Worship and the Birth of Christ, Part 2

In the second part of this special two-part episode, we discuss the observation of Christmas. This subject is perennially debated in the Reformed community. In this segment of our conversation, we address the variety of decision before local church leadership, the purported pagan roots of Christmas observance, the story of St. Nicholas and Arius, as well as the psalms and contemporary worship relative to Christmas.


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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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Glen Clary

3 years ago

What I said about psalmody and hymnody at the end was totally off the cuff. I was going from memory and hadn’t read up on the subject in a quite a while. After the recording, I checked L. Benson’s The English Hymn and found this.

When in 1763 the reunited Synod of New York and Philadelphia was questioned as to whether churches were at liberty “to sing Dr. Watts’s imitation of David’s Psalms,” the Synod was not prepared to give a full answer, “as a great number of this body have never particularly considered Dr. Watts’s imitation.”

There was, on the other hand, within the Church an aggressive element, Scotch and Scotch-Irish, well informed as to Watts’ work and influence, and fully prepared to resist it. And just beyond the Church’s borders a number of
small bodies were forming, who represented one or other type of Scottish dissent; unalterably set in principle on the strictest platform of psalm singing, and in practice confined to “Rous’ Version.” Neither their principles nor in
terest called them to quench the embers of strife in the larger body or to refuse a refuge to the disaffected.

Under these circumstances it was inevitable that Presbyterian hymn singing should be deferred, and that its introduction should involve controversy. There was indeed no general desire to sing hymns among Colonial Presbyterians. The progressives asked no more than liberty to choose their own psalm book; and it was not till the beginning of the XlXth century that the Church formally authorized the use of any designated hymn book. The first influence that modified the uniformity of the old Psalmody, among Presbyterians as among Congregationalists, was the quickened evangelical fervor aroused by the Great Awakening; which revival became indeed the occasion of splitting the Church itself in 1741 into “New Side” and “Old Side” synods.

In 1754 Synod adopted the findings of this committee objecting to certain proceedings, but deciding that “since Dr. Watts’s version is introduced in this church, and is well adapted for Christian worship, and received by many Presbyterian congregations, both in America and Great Britain, they cannot but judge it best for the well-being of the congregation under their present circumstances, that they should be continued.” The disturbance in New York continuing, the Synod of 1755 directed “that the Scotch version be used equally with the other.” This direction was not obeyed. The Synod of 1756 rebuked the majority for their adherence to Watts, but also revoked their order of the previous year; thus leaving Wattts’ Imitations in sole possession of the field. The offended minority withdrew from the New York church to form “The Scotch Church,” which was taken under the care of the Associate Presbytery, representing one of the secessions from the Church of Scotland.

The introduction of the “new version” into churches newly established involved less difficulty. That at Newburyport, organized by Whitefield’s supporters in 1746, used Watts’ Imitations from the beginning; and they were recommended by the Presbytery of Boston as “well adapted to the New Testament Church.” Newburyport and its Presbytery were independent, but the process of church extension under the New Side Synod of New York developed some similar situations. Samuel Davies, whom the Presbytery of New Castle ordained for missionary work in Virginia, introduced there not only The Psalms imitated but even the Hymns of Watts. Two of the former were sung at the installation of John Todd over a Hanover congregation on November 12, 1752, and printed in full in connection with Davies’ Installation sermon. In 1755 he wrote from Hanover that Watts’ Psalms and Hymns were
“the system of psalmody the Dissenters use in these parts,”and in the same year made requisition upon the London Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge for “a good number” of the Psalms and Hymns for the use of his black people. He had found there are no books they learn so soon or take such pleasure in, as they have “a kind of ecstatic delight in psalmody.” Davies’ use of the Hymns was independent and exceptional at that date ; and in connection with the writing and publication of hymns of his own composition, makes him a pioneer of Hymnody in the American Presbyterian Church.

After Davies’ departure for Princeton John Todd “was called to wear his mantle” ; and when a petition was presented to the recently formed Presbytery of Hanover,”desiring their opinion, whether Dr. Watts’s psalmody might with safety be used in the churches,” Todd delivered by invitation of .that body a trenchant defence of “Gospel Songs” and of the use of Watts’ Psalms and Hymns as “the best now extant” : —An humble attempt towards the improvement of Psalmody: The propriety, necessity and use, of Evangelical Psalms, in Christian worship. Delivered at a meeting of the Presbytery of Hanover in Virginia, October 6th, 1762 (Philadelphia: Andrew Steuart, 1763). “I am fully persuaded,” he said, “that the churches in these parts have received very great advantage from [Watts’] excellent compositions, especially his sacramental hymns.” By others in the Presbytery this opinion was not shared.

Even on the New Side the change in the Psalmody was hesitating and gradual. The Old Side churches furnished no occasion for the Synod of Philadelphia to adjudicate on Psalmody during the whole period of the schism. When in
1763 the query already noted as to the status of “Dr. Watts’s imitation” in the reunited Church reached the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, it is plain that recent investigation had convinced many that the Imitations could not
be regarded as Psalm-versions. In the Synod of 1764 there was hot debate, and the situation was difficult between lingering Old Side scruples and the New Side precedent in the New York case. No conclusion could be reached till the
Synod of 1765 compromised upon a hesitating allowance of the Imitations in these terms :

“The Synod judged it best, in present circumstances, only to declare that they look on the inspired Psalms in Scripture, to be proper matter to be sung in Divine worship, according to their original design and the practice of the Christian churches, yet will not forbid those to use the imitation of them whose judgment and inclination lead them to do so.”

At Philadelphia, in the Second Church, initiated by Whitefield’s visit, and shepherded by Gilbert Tennent, no steps toward changing the Psalmody were ventured on till 1773. At the Whitefield Memorial Service, October 14, 1770, Watts’ hymn, “A Funeral Thought,” and Wesley’s “Ah! lovely appearance of death,” taken from Whitefield’s hymn book, were sung by a company of young people, but doubtless regarded as “anthems.” On March 15,
1773, the congregation voted to introduce Watts’ Imitations. So much protest was made that a second congregational meeting was held on March 22, which ratified the choice by a vote of 38 for Watts, and 8 for Rous. The minority vainly petitioned the session to reinstate “Rous” as the only way to restore order and peace, and appealed to the First Presbytery of Philadelphia, which refused to interfere, “as the aforesaid Psalms are used by a large Number of the Congregations within the Bounds of the Synod, and the Synod have allowed the use of them.” An appeal brought the matter once more before the reunited
Synod. That body in 1774 declined to decide the case on its merits, on the belated plea that it had no time to consider the versions in question; but in view of earlier permissions to use “Dr. Watts’s imitation,” refused “to make any order to forbid the congregation to continue the practice now begun.”

Thus once more the matter of changing the Psalmody
was left to the decision of the congregation concerned, and
the way was officially left open both for the forbearance
which Synod earnestly enjoined, and for the years of bitter
parochial strife which its decision assured.

Benjamin P. Glaser

3 years ago

Of course as a reminder this was the case for the “mainline” church.

The Associates and Reformed (ancestors of the ARP, the UPCNA of 1858-1958, and the RPCNA) remained EP until 1946 and 1958 respectfully with the RPCNA continuing the practice.

Benjamin Glaser

3 years ago

The UPCNA should say 1928 not 1958.



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