Instrument of Praise : Finding Sweet Music in Unaccompanied Psalms
At first glance, it seems like a typical Protestant Sunday as parishioners sit scattered among new wooden pews, listening to a minister in a brown suit preach about serving God--”a God who is real close.”
But something very different--something ancient--is happening within the walls of this modest clapboard church.
The choir and congregation rise to sing, and while the words from the 95th Psalm are familiar, something is missing.
There is no organ here at the Selma Reformed Presbyterian Church, no piano, guitar or trumpet. There is only the a cappella voice of a congregation giving praise in the nearly extinct tradition of “exclusive psalmody.”
These Christians believe that unaccompanied singing of the Bible’s 150 psalms is the only true, correct way to worship God. To quote the church synod: “We sing only psalms because God has not commanded us to sing anything else.”
To members of this tiny denomination--there are just 70 churches and fewer than 6,000 members--nothing ever sounded sweeter.
“The purpose is to present worship that’s pleasing to God, not what’s pleasing to us,” said the Rev. Jerry O’Neill, president of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. “He doesn’t need all the instruments to know there’s real praise going on.”
Reformed Presbyterians, most of whom live in Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana and Kansas, also are known as Covenanters.
With a history dating back to 17th century Scotland, the modern Reformed Presbyterian Church is perhaps the most conservative member of its worldwide family.
For them, “there’s an absolute standard, and it’s the Bible,” O’Neill says.
The church dates to the 1630s and protest over civil interference in religious affairs. The heart of their doctrine--the Westminster Confession of Faith--grew in part out of that interference.
It includes the liberty of conscience doctrine, which holds that church bureaucrats have no right to impose practices and teachings other than those contained in the Bible.
When the confession’s authors came to music in worship, “the only thing for which they could find enough proof to consider it absolute truth was psalm singing,” said John Delivuk, a librarian at Geneva College near Pittsburgh and the author of several papers on Reformed Presbyterian history.
To early Protestants, the proof was simple enough: Psalms are God’s words because they come from the Bible. Hymns may be beautiful, but most are exhortations to sinners--not praise for God--and all are the mere uninspired poetry of man.
Further evidence came from biblical descriptions of Jesus’ worship in the synagogue: Only the psalms were used.
Similarly, instrumental music is excluded from the Reformed Presbyterian service because God does not command their use in the New Testament.
At one time, modern Baptist, Congregational and all older branches of the Presbyterian Church practiced exclusive psalmody. But the practice began to disappear in the mid-1700s--when church leader Isaac Watts pioneered the widespread use of hymns--and had all but disappeared by 1920, Delivuk said.
It survived longer in the conservative South, but today only Reformed Presbyterians and a scattering of related congregations keep the tradition alive.
It’s not clear why singing psalms fell out of favor. Delivuk suspects a desire to attract new members played a role: Psalms are difficult to sing and may not be as engaging to outsiders as familiar hymns.
“There’s been a pressure in worship to say, ‘How can we attract people?’ instead of ‘How can we please God?’ So they ask what kind of music do people like, what do people want to hear?” Delivuk said.
“They’re ignoring the fact that worship is a party for God,” he said.
But church members say psalm singing is making a comeback. O’Neill says the church has sold about 20,000 of its Psalters--mostly to other denominations.
Why? Church members say that while it seems restrictive and austere, excluding hymns and music from church services appeals to some Christians because it sets them free to worship God on more spiritual terms.
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