Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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The Rage for the Psalter in France

Rev. Angus Stewart


Today, the Psalms—God’s manual of praise for his church—are rejected by many professed Protestants for uninspired hymns. It once was very different! All the Reformed churches sang the Psalms. J. A Wylie in his famous History of Protestantism (book 2, pp. 137-138) describes "the rage for the Psalter" in France in the days of the Reformation in the lengthy but engaging quotation below:

At an early stage of the Reformation in France, the New Testament … was translated in the vernacular of that country. This was followed by a version of the Psalms of David in 1525 … Later, Clement Marot, the lyrical poet, undertook—at the request of Calvin, it is believed—the task of versifying the Psalms, and accordingly thirty of them were rendered into metre and published in Paris in 1541, dedicated to Francis I. Three years afterwards (1543), he added twenty others, and dedicated the collection "to the ladies of France." In the epistle dedicatory the following verses occur:

"Happy the man whose favour’d ear
In golden days to come shall hear
The ploughman, as he tills the ground,
The carter, as he drives his round,
The shopman, as his task he plies,
With psalms or sacred melodies
Whiling the hours of toil away!
Oh! happy he who hears the lay
Of shepherd or of shepherdess,
As in the woods they sing and bless
And make the rocks and pools proclaim
With them their great Creator’s name!
Oh! can ye brook that God invite
Them before you to such delight?
Begin, ladies, begin! ..."

The prophecy of the poet was fulfilled. The combined majesty and sweetness of the old Hebrew Psalter took captive the taste and genius of the French people. In a little while all France, we may say, fell to singing the Psalms. They displaced all other songs, being sung in the first instance to the common ballad music. "This holy ordinance," says Quick, "charmed the ears, heart, and affections of court and city, town and country. They were sung in the Louvre, as well as in the Prés des Clercs, by the ladies, princes, yea, by Henry II himself. This one ordinance alone contributed mightily to the downfall of Popery and the propagation of the Gospel. It took so much with the genius of the nation that all ranks and degrees of men practised it, in the temples and in their families. No gentleman professing the Reformed religion would sit down at his table without praising God by singing. It was an especial part of their morning and evening worship in their several houses to sing God’s praises."

This chorus of holy song was distasteful to the adherents of the ancient worship. Wherever they turned, the odes of the Hebrew monarch, pealed forth in the tongue of France, saluted their ears, in the streets and the highways, in the vineyards and the workshops, at the family hearth and in the churches. "The reception these Psalms met with," says Bayle, "was such as the world had never seen." To strange uses were they put on occasion. The king, fond of hunting, adopted as his favourite Psalm, "As pants the hart for water-brooks," &c. The priests, who seemed to hear in this outburst the knell of their approaching downfall, had recourse to the expedient of translating the odes of Horace and setting them to music, in the hope that the pagan poet would supplant the Hebrew one. [Today, the Arminian hymns of the Wesleys etc. are used to supplant the God-breathed Psalms.] The rage for the Psalter nevertheless continued unabated, and a storm of Romish wrath breaking out against Marot, he fled to Geneva, where, as we have said above, he added twenty other Psalms to the thirty previously published at Paris, making fifty in all. This enlarged Psalter was first published at Geneva, with a commendatory preface by Calvin, in 1543. Editions were published in Holland, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, and so great was the demand that the printing-presses could not meet it. Rome forbade the book, but the people were only the more eager on that account to possess it.

Calvin, alive to the mighty power of music to advance the Reformation, felt nevertheless the incongruity and indelicacy of singing such words to profane airs, and used every means in his power to rectify the abuse. He applied to the most eminent musicians in Europe to furnish music worthy of the sentiments. William Franc, of Strasburg, responding to this call, furnished melodies for Marot’s Psalter; and the Protestants of France and Holland, dropping the ballad airs, began now to sing the Psalms to the noble music just composed. Now, for the first time, was heard the "Old Hundredth," and some of the finest tunes still in use in our Psalmody. After the death of Marot (1544) Calvin applied to his distinguished coadjutor, Theodore Beza, to complete the versification of the Psalms. Beza, copying the style and spirit of Marot, did so, and thus Geneva had the honour of giving to Christendom the first whole book of Psalms ever rendered into the metre of any living language.

Jesuit theologian, Famiano Strada (1572-1649) expresses the Roman Catholic opposition to Reformed Psalm singing:

That translation of hymns [i.e., the metrical Psalter of Marot and Beza] though abandoned and condemned by the Catholics, was zealously and pertinaciously retained by the Heretics [the Reformed]; and the custom of singing Psalms in the French language, according to the fashion of the Genevese, in companies, in places of public resort, and in shops, became thenceforth a peculiar characteristic of the Heretics (quoted in Herman Witsius, The Apostles’ Creed, vol. 1, p. 312).

Many today, who consider themselves heirs of the Reformation, are more akin to those French Roman Catholics, whom Strada speaks of, who "abandoned" the Psalter. But by God’s grace, there are still some who possess that "peculiar characteristic of the Heretics" (as judged by the false church), the public singing of the God-breathed Psalms. May they flourish as a tree planted by a river. As Psalm 1 promises (in the Scottish Metrical Version),

He shall be like a tree that grows
near planted by a river,
Which in his season yields his fruit,
And his leaf fadeth never:
And all he doth shall prosper well.
The wicked are not so;
But like they are unto the chaff,
which wind drives to and fro.