A True Presbyterian Hymnal for “A True Presbyterian Church”

1961 Edition of the Trinity Hymnal

One of the many factors that won me over to embrace Reformed theology and practice was the fascinating Trinity Hymnal (c. 1990). Back when I worked at what I endearingly call “The Reformation Station,” the print shop where God cornered me after years of on-again, off-again confrontation by the TULIP and other aspects of Reformed belief and behavior, I had the opportunity to print the bulletins for a local PCA church, which would include in its liturgy hymns selected from the Trinity Hymnal, printed in the bulletin, music and all! For this reason, there was a copy of the hymnal in the office, which they could use to prepare those bulletins, and which I could peruse from time to time and thereby enter the world of Reformed psalmody and English hymnody, and further tie my heart to my future spiritual and theological home in the Reformed tradition.

 Due to my abundance of affection for the Trinity Hymnal, I was very pleased to notice that I wouldn’t have to wait long to learn its history in Daryl Hart’s OPC history, Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945-1990 (c. 2011, The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). The reader of this volume is treated to the story of the hymnal in chapter two, under the simple title, “Trinity Hymnal, 1944-1961.” Here’s a synopsis of what you’re in for if you purchase Hart’s history.

 In 1933, the PCUSA revised their hymnal, dropping 400 traditional hymns in favor of songs that reflect the liberalizing trend in the mainline denomination. J. Gresham Machen knew this was a problem. Reasoning from the old adage that the laity learn more theology from singing hymns than from systematic theology, he resolved that something had to be done about it. In the Lord’s providence, from the seed of this thought process on the part of Machen in response to the PCUSA’s threat to further corrupt the doctrine of rank and file Presbyterians, until the final publication of the Trinity Hymnal, a truly orthodox Presbyterian hymnal, 28 years would come and go. But what a glorious harvest of sound theology and biblical doxology would result from such a careful process of cultivation and fertilization.

With this opening anecdote, Dr. Hart surveys the history of American Presbyterian hymnals. Since the first one rolled off the press in 1831 there had been an average of one new hymnal per decade due to the number of controversies and divisions within the PCUSA between 1831 and 1961 (the date of Trinity Hymnal’s eventual publication). Although it would not be published under the auspices of the liberal mainline denomination, the Trinity Hymnal shares this common origin with its predecessors in the crucible of theological controversy. For this reason, it would be compiled with a commitment to aid the worship of the church in accordance with eternal truths, not contemporary trends.

 American Presbyterians also produced so many hymnals so frequently because Reformed and Presbyterian practice regarding the Word of God sung as an element of corporate worship was undergoing a transformation from the Scottish and Dutch commitment to exclusive psalmody, to embrace the English hymnody of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and others, in order to better respond to the gospel of Christ in terms of the full revelation of Christ in both Testaments.

Much discussion among the members of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God over the propriety of this historic move away from the stance of earlier Reformed churches would consume a number of General Assemblies between 1944 and 1961. Dr. Hart reports for us the discussions between the “foreign” element of “psalm-singers” on the committee lead by the Scottish John Murray and his cadre of Scottish and Dutch dissenters and the more Americanized majority who would eventually prevail in the appropriation of English hymn into the practice of not only orthodox Presbyterians in general, but the OPC in particular.

1990 edition of Trinity Hymnal in three colors

With the conclusion of this discussion would arise more rubber-meets-the-road problems like financing the hymnal. We learn the various ideas considered and how the Lord would provide just in time, enabling them to pay off the loans obtained to supplement the giving of Orthodox Presbyterians toward this end, neither too soon, nor too late.

 Finally, the reader is pleased to learn just how successful the hymnal was once it hit the market. There really was a need for just such a hymnal among many conservative Protestants outside the OPC.

 Chapter two of Hart’s Between the Times is a joy to read, especially if you love the Trinity Hymnal as much as this reviewer does. But with the recent 78th General Assembly of the OPC, we learn that the work of compiling psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to aid the worship of the Reformed is to march forward as it was announced that the OPC will be teaming up with the URCNA to publish a new Psalter-Hymnal in the years to come. I believe there will be enough love in my heart for both of these hymnals to share!


7 responses

  1. Come to think of it…that church only printed the music in their Christmas Eve service programs…but the hymnal was still in the office! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the history.

    To be honest with you, I wish I could love the Trinity hymnal. I like the idea of loving it, but to be honest, I don’t. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I grew up with the powerful moving enthusiasm of IFB hymnody, and the ‘Trinity hymnal’ church singing I experienced after I left IFB was so… slow, and droning…

    I really want to enjoy singing from it, but to be honest, I miss the extra umph the fundies put into the singing. When I’m driving alone in my car, I’m probably singing Crosby, not Bonar.

    What do you like about it? The history of it? The wonderful expressions of our faith? I like those too. It makes a great poetry book. I just don’t enjoy singing it.

  3. You’re certainly right about the reasons I love it. The history of it and the theological depth when compared with the revivalist gospel songs and their “extra umph” as you describe it. Getting to see what I’d been missing in terms of worship music as I was developing my Reformed views makes it an indispensible part of my identity as a Reformed Christian.

    I associate what you miss about IFB worship music with the relative shallowness of their texts and don’t miss it at all–and that which was worth retaining is retained in the Trintiy Hymnal (with occasional Calvinist rewrites, or returning to the original Calvinist version) as you know.

    I listen to plenty of popular music, both Christian and secular, so I get plenty of “umph” on my own time. Just thinking “out loud” (albeit in print), but I wonder if it isn’t just a matter of giving yourself more time to acquire a taste for this form of music? This thinking is reflecting what I read in T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. If this completely misses the mark, then disregard it. But it really is an awesome book–short and readable, and chock full of wisdom about the flaws of today’s (and yesterday’s) popular-level worship music and the superiority of ancient and more historic and classical forms. Maybe you just need a little more indoctrination in that department 😉

    Sorry you have such trouble with it. First impressions often make a big difference. You had a bad one, I had a good one. Crosby’s not so bad all the time…you should hear the Christian pop drivel I listen to in my car. The CCM I grew up with. I’ll endure bad theology (from my own generation) if the sound is right, but that’s just me. Don’t try this at home!

  4. I don’t know if the revival era songs had more umph in them, or if the type of church that sings them has more joy, or whether the songs themselves are very slow and sad, or if the type of church that uses the Trinity hymnal is joyless… I may be multiple or none of these. I only know that I’ve never been in a service with the Trinity hymnal where the singers didn’t seem flat and joyless.

    Regarding music style, I’ve been brought up not to listen to popular music or (shudder) CCM, so I have no taste for it. It’s definitely NOT CCM that I want or find appropriate. It’s the joy that is missing…

    I do greatly appreciate the poetry of the Trinity works. I’ve been reading some of Watts stuff lately and I think he’s the best.

    By the way, wouldn’t a Trinity hymnal guy be sort of reformed-lite. I mean, come on, don’t ‘real’ reformed folk sing Psalms?

    1. Watts is definitely the best. Be sure to check out his “official online biography” in the link on his name in my current devotional I posted this morning.

      I didn’t assume you were pining for contemporary music, but I see the a parallel with CCM in the revival era’s pairing more popular music styles with their more man-centered, experience-oriented “here’s what Jesus did for me, he can do it for you, too!” testimonial lyrics. That’s why I favor the pre-revivalism historic theocentric hymnody. But I understand and respect what you’re saying about your preferences.

      I’m by no means a “Truly Reformed” type. I don’t have the luxury of holding out for the most idealistic stand on every point. I find the historic Reformed arguments for exclusive psalmody interesting and compelling, but I also see the logic in explicitly singing Christ’s praises in Scripturally consistent though uninspired hymns. After all, how could some of those ancient hymns that Paul wrote into some of his epistles have been approved for use by the Holy Spirit if Christians were supposed to only sing psalms?

      1. Good arguments, all…

        Perhaps with time I’ll grow to love the Trinity hymnal…

        …the way it sounds, that is. I already enjoy the lyrics.

        I like your argumentation regarding EP. I downloaded a work by Watts on this same issue a while back and I like his approach. Perhaps the reading of a Psalm during worship and singing the corresponding Watts hymn would be a good way for us to understand how the Old Testament pointed to Christ.

  5. Mind sharing that link to Watts on psalmody? I’d like to see that.

    I haven’t been Reformed long enough to have any real expertise on just what would be the best way to feature the Psalms and emphasize how they point to Christ in a service. Thus I’m eminently qualified to blog about it. 😉 But what I can do is see how what in my experience is the average approach by the average Reformed church which uses the Trinity Hymnal. This chapter in Hart’s book on the hymnal points out that the 1961 edition includes 146 Psalms from the famous 1912 Psalter of the Christian Reformed Church, which is more Psalms than are featured in any other modern hymnal. So the versified Psalms being included among the hymns in the typical Lord’s Day singing has apparently been acceptable to most Reformed churches. At the very least, that satisfies the face value meaning of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” in my humble, amateur opinion.

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