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.

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