The Desirability of a Truly Calvinistic Church Music

Reformed theologians and musicians alike are often placed in an embarrassing position when they are asked to describe the music of their church. Their embarrassment may, in some cases, be caused by the poor performance of the church music by mediocre talent in their local congregation. However, even in those churches which possess fine musical talents devoted to the service of God there are still occasions for concern and question. For there seems to be no set of standards for church music to which we all may subscribe. There is no generally accepted body of sacred songs which reflects the typical spirit of the American Reformed people. There is no sense of direction for the guidance of the church in the choice of music for worship.



It has been said that during the Reformation the people sang their way into the Protestant church. They left the Roman Catholic Church, with its great body of liturgical music, but they founded another church with its own distinctive music. The Lutherans with their great chorales and the Calvinists with their spirited and impressive Psalm tunes had something which brought the meaning of worship through song in the vernacular closer to the people. We must remember, too, that even though the music of these two great branches of Protestantism was different from the music of the Roman Church, it was still music of high quality. The music as music, and the union of this music with the text, created between the two elements one work of art worthy of the great message it had to convey.

Protestant Reformed Symbolism

Although Protestantism in general has tended to de-emphasize the religious symbolism found in the Roman Catholic Church, each Protestant church has, nevertheless, developed over the years a certain set of standards and symbols which characterize that church in the minds of others. Thus, some churches traditionally use one type of architecture; some develop a distinctive liturgy; some substitute a reader for the minister; some baptize by immersion, others by sprinkling; some use no organ but sing their psalms unaccompanied in unison; some use a particular type of cross as their distinctive emblem; some have a body of liturgical chants and hymns different from all other Protestant song; each church has its own set of doctrinal standards which sets it apart from all others. Many of these standards and symbols (mental, aural, or visual) are the result of the different historical development of the churches. Others reflect the attitudes and relationship of the church to its Creator. Each church has pride in its own distinctiveness and is jealous of it. We of the Reformed heritage, too, have our traditions, our standards, and our symbols. Justly proud of them, and convinced of the accuracy of our position, we have no desire to lose those symbols and standards of our church which best reflect our background and our eternal yearning for a closer walk with God.

Weakening influences have been at work, however, in Reformed churches in America from the very moment of their transplanting. If one enters a Reformed church in The Netherlands he is struck by the fact that the worship service is quite different from that of the Anglican, Mennonite, Lutheran, Moravian, or LiberaI churches. Not only is the exposition of the Word by the minister different. The congregational participation in the worship itself is different. The congregational song, in particular, is so different from that of the other Dutch churches that there can be no doubt in the mind of the casual visitor that here, indeed, is a church which worships God in a musical language which is not only distinctive but wholly satisfying to the congregation. The music and song of the church, based as they are on the principle of the supremacy of the Word of God, have truly become an integral part of the worship. This body of believers has developed to the point where the church’s music and the congregation’s worship are inseparable.

The Calvinists’ Indifference

Something must have happened when these worshippers arrived in America. Although Americanization does not seem to have adversely affected the Roman Catholic’s love for Gregorian chant, or the Lutheran’s love for the chorale, the Calvinist seems to have neglected by choice the traditional music of his church. The fault does not lie with the generation of the twentieth century. The process of watering down our musical heritage began already in colonial days when the early English translators, such as Francis Hopkinson, experienced difficulty in matching English verse to the unusual meters of the Calvinist psalm-tunes. The trend, begun so long ago, has brought us to the point where today many Calvinists do not know the greatness of the music of our past, do not recognize that music when they hear it, or openly scoff if asked to sing it.

This reaction is a natural one. Our leaders of the present as well as of the past have been derelict in the effort to preserve this art. What efforts have been made have often been misguided. Too often our policy making has been in the hands of well-meaning individuals who have allowed mere personal likes and dislikes, rather than historical accuracy, to influence their judgment. There have been some with a thorough understanding of the important historical development of psalmody, but their voices have too often been submerged by the clamor for borrowing from other sources.

The gradual disappearance of our own great music and the substitution for it of music from other traditions is, in itself, not a “bad” thing. Along with our common confessions of faith, the language of music is one of the great factors in the ecumenicity of the church. Nevertheless, to become a church of musical borrowers, regardless how good the thing is which we borrow, reveals an instability and immaturity which ill becomes a church with the rich background that we have. We too often forget that our roots are much deeper than those of the churches from which we have borrowed so much. Our river runs directly to the spring at Geneva and the music which belongs to our history has been fed by the blood of martyrs. Even greater than the fact that our music rises from the wellspring of the Reformation is the fact that the words of these great songs rise from the Holy Scripture itself.

Need for Serious Evaluation

It is time that we evaluate seriously the music in our churches. Dr, Peter Y. DeJong, in his article “The Eye or the Ear” (Banner, June 20, 1952) discusses the relation of the Word to the preaching. That relationship is no less important for the music of the church, including the music of congregational song, organ playing, and choir singing. With this in mind we quote a few excerpts from that article:

“The liturgical revival among Protestants has only touched the periphery of Reformed church life until now. Yet among us there are champions of a new way. It is therefore more than time that we take heed to our ways…We must pledge ourselves to maintaining the Reformed way of worship.

“This is the more needful when we remember that the preaching of the Word does not seem to have had the appeal among us which it once had. We also are in danger of stressing form at the expense of content. Indeed, a Reformed Christian is a lover of good form, But the form must be the true and proper reflection of a sound content.

“God is still pleased to call His people to salvation by the pure preaching of the Word. The gate which He uses first is that of the ear, not of the eye.” (Italics ours, H.B.)

The Word and Church Music

The Word of God is no less important for the music of the Church than it is for the preaching. The organist and the choir members are all concerned with the worshipper, and their activities serve to lead the congregation in worship. In what direction shall the congregation be led?

The words which men, women, and children sing are the more deeply impressed upon their hearts because of the singing. Whether they are sung at home, in the worship service, or in youth meetings, those words become a part of the religious experience. What would you have them sing? What kind of music shall be the vehicle for these words?

The music which we choose as the vehicle for the Holy Word is a reflection of our attitude towards that Word, If our hymns and anthems can scarcely be distinguished musically from the street songs and dance tunes of the day we reveal a shocking sense of disrespect towards our God. How shall we praise him?

We shall attempt to answer some of these questions in succeeding articles. In the next issue we hope to discuss something of the relationship of form and content in church music.