Reformation Voices: Celebrating the revival of congregational song

This ninety-minute service was prepared for a 1993 Reformation Hymn Festival at Third Christian Reformed Church Kalamazoo, Michigan The service was designed by Emily R, Brink, editor of Reformed Worship, who read the commentary. The men who did the readings each wore black robes and hats, similar to the ones shown here.

Those using hymnals other than the Psalter Hymnal will find easy access to most of the hymns in their own pew hymnals. The psalms may be less accessible; therefore, subscribers to Reformed Worship may copy the psalm settings from the Psalter Hymnal for this service.

If you'd prefer not to use the entire service in one evening, the sections could provide song service material for three different Sundays in October.




Call to Worship
[From Psalm 96]

Sing to Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation
day after

Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all

Opening Hymn

"All People That on Earth Do Dwell"
[PsH 100; Psalm 100; OLD HUNDRBDTH setting for organ and brass by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press 49,953)]

st. 1-2 All
st. 3 Men
st. 4 Choir
st. 5 All on additional stanza not in hymnal:

To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
the God whom heav'n and earth
from men and from the angel host
be praise and glory evermore. Amen.

Opening Prayer

Greetings and Words of Welcome



Tonight we are going to celebrate some of the psalms and hymns that came to us through some of the great worship leaders of the church who lived during the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The first group of songs comes from the Lutheran tradition, known to this day for its wealth of music for worship.

One of the first reforms of Martin Luther was to restore congregational singing. After centuries of silence in church, the people were once more given the opportunity to use their own voices to praise God in song. What a thrill it must have been to hear all the voices in those great cathedral spaces!

But there were no hymnals yet. Where did the hymns come from? We know that Luther and other Reformers wrote some original hymns, and some were based on the psalms, like "A Mighty Fortress." Still others were translated from some of the early hymns of the church.

Please turn to Psalter Hymnal 247, "All Glory Be to God on High," and look at the bottom of the page. Luther was a monk, and had learned the famous Latin hymn "Gloria in ex-celsis Deo." This hymn has its origins in the song of the angels at Christ's birth, in Luke 2:14. The expanded hymn dates back to the fourth century; it was over a thousand years old when Nikolaus Decius translated it into German and adapted a Gregorian chant melody for it. Four hundred years later, we sing it in an English translation by an Episcopalian minister who translated it for the Hymnal 1982.

As we sing, let us celebrate that we can join our voices with so many saints who have gone before, and even with the angels who welcomed Christ's birth. Truly, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). Let us stand and sing to the glory of God on high.


"All Glory Be to God on High"
[PsH 247]

st. 1 All
st. 2 Choir (setting by Andreas Armsdorff [in RWL1, p. 43])
st. 3 All


Martin Luther's Foreword to the first edition of the first Lutheran hymnal, the Wittenberg Gesangbiichlein (1524)

That the singing of spiritual songs is a good thing and one pleasing to God is, I believe, not hidden from any Christian, for not only the example of the prophets and kings in the Old Testament (who praised God with singing and playing, with hymns and the sound of all manner of stringed instruments) but also the special custom of singing psalms, have been known to everyone and to universal Christianity from the beginning. Nay, St. Paul establishes this also, 1 Corinthians 14, and orders the Colossians to sing psalms and spiritual songs in their hearts, in order that God's word and Christ's teaching may be thus spread abroad and practiced in every way.

Accordingly, as a good beginning and to encourage those who can do better, I and several others have brought together certain spiritual songs with a view to spreading abroad and setting in motion the holy Gospel.

These, further, are set for four voices for no other reason than that I wished that the young (who, apart from this, should and must be trained in music and in other proper arts) might have something to rid them of their love ditties and wanton songs and might, instead of these, learn wholesome things and thus yield willingly to the good. Also, because I am not of the opinion that all the arts shall be crushed to earth and perish through the Gospel, as some bigoted persons pretend, but would willingly see them all, and especially music, servants of him who gave and created them. So I pray that every pious Christian may bear with this and, should God grant him an equal or a greater talent, help to further it. Besides, unfortunately the world is so lax and so forgetful in training and teaching its neglected young people that one might well encourage this first of all. God grant us his grace. Amen.


"Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word" (ERHALT UNS, HERR)
[PsH 598; Setting for two-part choir, organ and flute by Donald Busarow (Concordia 98-2602)]

st. 1 All
st. 2 Choir
st. 3 All


Keep your Psalter Hymnal open for a moment to #598. Luther's original first stanza has been greatly altered for inclusion in our hymnal. Think of Bosnia today, and the bloodshed and conflict between Muslims and Christians that goes back for centuries. Luther wrote this hymn for a prayer service, when the Muslim Turks were threatening Vienna, having already overrun Hungary. Luther's original first stanza read:

Lord, keep us in thy Word and work; restrain the murderous Pope and Turk who fain would tear from off thy throne Christ Jesus, thy beloved Son.

No wonder the text was changed! Luther was obviously thinking of both spiritual and physical dangers to the church. Conditions in some parts of the world today make this same kind of prayer just as urgent today.

But a better and perfect day is dawning, night is flying, the watchmen on the tower are crying, "Awake, Jerusalem, awake." Now turn to #613, to a chorale written by Lutheran pastor Philipp Nicolai. Pastor Nicolai was a famous preacher, and he was certainly gifted as well in poetry and music. On a given Sunday he may have preached on the story of the five wise and foolish virgins and wanted to have a hymn on that same passage. WACHET AUF has since become known as the "King of Chorales," matched by his other famous chorale, "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star," known as the "Queen of Chorales." Bach loved this chorale, and we sing it tonight with his harmonization. Let us stand to sing.


"Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying"
[PsH 613]



The Genevan Psalter was the one great musical gift of the Calvinist branch of the sixteenth century Reformation. In contrast to the Lutherans, the Calvinists sang only the psalms to a collection of melodies coming out in installments until the whole psalter was completed in 1562. Use of the Genevan Psalter spread like wildfire as it was translated almost immediately into German, Dutch, and Hungarian. To this day the first 150 numbers in the Dutch hymnal, Liedboek voor de kerken, are all 150 psalms set to Genevan melodies. That's why many people call them Dutch Psalms.

After the Berlin Wall came down and we started learning more about the Hungarian Reformed Churches, I learned to my amazement that they call those same melodies the Hungarian Psalms!

If you know any older Reformed and Dutch immigrants, perhaps in a rest home, you will be able to hear many of those Genevan psalms. And they will certainly all know Psalm 81, stanza 5, because that was the first stanza they learned in the first grade. In Dutch Christian schools every child learned a stanza of one of the Psalms each week. On Monday the teacher would write the stanza on the board, and by Friday they all had to recite it. After six years, the children knew much of the psalter that their parents and grandparents also knew by heart.

Psalm 81 starts like a psalm for Thanksgiving Day as we sing praises to our king. But the mood shifts in stanza 3. Now God is speaking, reminding us and pleading with us to listen to him. If we obey and walk the Lord's path, then we will know the blessing of the Lord, as he gives us gifts of finest wheat.

Psalm 81

"Sing a Psalm of Joy" (GENEVAN 81)
[PsH 81]

st. 1 Choir (introduction and interlude in RW 15, pp. 18-19)
st. 2 All
st. 3 Choir
st. 4 All
st. 5 Choir (followed by organ interlude)
st. 6-7 All


From John Calvin's Foreword to the Genevan Psalter (1543)

There are in brief three things that our Lord has commanded us to observe in our spiritual assemblies, namely the preaching of his Word, the public and solemn prayers, and the administration of his sacraments.

As to the public prayers, these are of two kinds: some are offered by means of words alone, the others with song. And this is not a thing invented a little time ago, for it has existed since the first origin of the Church; this appears from the histories, and even Saint Paul speaks not only of praying by word of mouth, but also of singing. And in truth, we know by experience that song has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. It must always be looked to that the song be not light and frivolous, but have weight and majesty as Saint Augustine says, and there is likewise a great difference between the music one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.

What St. Augustine says is true— that no one can sing things worthy of God save what he has received from him. Wherefore, although we look far and wide and search on every hand, we shall not find better songs nor songs better suited to that end than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and uttered through him. And for this reason, when we sing them we may be certain that God puts the words in our mouths as if he himself sang in us to exalt his glory. Wherefore Chrysostom exhorts men as well as women and little children to sing them, in order that this may be like a meditation to associate them with the company of angels.

Psalm 138

"With All My Heart I Thank You, LORD" (GENEVAN 138)
[PsH 138]

st. l All
st. 2 Men (using second setting in Psalter Hymnal 138)
st. 3 All


Dig a little beneath the surface of any psalm, and you will usually find a story. The psalm writers took the trouble to write down something that had happened to them, how they cried to the Lord, how the Lord heard, and how they now praised God and invited others to join them in praise. That was the case for Psalm 138: "The day I cried, you answered me...; your steadfast love can never die."

The stories are all a bit different, of course. In Psalm 42, the answer doesn't come in a day. Rather, this prayer seems to repeat itself, "Where are you, anyway God?" There was a reason this psalm was one of the most beloved ones in the Reformed tradition. There have always been plenty of situations where Christians also cry out, lonely for the comfort of God, and God doesn't seem to answer.

But look at the structure: after two stanzas of crying out to the Lord, the third offers hope. It is like a conversation; crying out to God, then the Spirit of God whispers in our soul that God will come through. Stanzas 4-5 return to the lament; and after stanza 5, there is a note to repeat stanza 3. In fact, Psalm 43 actually belongs to the same psalm, because the structure continues: there are nine stanzas, three times three.

Tonight, the congregation will raise some of those difficult questions to God, and the choir will respond with the setting on the previous page, offering the voice of hope and comfort. If you are not troubled now, you may have been, or you probably will be. Even then, you can offer this prayer in intercession for those you may know who are struggling with grief or despair. We sing this not as individuals, but as the one body we are in Christ.

Psalm 42

"As a Deer in Want of Water" (FREU DICH SEHR / GENEVAN 42)
[PsH 42]

St.1 All
st. 3 Choir (setting in Psalter Hymnal 42 [across from 41])
st. 4 All
st. 3 Choir




For two hundred years, the Reformed branch of the Reformation sang only psalms for congregational worship. But times change, language changes, and the psalms started to sound very old-fashioned. The early enthusiasm of congregational singing gave way to boredom. Enter a teenager by the name of Isaac Watts. He was bored singing the psalms; he thought the poetry was bad, and one day he said to his father, "I could do a better job than that." His father said, "Show me." So he did. But with a real twist.

Did you know that "Jesus Shall Reign" was his way of putting Psalm 72 to poetry? Psalm 72:5 reads: "He [the king] will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations." Watts said, "Well, which king is this? Surely, Jesus Christ." So he didn't so much "translate" many of the psalms as "imitate" them in New Testament language.

After we sing "Jesus Shall Reign," you will hear in Isaac Watts's own words some of what he was trying to do. As you can imagine, his approach was controversial, partly because we would never accept his calling David a pre-Christian pagan! But there was a real hunger to sing songs in New Testament language, and Watts broke the barrier. Later he went even further, and composed entirely new poetry—like "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." No wonder he has become known as "The Father of the English Hymn."

One denomination after the other broke that barrier of singing in New Testament language. It took until 1934 for the Christian Reformed Church to break the barrier; we sang only psalms until then. And like other denominations, once we started worshiping in New Testament language, we never looked back.


"Jesus Shall Reign" (DUKE STREET)
[PsH 412; Setting by John Ferguson (Hymn Harmonizations for Organ, Book III, Ludwig Music Pub. Co.)]

st. 1 All
St. 2 Women and girls
st. 3 All
St. 4 Men and boys
St. 5 All


From the Preface to The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship, by Isaac Watts (1674-1748).

"An inquiry into the right way of fitting the Book of Psalms"

Though the Psalms of David are a work of admirable and divine composure, though they contain the noblest sentiments of piety and breathe a most exalted spirit of devotion, yet when the best of Christians attempt to sing many of them in our common translation, that spirit of devotion vanishes, and is lost, the psalm dies away upon their lips, and they feel scarcely anything of the holy pleasure.

If I were to render the reasons of it, I would give this for one the chief: namely, that the Royal Psalmist here expressed his own concerns in words exactly suited to his own thoughts, agreeable to his own personal character, and in the language of his own religion... But when we who are Christians sing the same lines, we express nothing but the character, the concerns and the religion of the Jewish king, while our own circumstances, and our own religion (which are so widely different from his) have little to do in the sacred song.

If this attempt of mine, through the divine blessing, become so happy as to remove this great inconvenience, and to introduce warm devotion into this part of divine worship, I shall esteem it an honourable service done to the church of Christ.

I come therefore to the thing I propose, namely to accommodate the book of psalms to Christian worship. I have entirely omitted some whole psalms, and large pieces of many others, and have chosen out of all of them such parts only as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of the Christian life.

Where the original runs in the form of prophesy concerning Christ and his salvation, I have given an historical turn to the sense. Where the psalmist speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the blood or merits of a Savior. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God.

When he attends the ark with shouting into Zion, I sing the ascension of my Savior into heaven or his presence in his church on earth.


"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" (HAMBURG)
[PsH 384]

St. 1 All
st. 2-3 All (in harmony, unaccompanied)
st. 4 All (in unison)


Just one generation after Watts began writing hymns, one of the greatest hymn writers who ever lived came on the scene—Charles Wesley He was an ordained Anglican priest, and with his brother, John Wesley, even came to America for a few months as missionaries, working in Georgia. In fact, the first hymnal ever published in America was one of their little collections.

Charles experienced a very strong spiritual awakening on Pentecost Sunday, 1838. In fact, he counts a new chapter in his life as starting then. Both Charles and John Wesley became preachers in the new movement in the Anglican church that eventually became the Methodist Church.

Charles Wesley knew the Scriptures, and his hymns breathe Scripture in virtually every line. The story goes that Charles would be riding on horseback to yet another village to preach, and as soon as he would get off his horse and enter a tavern, he would call out for pen and ink so he could write down what he had been composing on the way. Every hymnal today still contains some of the 8000 hymns he wrote.

"Oh, for a Thousand Tongues" was written on the first anniversary of that Pentecost conversion, the reference to a thousand tongues clearly relating to his own Pentecost experience. There were eighteen stanzas. We will sing three, to a tune the hymn is often set to in England and Australia. LYNGHAM is a fuguing tune—a bit like a fugue, in that the hymn really requires the congregation to become a choir. Our choir will sing the first stanza, and then, everyone make a joyful noise on whatever part you can find.


"Oh, For a Thousand Tongues"
[PsH 501]

st. 1 Choir
st. 2-3 All


John Wesley's "Directions for Singing" (from Select Hymns, 1761)

I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find a blessing.

IV. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.


"Soldiers of Christ, Arise" (FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH)
[PsH 570]
[with brass quartet]

Evening Prayer

Thank Offering


Tonight, we celebrated the gift to us of some of the psalms and hymns of the church that have come to us from great reformers of the past. We began our hymn festival with the most famous tune of all: OLD HUNDREDTH, also known as the doxology actually the Genevan psalm rune known by virtually every church-goer around the world.

We conclude by singing perhaps the most famous hymn text; the last stanza is even known as "the doxolo-gy." On stanza three, we will divide into three sections, and the choir will serve as section 4.1 will invite first the section to my left, then the center, then the section to my right.

Let us stand to sing this parting evening prayer.


"All Praise to You, My God, This Night" (TALLIS CANON)
[PsH 441; Canon settings by Donald Busarow in All Praise to You (Augsburg); final stanza setting by David Willcocks in Hymns for Choirs (Oxford)]

st. 1 Unison
st. 2 All (in harmony, with choir in canon)
st. 3 (In four-part canon as directed)
st. 4 Unison


"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"

Emily R. Brink ( is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 32 © June 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.