Friday, June 1, 2018

Robert Annan on Scriptural Psalmody and the Opposition to It

Robert Annan (AssociateReformed minister, 1742-1819) is the author of a 1787 commentary of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was republished in 1855 by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and edited by David McDill (1790-1870). Annan was also a friend of Adam Rankin (1755-1827), author of one of the earliest published defenses of exclusive Psalmody in America. 

The section in Annan’s commentary on the WCF pertaining to abuses in worship (which includes profaning the Sabbath, introducing man-made holidays into the church, etc.) is very instructive. He held to exclusive psalmody in stated worship, in opposition to the growing call for the use of Isaac Watts’ hymns in worship, but did not object per se to the private composition and use of uninspired hymns outside of worship. I will quote from it briefly, along with McGill’s editorial comments. He also opposed the use of instrumental music in worship further on in this chapter of the commentary.

Annan: “Whenever we introduce human inventions into divine service, we are apt to lose a zeal for divine institutions, and become enamored with our own vanities. God must be worshiped in a diligent attendance on all his ordinances, and a sincere observance of them. The ordinary acts of the worship of God are, prayer, confession, and praise. ‘Praise waits for thee, God, in Zion,’ says the Psalmist, ‘unto thee shall the vow be performed. thou that art the hearer of prayer, all flesh shall come to thee. Iniquities, I must confess, do prevail against me; but as for our transgressions, thou shalt purge them away.’ — Psalm lxv. And we are not afraid to assert, and vindicate the propriety of using the psalms and songs of the Old Testament in the praises of God. In these days of prevailing infidelity and atheism, while many with ignorant boldness and absurd effrontery deny the inspiration of the Scriptures altogether, and earnestly attempt to carry us back into their beloved regions of heathen darkness; others, who have only a form of godliness without the power, have become very cool and indifferent about the Word of God, either in whole or in part. And hence arises a great temptation to true Christians, which, if not resisted, may diminish their zeal, love, and esteem for the Word of God. The churches of Christ in different ages and places, had, and still have peculiar temptations, from which great, and often unseen dangers threaten them. The present prevalence of deistical opinions, of Socinian, Arian, and Arminian errors, is a severe trial of the faith and patience of the saints. But blessed is he that keepeth his garments clean.

We are extremely sorry to have observed a growing disrelish in some Churches, for the psalms of David and other songs of Scripture. We could wish for a more finished poetical version of these, than any yet given to the Churches. And we do not mean to say, that hymns of human composition may not be lawfully used in any case whatsoever.*

But we think it is safest, generally to adhere to the Scriptural psalmody; and it is remarkable, that the most erroneous and deluded sectaries are fondest of uninspired hymns, which, doubtless they will take care to have composed, each party on its own peculiar scheme of principles. It is dangerous for the Church, in any important parts of her worship, to drop rule and order; and leave her members to follow each his own inclination. It has much grieved the hearts of tender Christians, to hear the psalms of David represented as in some instances, inconsistent with a Gospel spirit, and unfit for the New Testament dispensation; and such language, we fear, has greatly aided the cause of infidelity. It was wrong-headed wisdom to push forward the foaming torrent.

Christ came not to destroy the books of the prophets; among which prophets, David, Asaph and Ethan were eminent. If he had seen the psalmody of the Jewish Church unfit for the Gospel dispensation, it would have been easy with him, to have given his Church a new system: but we have no hint of this; nay, it is evident, that he and his apostles used the scriptural Psalms in the praises of God; and every one must allow, that the book of Psalms is remarkable for its New Testament style. It comes nearer to the simple evangelical spirit, and style of the New Testament, than most of the Old Testament books. The graces and experiences of God's children in all ages, are there most beautifully delineated; sometimes indeed typical language is introduced, as when it is said; ‘I will go to God's altar. He smote the rock and the waters gushed out, He rained down manna on them and gave them corn of heaven to eat.’ But the Redeemer never appears to us more in his glory, than when shadowed forth by these types, with the light of the New Testament shining on them. In this case, we have both the type and the antitype placed in our view, reflecting and augmenting the light of each other. This is a double light; and in this instance that word is fulfilled, ‘The light of the moon, or of the type, is like the light of the sun: and the light of the sun, that is, of the antitype, is like the light of seven days.’

If it be objected, that there are, in the Psalms, terrible predictions of God's judgments, on the enemies of his kingdom; it may be answered, so there are through all the New Testament. How often does Christ, the meek Lamb of God, pronounce terrible woes against his opposers? Paul says, ‘If we, or an angel from heaven, preach unto you any other Gospel, than that which we have preached, let him be accursed! If any man love not the Lord Jesus, let him be an Anathema maranatha.’ In fine, as in the providence of God, mercy and judgment are blended; so in his Word, mercy and justice, terror and consolation, majesty and meekness combine everywhere their rays. And is not this infinitely suitable to the constitution of human nature? There are two powerful springs of action in the human mind, hope and fear; Noah, being moved with fear and hope too, prepared an ark to the saving of his house. Moses, moved by fear and faith, kept the passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the first-born should touch them. God, therefore, adapts his Word to our rational nature. He addresses our hopes and fears; and they must be very ignorant of human nature, who suppose it can be moved or actuated in any other way. It is absurd to suppose, that anything of the Psalmist's personal resentment breathes in these predictions and threatenings. The very threatenings of God's Word, viewed in their connection with the Gospel, are evidences of his love. ‘As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten, says Christ; be therefore zealous and repent.’ They are intended for our warning, and are subservient to the success of the Gospel.

One evil seldom comes alone; it is commonly followed by a gloomy train; as we fear, many have injured the matter of the Church's praise, by forsaking the fountain of living waters, and hewing out broken cisterns; so we are well convinced, that the manner of performing this solemn act of religious worship, is in some Churches greatly corrupted. What unprejudiced mind is not grieved, to see the solemn work of praising God, committed to a few light-headed boys and girls, about whose carriage, there is often little or no semblance of piety or seriousness, while the whole congregation, or nearly the whole, sit dumb? Who is not offended to see the worship of God turned into a mere piece of human art and carnal amusement, the singing of his praise performed with idle theatrical parade? It is certain, that this new mode has as effectually, perhaps more effectually, expelled the praises of God from the lips of far the greatest number in some Churches, than an act of Parliament for the purpose could have done. And it has produced the same effect in many families. It has expelled his praise from the dwellings even of the righteous. They say, they cannot sing; that is, they cannot sing in the fashionable mode, and therefore do not attempt it at all. And along with this the reading of the Scriptures, in family worship, is, in many families laid aside. We wish not to be rigorous or uncandid; but when we see Christians deceived through the subtleties and devices of Satan, turned aside from their duty, and cheated out of their privileges, why should we be silent? The use of the organ, and other instruments of music in the Jewish Church, was agreeable enough to a worldly sanctuary, and the pomp of ceremonial worship; but does not accord so well with the spiritual nature of the New Testament: yet we must grant, that in those Churches where it is retained, it does not work more, if as much, mischief, as the mode of which we speak: the organ leads the music, the people follow: but in a general way, where the new mode is practiced, the people are silent, and commit the whole service to a few delegates. Is not this to serve the Lord by proxy? And if men could be judged too, at the bar of God, by proxy, something might be said. Our sinful nature is very dexterous in inventing apologies for what is wrong. Many justify this evil by saying, in time the whole congregation will acquire the new mode, and consequently all join in the worship. Under this pretext, it has been introduced into several Churches in New England. But experience contradicts this; for in those Churches where it has been longest practiced, the evil seems rather to increase than decrease; the habit becomes more confirmed, and it is generally taken for granted, that the people have no business with the duty, that it belongs entirely and only to the chorister and his train.” (Exposition and Defense of the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith, pp. 180-186.)

McDill adds (p. 182): “* ‘And we do not mean to say, that hymns of human composition, may not be lawfully used in any case whatsoever.’ Candor forbids that any construction should be put on this sentence, which would place it in conflict with the earnest protest which the writer enters against the use of 'uninspired hymns,' in the room of, or in preference to, the ‘inspired songs.’ The well-known views of Mr. Annan, as expressed in a letter to Rev. A. Rankin, of Lexington, Kentucky, and on other occasions, also forbid. We can state from memory how the language was understood and explained by some who had the best opportunity of knowing how the writer explained it, and wished it to be understood. You may read a pious poem in a devotional manner to edification, without treating the Word of God with neglect, provided you do not substitute it for the reading of the Scriptures, in the services of the sanctuary or in the ordinary stated worship of God in the family. Under the same restrictions, you may add the charms of music, and sing it, without displacing the inspired psalmody. But while the writer would forbear to say, that this may never be ‘lawfully’ done, he still thinks it good to administer a caution against it, as not entirely safe.”

The letter to which McGill refers was written in 1785, and had been republished in 1854 in The Evangelical Repository. A portion of what Annan had to say about the principles at stake in the psalmody question that was convulsing the Presbyterian church at that time is reproduced here. (The full letter and the full commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith can be found at Log College Press here.)

Annan to Rankin: “I cannot help ranking the present opposition to the pure scriptural Psalmody in the same class with Deism, Socinianism, Arianism, Arminianism, Universal Salvation, Antinomianism, and that it is a trial of the faith and patience of the saints. May the Lord enable us to stand fast, and to keep clean garments. Conscious of much unworthiness, and that I am less than the least of all saints, yet I should shudder to chime in with the prevailing defamation, not to say blaspheming of that part of the Word of God, the book of Psalms, which indeed falls equally, though indirectly, on the whole of the Old Testament, and from that rebounds with equal force on the New Testament; for without faith in the one, I cannot see how there can be a true and saving faith in the other….I pretend not to be wiser than others, much less to infallibility; but I must judge for myself, and I see no great danger of being too strongly attached to the Word of God, or any part of it, not even to what they call the old, obsolete Jewish Psalms. The danger is all on the other side. Often, too often, my carnal heart has started objections against the book of God; and had not the Lord made me frequently taste the goodness and sweetness of it, I might have been a Deist. And what good fruits have proceeded from those men's innovations and polishings? Now, who were the first offended with the scriptural Psalmody, and most forward to introduce the new? To my certain knowledge, in New York, (where it first began in the Presbyterian churches,) they were the carnal and worldly part of professors, who could find no spiritual delight in any part of Divine worship. And have their attempts been blessed? Have conversions been promoted? Have saints been more edified, united, and sanctified, by their improvements? Is the worship of God more spiritual, heavenly, and holy? Let the fruits declare it.”

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