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.

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