On the Abuse of Psalmody in Churches; and Proposals for remedying it.
From The Gentleman's Magazine, February 1741
There is a certain abuse swept, of late years, into the Psalmody of our churches. We have, in most Parishes, a set of men called the Singers; who meet usually, once a week in the church, to make themselves masters of the Psalm tunes, and anthems too, which they give on Sundays, in the course of singing, to the congregation.
In this we'll say, if you please, there is something laudable, - for it must be granted that the singing of Psalms is a divine institution, and, that the whole body of the church ought vocally, as well as mentally, to join in it.
But these men commonly sit together, and order the singing in their own way, whereby the congregation, instead of bearing a part in the service, only listen to their more skilful performance of it. And if they were disposed to do it, they cannot, by reason of the newness and variety of their tunes, which multiply daily.
Another thing, which excludes a great part in every congregation from joining in this duty, as well in heart as in voice, is their not repeating the psalm line by line. I am very sensible there are great names who have declared themselves against this. Bishop Wren calls it indecent and uncouth, and Dr Watt an unhappy way of singing, and wishes it were laid aside in all the churches, forgetting, it should seem, in this instance, the Protestant Principle, that the public worship, and every part therein should be so ordered, that all may understand, and be edified by it.
For it is evident, by this manner of singing, such as cannot read, or have not Common Prayer Books, who are, (and the more is the pity) a considerable part of every congregation, are about as much edified by the psalm, as they would have been, had it been sung in Buchanan's Latin, or as the vulgar Papists are by their Latin Prayers. I cannot help thinking, that any good ear, and pious heart, will infinitely prefer the singing of a whole congregation, especially one of any bigness, to the singing of ten or a dozen men who are striving to outdo each other by the strength and loudness of their vociferations. This way of singing appears to fall, in point of harmony, as much below the other, as the Amens and other responses in most of our churches fall below the solemnity and devotion of those of the primitive church, which one of the Fathers tells us were like a clap of thunder.
The singing of anthems, as is constantly done in some places, is liable to the same objections. Neither can I think this sort of musick fit for the voices of country people, which, not having been formed in youth, will never be made to suit with it, and those who cannot relish any thing of that sort that is not tolerable good in its kind, if they are men of vain and light minds, will only make sport with the quaver unharmonical and other grossnesses in these performances.
There is one further circumstance which I cannot mention without disiike; the whole is commonly ordered by the Singers, just as they please, independently of the Parish Minister. Thus for want of judgment or attention, they sometimes begin, and sometimes break off in the middle of a sentence, as thus in the 39th Pfalm - "At last these words burst out." If a Man were not serious, he would be ready to burst out in laughter at such a conclusion. And at other times the portions of Psalms which they pitch upon, are very improper. It seems they have taken it into their heads that such words go mighty well with such tunes, and that is reason enough with them never to part with them. And if the Minister of the parish, offended with such improprieties, shall give them a proper course of Psalms, it is ten to one if he can prevail. Let him keep to his text (say they) and we to our Psalms.
To remedy the forementioned inconveniencies and disorders, if the royal authority were to enjoyn, that any collection of portions of Psalms, approved of by the Archbishops, and Bishops, and no other, should be publicly used in all parish churches and chapels within this part of His Majesty's Dominions, and henceforth printed with our Common Prayer Books, there is no question but it would be generally submitted to. Tho' doubtless it were better to be done (if this could be hoped for) in a Convocational and Parliamentary Way.
As to the old translation of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, and others, it is a debasing and barbarous one. The meanness of it was perceived and complained of a hundred years ago, when our taste of stile was very ill, and our language very imperfect. But now it is become a standing subject of ridicule; and methinks, it would be proper to let it sink into oblivion, if it were only to baulk the jests of men of mirth and mockery.
When things are going on (if ever this should happen) in this train, it will be doubtless, considered, which translation, among the many that are extant, is the most perfect in those passages which are thought proper to be selected. For no one translation, it may be, should be adhered to throughout, some having succeeded better in one place, and some in another. The passages to be pitched upon should be such as are adapted to the capacities of the common people, and recommended to others by the sweetness of their numbers and purity of expression. It would likewise be proper we should be limited in our tunes, as well as Psalms, that some of the most known and easy, but, at the same time the most graceful, should be chosen out suited to the matter of the Pfalm, and all printed together with the Psalms, and no liberty allowed to use any other. These should not be too few, nor too many; not too few, for variety's sake; nor too many, that by coming about pretty often, the whole congregation may grow familiarly acquainted, and fall in with them with ease and readiness.
Besides reforming the abuses complain'd of, there will be a bye advantage, which may deserve some consideration. The petulancy of some Parish Clerks will hereby be baulked and disappointed, who sometimes, when party disputes run high, are proud to pick out a malignant Psalm, one which they imagine suits with the state of publick affairs, or with some transactions in their own parishes, and casts a reflection upon them, whereby one part of the congregation is grievously scandalised, while the other is unseasonably diverted.
I am not so sanguine, not so vain as to flatter myself that these proposals will have any great effect - However, let them try; and as some of the Romish Priests have said of their own Absolutions, which they have no mighty opinion of, Valeat Quantum Valere Potest. *
* it shall have effect as far as it can have effect.