Exclusive psalmody

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Psalm 1 from the 1562 edition of the Genevan Psalter

Exclusive psalmody is the practice of singing only the biblical Psalms in congregational singing as worship. Today it is practised by several Protestant, especially Reformed denominations. Hymns besides the Psalms have been composed by Christians since the earliest days of the church, but psalms were preferred by the early church and used almost exclusively until the end of the fourth century.[1]: 40  During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and many other reformers, including those associated with the Reformed tradition, used hymns as well as psalms, but John Calvin preferred the Psalms and they were the only music allowed for worship in Geneva. This became the norm for the next 200 years of Reformed worship. Hymnody became acceptable again for the Reformed in the middle of the nineteenth century, though several denominations, notably the Reformed Presbyterians, continue the practice of exclusive psalmody.


The singing of psalms was included in the synagogue service at the time of Jesus. Early Christians appropriated this tradition, as well as many other elements of synagogue worship. The whole congregation may have sung, or there may have been a cantor who would sing each verse with the congregation responding by singing "Hallelujah."[1]: 36  Such a pattern appears outside the psalms; each song in the obscure early Christian poetry collection known as the Odes of Solomon concludes with a "Hallelujah", indicating a similar liturgical purpose for its ancient users.[2] The Psalms of David formed the core of liturgical music for the early church, to which other songs from the Old and New Testaments (canticles) were added.[1]: 37  In addition, early Christians wrote original compositions for singing in worship alongside biblical texts.[1]: 38  Soon after the New Testament period, psalmody took a preferred position in the worship of the church. There was some hymn-writing in Eastern churches, but in the West psalms and canticles were used almost exclusively until the time of Ambrose of Milan at the end of the fourth century. Even then, the psalms were never completely replaced by original hymns.[1]: 40 

During the Protestant Reformation, new church music was written in order to revive the practice of congregational singing, which had been replaced by the singing of monastic choirs in Latin.[1]: 42  Martin Luther and leaders of the Reformed wing of the Reformation in Strasbourg, Constance, and elsewhere wrote music for psalm texts as well as original hymns, but John Calvin in Geneva used biblical psalms almost exclusively in the Genevan Psalter, though it contained some gospel canticles and catechetical songs. This psalter was to become a prototype for Reformed worship, but Calvin did not have any objection to the use of original hymns in other churches, and he did not appeal to scripture in his preface to the psalter justifying his preference for the Psalms.[1]: 42, 45 

Once the Genevan Psalter was translated into German in 1573, exclusive psalmody became the dominant mode of Reformed congregational singing for 200 years following John Calvin everywhere but in Hungary.[3]: 496  Anglicans had no theological objection to hymns, but they failed to nurture a tradition of English-language hymnody.[4]: 104  Works like the 1562 English Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter were very popular among the Reformed. Literal translations of the Psalms began to be preferred by the Reformed over the looser translations of the Genevan and Sternhold and Hopkins psalters in the latter part of the sixteenth century.[1]: 46  Some of the most influential psalters of the seventeenth century were the Scottish Psalter of 1635 and the Bay Psalm Book of 1640, which was the first book printed in America.[1]: 47 

Seventeenth-century Reformed theologians did not reach a consensus on the propriety of hymns in worship, and several argued that they were permissible, including John Ball and Edward Leigh. Thomas Ford also seems to have favored an inclusive rather than exclusive psalmody, while clearly preferring biblical psalms.[5]: 297–298  Benjamin Keach, a Particular Baptist, introduced hymn-singing in his congregation in 1673,[5]: 297  leading to a debate with Isaac Marlow, who opposed congregational singing altogether.[5]: 300  By the end of the seventeenth century, hymn-singing was on its way to being acceptable among English Baptists.[5]: 308 

In 1719, Isaac Watts, an early eighteenth-century English Congregationalist minister, published Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, in which "imitated" means "interpreted," rather than being a strict translation. Some complained that his psalms were not translations at all, but paraphrases. Watts also wrote many hymns, many of which imitated the psalms. The rise of pietism in the eighteenth century led to an even greater dominance of hymns,[1]: 47–48  and many of the Reformed reintroduced hymns in the early eighteenth century.[3]: 196  Hymnody became acceptable for Presbyterians and Anglicans around the middle of the nineteenth century, though the Reformed Presbyterians continue to insist on exclusive a cappella psalmody.[4]: 76 

Biblical basis[edit]

The practice of exclusive psalmody is sometimes based on a strict (sometimes called 'Puritan') interpretation of the regulative principle of worship, the teaching that only scriptural elements may be included in worship. However, John Calvin did not invoke such a principle in his justification for the practice. Later exclusive psalmodists contended that since God has given Christians a collection of 150 worship songs and provides scriptural examples of them being sung, God requires these songs to be used in public worship and forbids others to be sung (2 Chronicles 5:13, 2 Chronicles 20:21, 2 Chronicles 29:30, Ezra 3:11, Exodus 15:1). As such, "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 would serve as a hendiatris, referring to the various titles of the Psalms as used in the Septuagint.

Another basis would be the Christology of the Psalms, especially seen in Hebrews 2:12 quoting Psalm 22:22 as the words of Christ, demonstrating Christ being among the congregants during worship. The clean, pure and holy one of Psalm 24, who is able to stand perfectly before the Father, would also be the King of glory, and the only Mediator who can lead the congregation to worship the Father (John 14:6).


Presbyterian denominations practising exclusive psalmody:

Dutch Reformed denominations practising exclusive psalmody:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Old, Hughes Oliphant (2002). Worship: Reformed according to Scripture. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0664225797.
  2. ^ Charlesworth, James H., ed. and trans. The Odes of Solomon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973, 4.
  3. ^ a b Benedict, Philip (2002). Christ's Churches Purely Reformed. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300105070.
  4. ^ a b White, James F. (1989). Protestant Worship. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0664250379.
  5. ^ a b c d Haykin, Michael A.G.; Robinson, C. Jeffrey (2011). "Particular Baptist Debates about Communion and Hymn-Singing". In Haykin, Michael A.G.; Jones, Jones (eds.). Drawn Into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  6. ^ https://reformation-presbyterian-church-australian-presbytery.org/