Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Martial Ethos of Historic Reformed Worship: Psalm singing, persecution, and public resistance in the 16th century British Isles

While the psalms may have been sung on the continent as battle songs for courageous soldiers marching out to war, Dr. Reid points out that they were put to a slightly different use in the 16th century on the British Isles. Reid argues that the reason for this difference lies in the fact that the opponents of the Calvinists on the Isles were not primarily Roman Catholic; rather, the martial conflicts were related more toward nationalism and politics (p.50). However, it is worth pointing out, during the 17th century, the psalms would be used by Ironsides and the Covenanters in a series of military skirmishes. Though it is proper to note that there is a difference in use between the Isles and the Continent, it is clear that the psalms continued to be a galvanizing force in Britain among the Reformed, and had important cultural applications.

Psalm signing was not always a prominent feature of British piety however. Dr. Reid explains that prior to 1539 there were no English metrical versions of psalms. This void was first filled by Miles Coverdale’s publication of his Ghostly Psalms, and was further supplemented by the work of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins who contributed another thirty or so psalms to the growing collection of metrical psalms. It is worth noting in passing that these psalms were suppressed by King Henry the 8th and at the same time were used to strengthen the resolve of persecuted Christians such as Bishop Hooper as they were led to the stake for slaughter.

It would however be left to the leadership of John Knox to promote an expanded use of the Psalter. Knox, having been forced to move on from serving saints in Frankfurt on account of the swelling ranks of Anglican refugees, moved on to Geneva to serve a congregation of British exiles. Here Knox presided over the construction of a liturgy based upon the model used in Geneva and oversaw the publication of a Psalter consisting of 54 metrical psalms arranged and edited by Sternhold and Hopkins (p.51). Upon Knox’ return to Scotland he brought both the liturgy and Psalter with him establishing their use in the Scottish Church.

A similar liturgical use of the psalms occurred at this time in England as well. As Marian exiles returned home after the accession of Elizabeth, they brought a complete Psalter with them containing all 150 psalms. It would turn out that these psalms would take up a vital place in Puritan, non-conformist worship. Dr. Reid reports that when the lectureships were established, it was a common practice for the congregants to gather together about an hour before worship began to join their voices together in praise using the psalms. The use of psalms became a signature mark of English Puritanism and a badge of Puritan identity similar to their use on the Continent. One practice in particular highlights this characteristic feature of the 16th century Puritans which was the gathering of large crowds in the evenings at St. Paul’s Cross to sing the “Genevan jigs” as a form of protest against Queen Elizabeth’s demand for religious and liturgical uniformity (p.52).  

Two separate examples of the use of psalm singing in Scotland are worth mentioning here before winding this post down with a note of conclusion. First, when Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, she was greeted on her first night by a large crowd of Scottish Christians who serenaded her with psalms under her bedroom window. The rather chilling significance of this public display was not lost on Mary who experienced a taste of the psalm singing ethos, as it functioned among the Huguenot’s, during her stay in France while married to Francis II (p.52). Second, a specific incident occurred on 4 September 1582 upon the return of exiled minister John Durie. Durie, a minister in Edinburgh, who had been exiled by James VI by the hand of Esme Stuart, Duke of Lennox, was escorted from seaport to his Edinburgh rectory by a throng of  psalm singing Scots. As Durie made his way toward the St. Giles Kirk, a crowd numbering in the thousands lifted up their voice in praise using the psalms. This public display of psalm singing was so unsettling to the Duke that he immediately tucked his tale in fear, leaving Scotland, never to return (p.53).

It is not too difficult to see the significance of the role of the psalms as the Reformation swept across the British Isles in the mid 16th century. First, no sooner had a Reformed movement taken embryonic shape in Britain than metrical versions of the psalms were arranged, published, and made use of to strengthen and nourish the saints and to sustain martyrs as they faced the fires of unholy persecution. Second, the psalms were used exclusively in both Scotland and England as the manual of praise among those who identified themselves with the Reformation which emanated from Geneva. This fact is significant to highlight as it establishes the form of worship which was characteristic of Calvinistic worship in the British Isles of the 16th century. Commitment to exclusive canonical psalmody was not a subsequent development of 17th century hard line, fundamentalist Puritanism, as is sometimes claimed, rather it was the practice of the Calvinistic Reformed churches from the time when the Reformation gained a footing in Britain. Third, though the psalms did not quite have the same role in 16th century Britain as they did in on the Continent, they certainly were an identifying feature of Reformed British worship and piety as is exemplified by the examples of their use in both England and Scotland which were cited above. A fair and reasonable conclusion to draw from this evidence is that wherever the Reformed church went the Psalter went, whether on the Continent or Britain, and, the psalms were put to use as a powerful means of resistance to tyrannical, anti-Reformed magistrates.  All this points to the fact that psalm signing was central to the ethos of the church militant in the 16th century British Isles.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Martial Ethos of Historic Reformed Worship: Psalm singing and persecution in the Netherlands

In pursuing the connection between psalm singing and persecution, we move from France to the Netherlands. Sadly, the experience of the Reformed in the Netherlands varied little from the experience of the French Reformed, as pools of bright red Reformed blood formed across the landscape of the Netherlands as the Reformed faith struggled to take root. Besides being bonded by blood, these churches were bonded by a common commitment to the singing of psalms, and it was this commitment that generated violent opposition against the Reformed church.
From the inception of Reformation in the Netherlands, there was no lack of Psalters available to Reformed Christians to help them give voice to their praise. As early as 1539 psalm books flowed from the presses in Antwerp as the Reformed faith began to gain a footing. In 1540 Souder Liedekens' complete Psalter was rolled out, eventually  going through thirty-three editions. Another Dutch Psalter was produced by Jan van Utenhove who brought his own version of 100 psalm settings over from London. The introduction to Psalm 46 in this Psalter highlighted the relationship between psalm singing and persecution stating, “this psalm also aroused all those truly praising God to trust whenever the godless arose in persecution.” However, the Psalter which gained widest circulation was the Marot-Beza Genevan Psalter of 1562 which was translated into Dutch first by de Heere, and then by Dathenus, the latter version being adopted officially at the Reformed synods of Wesel (1568) and Dordrecht (1574).
As the psalms began to unite the hearts and voices of the Dutch Reformed in praise and worship, it will come as no surprise that persecution was initiated against them. Strada, a Roman Catholic historian, reports that hundreds of Reformed Christians flocked to public meetings where psalms were sung in protest against the Roman Catholic magistrate. In the Netherlands, public psalm singing led to the same experience of bloodshed as it did in France. On one occasion, 300 English refugees were sent to the stake with Psalm 130 on their lips, while on others, riots broke out and arrests led to mass executions.
A series of instances of persecution against the Reformed are worth taking a moment to highlight and draw attention to, as we consider the connection between psalm singing and persecution in the Netherlands. First, in 1562 at Valenciennes, when the magistrate attempted to execute a man named Faveau and his associate for publicly preaching Reformed doctrine, a large crowd of Reformed Christians began to form and started to loudly sing the psalms. Mayhem was unleashed and the end result was that the mob of psalm singers overwhelmed the executioners, effecting the release of the prisoners. Second, in 1562 a man named Christopher Fabricius was condemned to death for preaching Protestant doctrine. While positioned on the pyre awaiting execution, Fabricius began to sing Psalm 130 and the crowd began to join their voices to his. The situation rapidly deteriorated with the executioner  and civic officials turning tale and running; however, before the executioner fled in panic he thrust Fabricius through with a sword and smashed his head in, instantly killing him. Third, in 1566 Viscount Brederode began to publicly organize large public worship services as a means of civil disobedience against the magistrate. These public services, often attracting crowds measured in the thousands, consisted of preaching and psalm singing. On one occasion, Dr. Hermanus led his followers into a cathedral and preached a fiery sermon against idolatry. In response to the sermon, the crowd began to vigorously sing the psalms, which eventually led to an outburst of iconoclasm as the worshipers destroyed all the images in the cathedral. The regent was so alarmed by these public meetings that she wrote to Philip II warning him psalm singing was leading to widespread civil unrest and rebellion. Fourth, by 1574 the public singing so enraged the magistrate that the Dutch Reformed experienced their own St. Bartholomews Day massacre in Alva’s Council of Blood, which effectively suppressed the public gatherings of the Reformed.
This brief survey of the early days of reformation in the Netherlands shows that the Dutch Reformed were psalm singers whose experience was one of persecution and the costly shedding of blood. While Roman Catholic oppressors hated the psalms, the Reformed found their identity and unity in them.  Though the psalms were sung out of the conviction that God had prescribed them as an element of worship, they were not relegated to the Lord’s Day worship alone, as the Dutch Christians made use of them at home privately and in the public square openly as a means of civil disobedience.  Clearly, the Psalms were the fuel of first generation reformers in the Netherlands, giving shape to Dutch worship, piety, and practice, and would remain dominant in Dutch Reformed life for hundreds of years until the winds of 19th century liberalism would sweep over the Dutch church in the Netherlands and until the blight of revivalism and Yankee pragmatism would ravage Dutch Reformed convictions about worship in the 20th century in America. If the Dutch Reformed church would regain the robust faith of their forefathers it will need to toss out the use of manmade revivalistic hymns and junk praise songs and replace them with the Psalms, God’s very own appointed manual of praise.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Martial Ethos of Historic Reformed Worship: Psalm singing and persecution in France

Continuing on in our series on the relationship of psalm singing to the corporate life and experience of the Reformed churches, which embraced the theology of worship spelled out by John Calvin, we turn to psalm singing and persecution. The experience of Reformed churches in three different geographical regions in France will be taken up for examination. Throughout the following paragraphs we will highlight certain key facts and insights provided by Dr. Reid.

First, strong opposition to psalm singing was encountered by the Reformed at the hands of Catholic leaning French authorities in city of Paris. As early as October 1557 in Paris, the Huegenots were being persecuted by the magistrate. Dr. Reid cites a particular instance of persecution which occurred at a meeting of Huguenots at the home of a Parisian citizen on Rue St. Jacues behind the Sorbonne. Here, hundreds of Huguenots met for worship with a large spillover crowd positioned outside the home. Sorbonne clergy, alerted about the meeting, gathered up a mob of thugs, deputized them and sent them in to arrest the men assembled at the gathering.  A substantial portion of the men pushed their way of the house, leaving women and children behind, believing that the women and children would be unharmed by the clergy's deputies. The plan backfired as many women and children were incarcerated for an extended period of time; however, the incarceration led to greater antagonism as the captives spent much of their time singing psalms in unison. As for the men, many of them were subsequently captured and burned at the stake for the subversive act of practicing their Calvinist faith with its signature feature of psalm singing. At this point it is a reasonable question to ask whether these Christians would have been as savagely persecuted had they been gathering to sing hymns as praise songs and "ministered to" by naturally talented individuals who sang together in choirs, trios, duos, and solos. While it is difficult to answer the question to everyone's satisfaction, a reasonable conjecture, based upon a knowledge of the facts, is that the Reformed would not have experienced such severe persecution. It is undeniable that psalm singing generated stiff opposition then, as it does now.

Second, similar confrontation was experienced in La Rochelle and beyond. As early as 1550 ecclesiastical court documents indicate that authorities had banned the importation of the Calvinist Geneva Psalter. Opposition to psalm signing was also encountered about the same time at Bas-Poitou, Bourges, and Bordeaux. In all these places the civil and ecclesiastical authorities maintained the position that such singing "was in derision and to the great scandal of the Christian religion." In Nantes, the hatred of psalm singing ran so deep that authorities, in 1562, petitioned Duc d'Etampes to come and stamp out the public singing of the psalms. It is worth pausing to notice, that being Protestant in general, or more specifically "Calvinitistic" did not necessarily provoke the ire of civil and ecclesiastical authorities, rather, it was the additional factor of psalm signing that made these French Reformed Christians targets for savage persecution.

Third, Reformed churches in Normandy and Dieppe experienced similar hostility from authorities. To voice opposition to the Cardinal's opposition to the French Reformed churches in this region, the Huguenots positioned a force of 2,000 worshipers outside his residence who sang the psalms for hours. Of course, this action initiated a hostile response and many Huguenots subsequently lost their life. The Huguenots however were not to be deterred as throngs of worshipers openly sang the psalms as they marched the dead to their graves in public funeral processions.  

These three examples of regional persecution of French Reformed Calvinists mark only a tip of the iceberg of violent persecution directed toward Reformed psalms singers. On the one hand, it is encouraging to think about the persistence of the Huguenots in practicing their faith in the face of fierce opposition, noting that this persecuted minority steadfastly maintained their faith believing they were commanded to do so, instead of caving in to the authorities and abandoning their convictions to pacify oppressors in order to make their lives more comfortable.  One way to account for this remarkable testimony of faithfulness is by realizing that the practice of singing these Holy Spirit inspired Psalms itself, tapped into rich streams of energizing grace, which in turn, nourished and fostered dutiful and God-glorifying obedience. On the other hand, it is deeply discouraging to consider that fierce opposition to exclusive psalm singing persists 500 years later. What is especially disheartening is that the Roman Catholic civil and ecclesiastical authorities have been replaced by the Reformed churches as the primary oppressors and opponents of exclusive psalm singing. It is inexplicable that those who claim to bear the mantle of Calvinist theology are those who would have opposed and oppressed Calvin himself for instituting exclusive canonical psalm singing. I can only imagine that this hostility flows at least in part from ignorance of the history of the Reformed church and it is my hope that the publication of the record of the historic Reformed commitment to this distinctive practice of exclusive singing of canonical psalms will not only lead Reformed people to set aside their hostility and opposition to psalm singing, but will also lead them to reconsider their own practice of worship and conform it to the pattern of historical Calvinism.