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
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.