. He thus urged his people to sing psalms in Sunday morning and afternoon services. Beginning in 1546, a printed table indicated which psalms would be sung on each occasion. Sermon texts dictated the psalms for worship. By 1562, three psalms were sung at each service.20

Calvin felt so strongly about psalm singing that early on he introduced it into his Geneva school. His goal was to enable children to sing psalms at school, church, and home so that they could help their parents learn to sing them also.21

Calvin believed that there was something unique about the Psalms. He observes,

The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here [in the Psalms] the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to [participate] . . . 22

Calvin also believed that corporate singing subdued the fallen heart and restrained wayward affections in the way of piety. Like preaching and the sacraments, psalm singing disciplines the heart’s affections in the school of faith, lifting the believer to God. It also amplifies the effect of the Word on the heart, multiplying the church’s spiritual energy. “The Psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardor in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of his name,” Calvin writes.23 In short, with the Spirit’s guidance, psalm singing tunes believers’ hearts for glory.

The Genevan Psalter was an instantaneous success. Twenty-five editions were printed in the first year, and sixty-two editions within four years of publication. By the nineteenth century, there were fourteen hundred editions in dozens of languages. The Netherlands alone produced thirty editions in less than two centuries.24

Remaining an integral part of Reformed worship for centuries, the Genevan Psalter set the standard for successive psalm books in French, English, Dutch, German, and Hungarian. As a devotional book, it warmed the hearts of thousands, but the people who sang from it also understood that its power was not in the book or its words, but in the Spirit who impressed those words on their hearts.

The Genevan Psalter promoted piety by stimulating a spirituality of the Word. That spirituality was corporate and liturgical, breaking down the distinction between liturgy and life. The Calvinists freely sang the Psalms not only in their churches, but also in their homes and workplaces, on the streets and in the fields.25 Psalm singing became a “means of Huguenot self-identification.”26 It also became a cultural emblem. As T. Hartley Hall writes, “In scriptural or metrical versions, the Psalms, together with the stately tunes to which they were early set, are clearly the heart and soul of Reformed piety.”27 No wonder, then, that in many parts of Europe, the term psalm singer became nearly synonymous with the title Protestant.28

The Puritans on Psalm Singing

Like Calvin, the Puritans practiced psalm singing. Percy A. Scholes, a Puritan music scholar, explains: “The English Puritans, being Calvinist and not Lutheran, held to the view that the only proper worship song was that provided of God once for all in the Book of Psalms (and Biblical canticles). This was Calvin’s conviction and a metrical psalm before and after the sermon was the usual practice at Geneva.”29

When approximately eight hundred Protestants went into exile under Bloody Mary’s reign, their churches in exile commonly used metrical psalmody in their liturgy.30 Beth Quitslund concludes,

For the English communities in exile, metrical psalms helped define a Protestant identity that could respond to the trauma of the Marian accession. As writings that offered great scope for penitence, consolation, and oppositional self-presentation, they were well suited for the task, and the paraphrases that Whittingham composed at Frankfurt show the language of these biblical songs framed to the times. Congregational singing itself, both psalms and in the hymns composed by the English Protestants in Germany, answered a need for communal expression that the exiles felt more keenly than they had in the religious climate of Edwardian England. This attachment to psalm-singing as a way to unite the people in godly affection did not abate, however, when Elizabeth’s accession restored England’s national Church to Protestantism. Many of the texts and tunes that had supported the English abroad became staple songs of the Elizabethan Church, importing the confessional ideology they nourished and the anti-Marian militancy they articulated with them.31



When the exiles who had settled in Geneva returned to England, they took the Genevan Psalter with them. By 1562, they published the first complete English metrical version of the Psalms, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, which contained 150 numbers with 64 tunes in 462 pages.32 This version became known as the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, named after its two major contributors, Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins.33 Other contributors included William Kethe, John Marckant, John Pullain, Thomas Norton, William Whittingham, and Robert Wisdom.34

The Whole Booke of Psalmes continued to play a major role in the life of the Elizabethan church from 1562 to 1603. Quitslund writes: “Counting only those printed in England and containing the whole text of at least the psalms, 14 editions survive from 1562 to 1572; from 1573 to 1582, 37 editions; from 1583 to 1592, 42 editions; and from 1593 to 1603, 53 editions.”35 Quitslund goes on to address the question, “Why did the largely anti-puritan Elizabethan authorities support metrical psalmody, overlook the Genevan associations of Day’s book, and allow such a confessionally strident volume to become so important to English worship?” Her answers include (1) that the “basic theology of the English Church as a whole during the sixteenth century was very like that of Calvin’s Geneva,” (2) that the make-up of the Bishop’s bench and the Privy Council was largely conservative in the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, (3) that most congregants felt some enthusiasm for the Reformed faith and viewed psalm singing as welcome “propaganda” for the still tenuous religious settlement, and (4) that most people “thoroughly enjoyed singing psalms.”36

“The singing of these psalms became a signature of Puritanism,”37 says W. Stanford Reid. Yet since many Christian churches already engaged in considerable psalm singing, Scholes was reluctant to regard psalmody as “a special mark of Puritanism” since Psalter use was nearly universal.38 People sang psalms at city banquets, soldiers hummed them on the march, farmers whistled them in the fields, and pilgrims sang them as they sailed for new continents. Nevertheless, while psalm singing was not a uniquely Puritan practice, the Puritans developed the theology of psalmody and emphasized its lawfulness and necessity beyond other groups of Christians. That is why when Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), sympathetic to the Puritans, established the Commonwealth, only metrical psalms in their simplest forms were allowed to be sung in churches. The new leadership also abolished the liturgy and Prayer Book, dismissed choirs, and destroyed or silenced organs.39

Let us not misunderstand the Puritans here. Their motivations were rooted in their conviction of what would later be called the regulative principle of worship—anything not expressly commanded in Scripture was forbidden in worship. This varied substantively from the Anglican view, which followed the Lutheran tradition and view of Scripture, asserting that what Scripture did not expressly forbid and tradition sustained was permissible in the church. For the Puritan mind, Anglican cathedral music was too complex, its anthems too obscure, its choirs too professional, and its entire theology of music too divorced from the principles of edification and the priesthood of all believers.40

Since the Puritans and their successors, the Nonconformists, taught that every part of worship needed scriptural warrant, uninspired hymns were unacceptable. How could church leaders assume that they were capable of deciding what was appropriate for worship when God had already decided that for them in Scripture by restricting God’s praise to the metrical psalms, His own handbook for singing? The Puritans’ conservative views on singing in worship services were grounded in what they deemed to be non-negotiable scriptural principles. The issue at stake was not their distaste for music, but their deep conviction that Scripture must be obeyed at all costs.41

In Massachusetts Bay Colony, New England, a group of “thirty pious and learned” Puritans, principally Thomas Welde, Richard Mather, and John Eliot, worked together to produce a better psalter. Published in 1640 as the first book printed on the American continent, The Whole Booke of Psalmes became known as the Bay Psalm Book.42 Is it not fascinating that the first published book in America was a faithful translation of the Hebrew psalms into English? The Bay Psalm Book eventually replaced the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter and included a preface explaining “not onely the lawfullnesse, but also the necessity of the heavenly ordinance of singing Scripture psalmes in the churches of God.”43

The Bay Psalm Book used about forty common tunes in its first edition. By the 1698 edition, that number was only thirteen, indicating how the quality of singing degenerated among the New England Puritans during the last half of the seventeenth century.44 That degeneration, common to both Old and New England, was one factor that helped open the door to hymn singing in the eighteenth century.

Taken from Sing a New Song, © 2010 by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio. Used by permission of Reformation Heritage Books, 2965 Leonard Street, NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49525. All rights reserved.

1. Gerald R. Procee, “Calvin on Singing Psalms,” The Messenger 56, 7 (July/Aug. 2009): 10.

2. John Calvin, Opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. Guilielmus Baum, Eduardus Cunitz, and Eduardus Reuss, in Corpus Reformatorum, vols. 29–87 (Brunsvigae: C. A. Schwetschke et filium, 1863–1900), 31:19. (Hereafter, CO 31:19); translation taken from Barbara Pitkin, “Imitation of David: David as a Paradigm for Faith in Calvin’s Exegesis of the Psalms,” Sixteenth Century Journal 24, 4 (1993): 847. Much of the first section of this chapter is adapted from my “Calvin on Piety,” The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 137–39.

3. James Denney, The Letters of Principal James Denney to His Family and Friends (London: Hodder & Stoughton, n.d.), 9.

4. See James Luther Mays, “Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms: The Preface as Introduction,” in John Calvin and the Church: A Prism of Reform, ed. Timothy George (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 201–204.

5. Allan M. Harman, “The Psalms and Reformed Spirituality,” Reformed Theological Review 53, 2 (1994): 58.

6. Commentary on the Psalms, 1:xxxvi–xxxxix.

7. Ibid., Ps. 5:11; 118:5.

8. Ibid., 1:xxxix. See James A. De Jong, “‘An Anatomy of All Parts of the Soul’: Insights into Calvin’s Spirituality from His Psalms Commentary,” in Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor: Calvin as Confessor of Holy Scripture, ed. Wilhelm H. Neuser, Papers of the International Congress on Calvin Research (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 1–14.

9. Commentary on the Psalms, 1:xxxix.

10. John Walchenbach, “The Influence of David and the Psalms on the Life and Thought of John Calvin” (Th.M. thesis, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1969).

11. In contrast to the decadent life at the French royal court which he called a paradise, Marot thought life in Geneva far too strict, even calling it “a hell” (Procee, “Calvin on Singing Psalms,” 11). Cf. Joseph Waddell Clokey, David’s Harp in Song and Story (Pittsburgh: United Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1896), 146.

12. Michael LeFebvre, To Sing the Psalms, Again (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, forthcoming 2010), 17–18.

13. Cf. Louis F. Benson, “John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 5, 1 (March 1909):1–21; 5, 2 (June 1909): 55–87; 55, 3 (Sept. 1909): 107–118.

14. Published as Les pseaumes mis en rime françoise par Clέment Marot et Théodore Bèze.

15. Elsie Anne McKee, ed. and trans., John Calvin: Writings in Pastoral Piety (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2001), 85.

16. (accessed April 3, 2010). Other significant contributors include Guillaume Franc, cantor at Lausanne; Mattheus Greitner of Strasbourg; Maitre Pierre, a precentor in the Genevan church; and Claude Goudimel, who was mainly responsible for harmonies.

17. Unlike Martin Luther, Calvin tried to avoid mixing secular tunes with sacred singing. He believed that all psalm singing must be in the vernacular, asserting that the evidence of Scripture and the practices of the ancient church were grounds for liturgical psalm singing (VanderWilt, “John Calvin’s Theology of Liturgical Song,” 72, 74).

18. Preface to The Genevan Psalter (1562), cited in Charles Garside, Jr., The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536–1543 (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1979), 32–33.

19. John Alexander Lamb, The Psalms in Christian Worship (London: Faith Press, 1962), 141.

20. McKee, John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety, 85–86.

21. LeFebvre, To Sing the Psalms, Again, 13.

22. Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, 1:xxxvii.

23. CO 10:12; cited in Garside, The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music, 10.

24. Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 1980), 175. More than thirty thousand copies of the first complete five-hundred-page Genevan Psalter were printed by more than fifty French and Swiss publishers in the first year, and at least 27,400 copies were published in Geneva in the first few months (Jeffrey T. VanderWilt, “John Calvin’s Theology of Liturgical Song,” Christian Scholar’s Review 25 [1996]: 67). Cf. Le Psautier de Genève, 1562–1685: Images, commentées et essai de bibliographie, intro. J. D. Candaus (Geneva: Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, 1986), 1:16–18; John Witvliet, “The Spirituality of the Psalter: Metrical Psalms in Liturgy and Life in Calvin’s Geneva,” in Calvin Study Society Papers, 1995–1997, ed. David Foxgrover (Grand Rapids: CRC, 1998), 93–117.

25. Witvliet, “The Spirituality of the Psalter,” 117.

26. W. Stanford Reid, “The Battle Hymns of the Lord: Calvinist Psalmody of the Sixteenth Century,” in Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, ed. C. S. Meyer (St. Louis: Foundation for Reformation Research, 1971), 2:47; cf. Benson, “John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 5, 2 (June 1909): 57–67.

27. “The Shape of Reformed Piety,” in Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell, Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 215. Cf. Reid, “The Battle Hymns of the Lord,” 2:36–54.

28. LeFebvre, To Sing the Psalms, Again, 13.

29. Percy A. Scholes, The Puritans and Music in England and New England: A Contribution to the Cultural History of Two Nations (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), 253. I wish to thank Brian Najapfour for his research assistance on this section of the chapter.

30. Beth Quitslund, The Reformation in Rhyme: Sternhold, Hopkins and the English Metrical Psalter, 1547–1603 (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2008), 114–53.

31. Ibid., 152–53.

32. For the development of the Anglo-Genevan metrical psalter from 1556 to 1562, see ibid., 156–238.

33. Sternhold (d. 1549), who served as Groom of the Royal Wardrobe, metricized psalms for young Edward VI (1537–1553) and for the Court’s edification (ibid., 19–58, esp. 27–31, 55–57). Sternhold’s work generated “the production of an extraordinary number of works of scriptural texts in meter” from 1549 to 1553 (ibid., 72–93), including those by his most important imitator, John Hopkins (ibid., 93–103).

34. Ibid., 283.

35. Ibid., 241. The only other large collection of metrical psalms printed in the Elizabethan period was Matthew Parker’s Whole Psalter translated into English metre. Quitslund notes that “Parker had written the versifications of the psalms themselves, and perhaps the liturgical hymns that accompany them, in his retirement during Mary’s reign, completing them in 1557” (ibid., 251).

36. Ibid., 264–65.

37. Reid, “The Battle Hymns of the Lord,” 2:52.

38. Scholes, The Puritans and Music in England and New England, 272–74. Scholes admits that Roman Catholics and Quakers did little psalm singing.

39. Edwin Liemohn, The Organ and Choir in Protestant Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 55.

40. Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England (Princeton: University Press, 1975), 255.

41. Ibid., 254. In fact, many Puritans were fine vocal and instrumental performers. Cromwell himself employed an organist for his own organ, thoroughly enjoyed choral music, and hired an orchestra to play at his daughter’s wedding.

42. Wilberforce Eames, Introduction to The Bay Psalm Book: Being a Facsimile Reprint of the First Edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Printed by Stephen Daye, 1640, reprint; Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2002), vi.

43. The Whole Booke of Psalmes (Cambridge, Mass.: Stephen Daye, 1640), title page.

44. Zoltán Haraszti, The Enigma of the Bay Psalm Book (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 68–70.

Dr. Joel R. Beeke serves as President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Church History, and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a prolific author and is also pastor of Heritage Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI.