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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Psalm-Singing a Godly Exercise

By John Cotton (1585–1652)

[From Singing of Psalms a Gospel Ordinance. 1650.]

TO prevent the godly-minded from making melody to the Lord in singing his praises with one accord (I mean with one heart and one voice) Satan hath mightily bestirred himself to breed a discord in the hearts of some by filling their heads with four heads of scruples about the Duty.

1. Touching the Duty itself of singing Psalms with lively voice, whether there be any such worship at all now to be allowed and practised in the days of the New Testament?

2. Touching the matter to be sung, whether Scripture Psalms penned by David, Asaph, Moses, Solomon, Hezekiah, Habakkuk, Zachary, Simeon, Deborah, Mary, Elizabeth, or the like: or songs immediately indited by some personal spiritual gift of some officer or member of the Church?

3. Touching the singers, if vocal singing may be allowed, who must sing?

Whether one for all the rest, the rest only saying Amen, or the whole congregation?

Whether women as well as men, or men alone?

Whether carnal men and Pagans, as well as Church-members and Christians.

4. Touching the manner of singing, whether the Psalm may be sung, either

In Metre Devised?

In Tunes Invented?

In Order, after the Reading of it?

For the first question, we lay down this conclusion for a doctrine of Truth: “That singing of Psalms with a lively voice is an holy Duty of God’s Worship now in the days of the New Testament.” When we say, singing with lively voice, we suppose none will so far misconstrue us as to think we exclude singing with the heart. For God is a Spirit; and to worship him with the voice without the spirit, were but lip-labor: which (being rested in) is but lost labor, or at most, profiteth but little. But this we say, As we are to make melody in our hearts, so with our voices also. In opposition to this there be some Anti-psalmists who do not acknowledge any singing at all with the voice in the New Testament, but only spiritual songs of joy and comfort of the heart in the word of Christ….

The first proof for the truth is taken from the Commandment of the Lord by Paul, who instructeth and exhorteth the Ephesians, “To speak one to another in Psalms and Hymns and spiritual Songs.” And so in Col. iii. 16. “Teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms, Hymns,” etc., which cannot be done without a lively voice. And so in I. Cor. xiv. 15, 16. The Apostle commandeth the Church of Corinth “that such as sing in the Church, should not only sing in the Spirit, but with understanding also;” that is, not only with their own understanding (for all that sung with the Spirit did so) but with the understanding of the hearers, that so he that occupied the place of the unlearned might be edified, and say Amen at such giving of thanks. Whence it followeth unavoidably that singing of Psalms is not only a making of melody to the Lord with inward grace in the heart, but also “with lively and audible voice,” which is the point in question….

The Apostle to the Ephesians and Colossians doth not say, “Sing one to another in Psalms,” but “Speak or preach one to another;” or in other words, “Teach and admonish one another.” The Psalms dwelling in their hearts they were to dispense them in a way of teaching and admonishing. But as for singing he maketh no mention of that until he came to teach them the manner of dispensing the words of Christ unto God in the end of the verse. And then indeed he teacheth them to sing in the Spirit, making melody with grace in the heart unto God.

Such as tremble at the Word (as the framer of this objection professeth himself to do), they should rather bow their judgments and practice to Scripture and language, than bow the sense of Scripture to their own conceptions against the language of Scripture. It is one thing, to speak one to another in Psalms, and Hymns and spiritual Songs, as is done in singing, another thing to preach and teach one another out of Psalms, and Hymns and spiritual Songs. It is true they were to “Teach and admonish one another” out of the Psalms, and the scope of Paul will reach that. But if Paul had only meant that, to wit, that they should teach and preach one to another out of the Psalms, he would not have said, “Speak ye one to another in Psalms,” or “with Psalms:” but “out of the Psalms,” or “from the Psalms;” for such is the language of the Holy Ghost in expressing such a duty….

1. If that speaking of the Ephesians one to another in Psalms did not hold forth their expounding and preaching in Psalms one to another, but only the bare reading or singing the letter of the Psalms, this were such a service wherein there is nothing of Christ held forth externally. I speak not of the matter of the Psalms (which is full of Christ as other Scriptures), but of the outward matter of dispensing it. There is nothing held forth in the singing of it after the usual manner but what Nature and Art may attain unto. There is no exercise of any spiritual gift held forth in it as is in all other administrations which Christ hath ordained.

2. Besides, as such a singing is not a gift of Christ so neither doth it tend to the glory of Christ. The Church is not edified by it: else a Pagan singing with us might edify the Church.

3. From both these it appeareth that such singing of Psalms tendeth to the dishonor of Christ, seeing it holdeth forth externally no more than what a carnal man (a man out of Christ), yea, a Pagan might express.

1. Singing of Psalms holdeth forth as much of Christ externally as reading of the Word or as the hearing of it read or preached or as the falling down upon our knees in prayer and saying Amen in the end of it. For though the Word when it is publicly read ought also to be opened after the reading, yet the very reading of it is itself an ordinance, and is not without a blessing to the faithful reader or hearer of it, no more than other ordinances. Or else there would be some ordinances of God like unto human ceremonies, empty and beggarly.

2. Moral duties, even in Pagans, may edify the Church, as Abimelech’s reproof of Abraham and Sarah.

3. Singing of Psalms is accompanied and blessed of God (by his grace) with many gracious effects, above Nature or Art: As 1. It allayeth the passions of melancholy and choler, yea, and scattereth the furious temptations of evil spirits. Whence also it helpeth to assuage enmity, and to restore friendship and favor, as in Saul to David. It was not the sound of David’s harp that could have this power, either over the evil spirit or over the sinful passions of Saul himself, if the sound of the harp had not been quickened and enlived, as it were, by a spiritual song, and by the Spirit of God breathing therein.

2. Singing of a spiritual song prepareth to prophecy by ministering the spirit. “Whilst the Minstrel played, the hand of the Lord” (that is, his Spirit) “came upon Elisha.” The Minstrel’s playing if it had not been accompanied with a spiritual song, it could not have conveyed such a spiritual blessing. In I. Sam. x. 5, 6, they could not be said (as there they be) “to have prophesied with Harps and Viols,” unless they had sung some holy songs, together with their playing on instruments. For prophecy is an utterance only of the Word of God and of the things of God contained in it; which instruments without voice cannot do. Nor had their playing with instruments been a means of conveying the Spirit to Saul, had not their voices concurred and sung with their instruments.

3. Singing of Psalms honoreth God with our glory, Psal. cviii. 1, and Psal. lvii. 7, 8. Where David’s glory being distinguished not only from his harp, but from his heart, it cannot be fitly understood of any other member, but his tongue, by which he was wont in singing to glorify God.

These gracious effects and fruits of singing Psalms, do plead as much for singing and playing with instruments, as for singing with voices.

This last effect of singing to the glory of God with our glory is peculiar only to singing with our tongues.

Suppose it were true that these effects of singing Psalms did plead as much for singing and playing with instruments, as singing with voices; yet evident it is that singing with voices had the preëminence, as that which uttering the Word of God did chiefly utter the Spirit of God breathing in it. And withal evident likewise it is that it is no impeachment to an ordinance that the outward dispensing of it may be performed by Nature and Art; but notwithstanding that it may be accompanied of God with a spiritual blessing.

Singing with instruments was typical, and so a ceremonial worship and therefore is ceased. But singing with heart and voice is a moral worship such as is written in the hearts of all men by Nature….

Or suppose singing with instruments were not typical, but only an external solemnity of worship, fitted to the solace of the outward senses of children under age (such as the Israelites were under the Old Testament) yet now in the grown age of the heirs of the New Testament such external pompous solemnities are ceased and no external worship reserved but such as holdeth forth simplicity and gravity; nor is any voice now to be heard in the Church of Christ but such as is significant and edifying by signification, which the voice of instruments is not.

It is an honor to Christ and to his grace, not only when we hold forth spiritual gifts, but also when we perform Christian duties. And duties performed in Faith (without which prayer itself is not accepted) they go not without a spiritual blessing, though Nature and Art might perform the same for the outward work. The trailing of the weapons of the Israelites and their military march, both in silence and shouting, about the walls of Jericho was no greater work externally than carnal men and Pagans might have performed as well as Israelites; but this being done by Israelites in faith and obedience to God’s command, it was mighty through God to cast down the high and strong walls of Jericho. And the Apostle, looking at this and the like precedents, setteth forth Faith as that which is prevalent and effectual in both Testaments, howsoever the work or worship be external. In like manner is it with the reading of the Word and the hearing of it, as also the silent joining in prayer and concluding it with Amen; though all these be such duties as Nature and Art may perform the outward work of them; yet when the people of God do perform the same in the faith of Christ, and in the obedience of God’s command they find a gracious blessing of God. Yea, carnal and profane persons and Pagans though they cannot expect the like blessing from their empty outside performances yet they sometimes taste more sweetness and enlargement therein than flesh and blood could imagine. Saul joining with the prophets in their holy melody found another Spirit coming on him which also argueth (by the way) that the joining of profane and carnal hypocrites in such spiritual songs, doth not evacuate the blessing of God to his people, but rather reach forth some spiritual blessing (though common) to such carnal hypocrites….

The second proof is taken from the example of Christ himself and of his saints and disciples in the New Testament. Christ himself with his disciples sung a Psalm or an Hymn together, in the end of the administration of the Lord’s Supper, Matt. xxvi. 30. And Paul and Silas are said to have “sung a Psalm in the Prison,” so as the “Prisoners heard them,” Acts xvi. 25. Now if in singing they had only spiritually rejoiced and not expressed their joy and their song in audible and lively voice the prisoners could not have heard them. The stranger doth not know nor meddle with the spiritual joy of the heart.

The place in Matt. xxvi. 30, may as well be translated “They praised God” as “They sung an Hymn.”

Though the meaning be they praised God, yet the word implieth they praised God with an Hymn; for it is improper in that language to translate the word to praise (whether God or man), but either with a Song, or with a Poem. It is more probable, than any reason can waive, that Christ and his disciples did shut up the Lord’s Supper with singing one of their Hebrew Psalms; as the Jews were wont to shut up their celebration of the Passover (as their own records tell us) with singing Psalm iii. with the five other Psalms next following together. But all that I now intend is to show that Christ and his disciples sang together, and therefore with the voice as well as the heart.

They might be said to sing together if one alone sang and the rest said Amen, in the close: as men may be said to pray together, where one alone speaketh and the rest consent.

True; but then one at least speaketh with an audible and lively voice though the rest do not. And that ’s enough to clear the point in hand, that singing in the New Testament consisteth not only in making melody with grace in the heart, but also in singing to the Lord with lively voice.

If the disciples did not join in singing that Hymn but only by silent consent, they might as well be said to have taken the bread and blessed it and broken it and distributed it (and so the wine), for all this Christ did with their silent consent. But what Christ did alone is expressly recorded as done by himself; when it cometh to the singing of the Psalm that is recorded as done by them in the plural number. “When they had sung an Hymn, they departed into the Mount of Olives:” They that departed into the Mount of Olives, they sung the Psalm. Now it was not Christ alone but the whole eleven disciples with him that departed into the Mount of Olives. And therefore it was Christ with his disciples that sung the Psalm together.

Against the proof from Acts xvi. 25. It is not said (say some) that Paul and Silas sung the Psalms of David or Asaph, much less with metre and tunes devised by men. Had they so done, the prisoners that heard them might have sung for the outward dispensation such a song of praise to God, as well as they.

We do not allege this example of theirs (as hath been often said in like case before) to prove they sang any Psalm of David, though it stand with good reason that they, joining together in singing, did rather sing a Psalm (or Hymn) known to them both, than any new song devised by either of them. But what Psalms are to be sung is another question, which (by the help of Christ) we shall speak to in the sequel. Neither do we allege their example to prove they sang in a devised metre or tune. For themselves being Hebrews, it is likely they sang the Hebrew songs in the tunes of the Sanctuary, but that also is another question, of which we are to speak in his place, when we come to it. All that we gather from this place now, is, no more than the words do plainly hold forth, that they sung an Hymn to God, not only with inward melody of grace in their hearts, but also with outward melody of the voice; for else the prisoners could not have heard them.