The service of the ancient Christian church usually began with reading or with the singing of psalms. We are not to understand this as if their psalmody was performed in one course of many psalms together, without intermission, but rather, with some respite, and a mixture of other parts of divine service, to make the whole more agreeable and delightful. As to the persons concerned in singing the Psalms publicly in the church, they may be considered in four different respects, according to the different ways of psalmody; for sometimes the Psalms were sung by one person alone; and sometimes the whole assembly joined together, men, women, and children: this was the most ancient and general practice. At other times the Psalms were sung alternately; the congregation dividing themselves into two parts and singing verse for verse. Beside all these, there was yet a fourth way of singing, pretty common in the fourth century, which was, when a single person began the verse, and the people joined with him in the close.
Psalmody was always esteemed a considerable part of devotion, and upon that account was usually performed in the standing posture. As to the voice or pronunciation, used in singing, it was of two sorts, the plain song, and the more artificial; the plain song was only a gentle inflexion, or turn of the voice, not very different from the chanting in our cathedrals; the artificial song seems to have been a regular musical composition, like our anthems.
It was no objection against the psalmody of the church, that she sometimes made use of psalms and hymns of human composition, beside those of the inspired writers. St. Augustine himself made a psalm of many parts, in imitation of the hundred and nineteenth, to preserve his people from the errors of the Donatists. St. Hilary and St. Ambrose likewise made many hymns, which were sung in their respective churches. But two corruptions crept into the psalmody, which the fathers declaim against with great zeal. The first was, the introducing secular music, or an imitation of the light airs of the theatre, in the devotions of the church. The other was, the regarding more the sweetness of the composition than the sense and meaning; thereby pleasing the ear, without raising the affections of the soul.
The use of musical instruments in singing of psalms, seems to be as ancient as psalmody itself. The first psalm we read of was sung to a timbrel, namely, that which Moses and Miriam sung after the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt; and afterward, at Jerusalem, when the temple was built, musical instruments were constantly used at their public services. And this has been the common practice in all ages of the church. When the use of organs was first introduced, is not certainly known; but we find, that about A.D. 660, Constantine Copronymus, emperor of Constantinople, sent a present of an organ to King Pepin of France.
Clement Marot, groom of the bed chamber to Francis I, king of France, was the first who engaged in translating the Psalms into metre. He versified the first fifty at the instigation of Vatablus, Hebrew professor at Paris; and afterward, upon his return to Geneva, he made an acquaintance with Beza, who versified the rest, and had tunes set to them; and thus they began to be sung in private houses, and afterward were brought into the churches of the French and other countries. In imitation of this version, Sternhold, one of the grooms of the privy chamber to our King Edward VI, undertook a translation of the Psalms into metre. He went through but thirty-seven of them, the rest being soon after finished by Hopkins and others. This translation was at first discountenanced by many of the clergy, who looked upon it as done in opposition to the practice of chanting the Psalms in the cathedrals.
Early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, metrical psalmody was introduced into this country. The new morning prayer began at St. Antholin's, London, when a psalm was sung in the Geneva fashion, all the congregation, men, women, and boys, singing together. Bishop Jewel says, that "the singing of psalms, begun in one church in London, did quickly spread itself, not only through the city, but in the neighbouring places; sometimes at Paul's Cross six thousand people singing together."
A curious controversy on this subject arose among the Dissenters in the end of the seventeenth century. Whether singing in public worship had been partially discontinued during the times of persecution to avoid informers, or whether the miserable manner in which it was performed gave persons a distaste to it, so it appears, that in 1691, Mr. Benjamin Keach published a tract entitled, "The Breach Repaired in God's Worship: or, Psalms, Hymns, &c, proved to be a Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ." To us it may appear strange that such a point should be disputed; but Mr. Keach was obliged to labour earnestly, and with a great deal of prudence and caution, to obtain the consent of his people to sing a hymn at the conclusion of the Lord's Supper. After six years more, they agreed to sing on the thanksgiving days; but it required still fourteen years more before he could persuade them to sing every Lord's day; and then it was only after the last prayer, that those who chose it might withdraw without joining in it! Nor did even this satisfy these scrupulous consciences; for, after all, a separation took place, and the inharmonious seceders formed a new church in May's Pond, where it was above twenty years longer before singing the praises of God could be endured. It is difficult at this period to believe it; but Mr. Ivimey quotes Mr. Crosby, as saying, that Mr. Keach's was the first church in which psalm singing was introduced. This remark, however, must probably be confined to the Baptist churches. The Presbyterians, it seems, were not quite so unmusical; for the Directory of the Westminster divines distinctly stated, that "it is the duty of Christians to praise God publicly by singing of Psalms together in the congregation." And beside the old Scotch Psalms, Dr. John Patrick, of the Charter house, made a version which was in very general use among Dissenters, Presbyterians, and Independents, before it was superseded by the far superior compositions of Dr. Watts. These Psalms, however, like those of the English and Scotch establishment, were drawled out in notes of equal length, without accent or variety. Even the introduction of the triple-timed tunes, probably about the time of Dr. Watts's psalms, gave also great offence to some people, because it marked the accent of the measure. Old Mr. Thomas Bradbury used to call this time "a long leg and a short one." The beautiful compositions of Dr. Watts, Mr. C. Wesley, and others, have produced a considerable revolution in modern psalmody. Better versions of the Psalms, and many excellent collections of hymns, are now in use, and may be considered as highly important gifts bestowed upon the modern church of God.