Thursday, June 11, 2009

Street Psalms

Although it seems strange today, the singing of psalms was once so prevalent in Christian communities that one could often hear them sung in the streets. John Bunyan described it is a hallmark of a Christian town in The Holy War, p. 203:

And now there was nothing heard in the camp of Diabolus but horrid rage and blasphemy; but in the town good words, prayer, and singing of psalms.

Charles Burney acknowledges, in a manner not-so-flattering but true nevertheless (A General History of Music from the earliest ages to the present period, p. 50):

In the reign of Queen Mary, all the Protestants, except those who courted martyrdom, sang these psalms sotto voce; but after the accession of Queen Elizabeth, like orgies, they were roared aloud in almost every street, as well as church, throughout the kingdom.

The Sorbonne prohibited French psalm singing in 1543, and royal decrees in 1558 and 1659 banned psalm singing in public, but the psalms were sung everywhere in France by Huguenots, though some were killed for it.

Richard Baxter famously wrote of the fruits, by God's grace, of his ministry in Kidderminster (Confirmation and Restoration, the Necessary means of Reformation and Reconciliation):

To the praise of my gracious Master.. . the church at Kidderminster became so full on the Lord's Day that we had to build galleries to contain all the people. Our weekday meetings also were always full. On the Lord's Day all disorder became quite banished out of the town. As you passed along the streets on the Sabbath morning, you might hear a hundred households singing psalms at their family worship. In a word, when I came to Kidderminster, there was only about one family in a whole street that worshipped God and called upon His name. When I left, there were some streets where not a family did not do so. And though we had 600 communicants, there were not twelve in whose salvation I had not perfect confidence.

Thomas Case wrote (Farewell Sermons, p. 45):

Time was, when one could not have come through the streets of London on an evening in the weekday, but we might hear the praises of God, singing of psalms: now it is a stranger in the city, even upon the Lord's own day.

Benjamin Franklin wrote of a 1739 revival associated with the ministry of George Whitefield (Autobiography, p. 183):

It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.

And even today there are places in the world where psalms are sung in public streets.

S.T. Kimbrough, Orthodox and Wesleyan Scriptural Understanding and Practice (2005), p. 228:

Caribbean people are accustomed to hearing psalms sung on radio. Psalms 23, 91, 137, and 150 are a few that have been arranged and sung by local artistes and have caught the fancy of listeners. Their popularity is due to the fact that the message contained in them is considered relevant to the Caribbean context. If the man and woman in the street are singing psalms as they go about their daily routine, then all the more reason why Christian people ought not to desist from singing psalms when they meet with other Christians to worship God!

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