From Psalm 100 to Hymn: The Transition in the English Language from Psalm Translation to Hymn during the Protestant Reformation

By Stern, Max | The Hymn, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

From Psalm 100 to Hymn: The Transition in the English Language from Psalm Translation to Hymn during the Protestant Reformation


Stern, Max, The Hymn


Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.

Worship the Lord with gladness;

come into his presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.

It is he that made us, and we are his;

we are his people, and the sheep of his

pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,

and his courts with praise.

Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the Lord is good;

his steadfast love endures for ever,

and his faithfulness to all generations.1

Psalm 100 is preeminent among the psalms of thanksgiving. All the peoples of the earth are to serve their heavenly maker and in that spirit of gladness regain their fellowship. The psalm teaches that divine service is to be performed joyously in the process of day-today living. According to tradition, Ps. 100 was sung while the thanksgiving offering was being sacrificed in the Temple.2 In the messianic era all sacrifices will cease except for the thanksgiving offering, as gratitude is an eternal obligation.3

The Protestant Reformation and Vernacular Translation

Reform was a flame that burst across Europe, but it did not begin all at once. Anticlericalism and frustration with the corruption of the church spread over Europe in waves over several centuries. The religious and political upheaval in western Europe during the sixteenth century which led to the Protestant Reformation was primarily an attempt to reform the doctrine and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. This movement was often linked to nationalistic aspirations in England, Germany, Switzerland, France, Bohemia, the Low Countries, Hungary, Scandinavia, and elsewhere.

Fundamental to the process was an educational attempt to involve all worshippers, not just priests, in the act of worship. To achieve this goal biblical translation was crucial.4 Psalmody joined to music played a key role in this struggle. It was necessary to recast psalms into more popular idioms to enable congregations to join in the singing. Adapting prose-like Latin psalms and free-flowing Gregorian psalmody into metrical hymn-like forms became an ecclesiastical and liturgical challenge for nearly three centuries.

The first handwritten English-language Bible manuscripts were produced in the 1300s by John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor and theologian, along with his disciples, the Lollards, a group of itinerant preachers who sought to base their beliefs solely on the Bible and simple worship. Religious reformer John Huss (Jean Hus), a Czech national hero, actively promoted Wycliffe's idea that people should be permitted to read the Bible in their own language. But, in consequence of opposing a church that threatened anyone in possession of a non-Latin Bible with execution, Hus was burned at the stake in 1415. Undeterred, others followed. Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the Wittenberg church door in 1517 and created an upheaval throughout the ecclesiastical world. He went on to publish a German translation of the Bible. From England William Tyndale, a reformer and linguist, fled to Luther's doorstep in Germany in order to translate and publish the first English edition of the New Testament. For his efforts Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536. Such were some of the tribulations involved in the struggle to bring vernacular translations of the Bible into the modern world.

Anglican Chant

Psalmody as a form of congregational singing was developed fully in the English language. King Henry VIII renounced the papacy and established the Church of England with himself as head in 1534. The first English translation of the complete Bible was made from the Latin Vulgate by Bishop Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) and printed in 1535. Much of this translation is included in the "Great English Bible" funded by King Henry VIII in 1539. Coverdale took pains to respect the colorful character and expressive range of the original Hebrew psalms. A translation of Ps. …

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