Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Daniel W. Whittle: Man & Myth

Daniel Webster Whittle (1840-1901) was a traveling evangelist during the great wave of urban revivals in the U.S. and U.K. during the late 1800s, becoming nearly as famous as his long-time friend and associate Dwight L. Moody. And just as Moody had Sankey, Whittle had his songleading partners: he recruited Phillip Paul Bliss (1838-1876) as his first "singing evangelist" (Bliss Memoirs 42ff.49), and after Bliss's untimely death, persuaded James McGranahan (1840-1907) away from his intended opera career (McGranahan obituary 6). Whittle himself contributed lyrics that have remained popular for more than a century--"I know Whom I have believed" (1883), "The banner of the cross" (1887), and "Why not now?" (1891)--but his promotion of the careers of Bliss and McGranahan ultimately had an even greater impact on the development of the late 19th-century gospel style.

In preparing to write on the song "Dying with Jesus" (or "Moment by moment"), which Whittle co-wrote with his daughter May Whittle Moody, I realized that my background material on his life was quickly growing into a lengthy post on its own. Whittle's personal story is the stuff of legend; so much so, in fact, that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction as it has been handed down through the years. One particular area of confusion is his service during the Civil War, the facts of which are dramatic enough without embellishment. I have done my best to clear up some of the details using original sources and contemporary testimony.

Daniel Webster Whittle in his younger days.
Scheips, page 7. Photo from Library of Congress.

1. Was Whittle a non-believer until he prayed with a dying soldier at Vicksburg? No. As the legend goes: Whittle was reading a Bible to pass the time while recuperating from his own injuries, and a doctor asked him to pray with a dying soldier. Whittle objected that he was not actually a Christian, but agreed to try to comfort his fellow soldier, and was so moved by the dying man's faith that he himself determined to follow Christ. In reality: Whittle himself said that when he first came to Chicago in 1857--at the age of 17!--he attended the First Congregational Church, a natural choice for the Massachusetts native. Then, in his own words, Whittle was "converted" in 1860 while attending meetings of the Young Men's Christian Association at what is today the "Chicago Temple" Methodist church. He was active in the Y.M.C.A. for many years (Historical Sketch 27).

Whittle served in the 72nd Illinois Infantry during the Civil War, and after the chaplain resigned, Whittle and others organized a Y.M.C.A. within the regiment to look to its spiritual needs (Historical Sketch 28). The muster rolls held by the Illinois State Archives show that this regiment's chaplain, Henry E. Barnes, was honorably discharged on 20 June 1863 and apparently not replaced, supporting Whittle's recollection of events (Illinois Muster Rolls).

The story of praying with the dying soldier could however be based in some fact. Whittle was indeed wounded at Vicksburg on 22 May 1863 (Illinois Muster Rolls detail report #273665). Part of his recuperation was spent back in Chicago, but he left to return to his regiment at Vicksburg on 16 June (Chicago Tribune 12 June 1863 page 4). Since the chaplain was discharged four days later, Whittle may well have been called upon to attend to the soldiers' spiritual needs after his return; and as Whittle was not formally ordained, he might well have said that he was not really qualified for chaplain duties. Finally, his presence during the remaining two weeks of the Vicksburg siege, when he was still unfit for combat and the regiment needed a chaplain, makes it likely that he did spend time praying with wounded and dying soldiers at this time.

2. Did Whittle recruit a company of soldiers, and was he their captain through the Civil War? Yes and no. Though Whittle did not volunteer at the beginning of the war, one event in particular may have moved him to reconsider--the death of his friend Daniel W. Farnham at Shiloh. The Chicago Tribune noticed shortly afterward that, "The members of the Chicago Literary Union, to which society the deceased belonged, are requested to call upon D. W. Whittle at office of the American Express Company, to make arrangements for bringing the remains of Mr. Farnham to Chicago for interment" (Chicago Tribune 15 April 1862 page 472). On 16 July Whittle was at a meeting of the Union Defense Committee, representing young men of the city interested in forming a regiment. Whittle's group set an organization meeting for 18 July at Bryan Hall, where the Y.M.C.A. met (Chicago Tribune 17 July 1862 page 4). By 8 August 1862 this drive had led to the formation of six companies, one of which was Whittle's (at that date he had registered 62 recruits). The leaders of these companies, not yet officially incorporated into the Illinois Volunteer forces, were provisionally referred to as "captains" (Chicago Tribune 8 Aug 1862 page 4).

Though the companies raised by Whittle and his associates were recruited under the auspices of the Y.M.C.A., they were consolidated with companies raised by the Chicago Board of Trade to form the 72nd Illinois Infantry, known afterward as the "Chicago Board of Trade Regiment" (Historical Sketch 28). When the regiment mustered in on 21 August the men in Company B elected Whittle one of their officers. He was actually commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, third in command under a 1st Lieutenant and the Captain (Detail report #273665). Eddy's Patriotism of Illinois records that Whittle later served as "acting adjutant" of the regiment headquarters staff (469); the muster rolls of the headquarters company show that the original adjutant, Ebenezer Bacon, passed away on 16 January 1863 (Illinois Muster Rolls). Whittle was promoted to 1st Lieutenant of Company B on 10 June 1863, following his leadership in the 22 May assault on Vicksburg (Detail report #273664).

During the regiment's reorganization after its heavy casualties at Vicksburg, Whittle was promoted to Captain (this time as a fully commissioned officer) and placed in command of Company G on 15 August 1863. He remained on the rolls of the 72nd Illinois Infantry through the end of the war and was discharged 7 August 1865 (Detail report #273666). Whittle was not with them, however, the entire time; on 11 June 1864 he was appointed Assistant Provost Marshal-General of the headquarters staff of General Otis O. Howard, who was soon to be commander of the Army of the Tennessee (OR 38/4:461). Whittle was, however, in the field with the 72nd Illinois during one of its bloodiest days of fighting--22 May 1863 at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

3. Did Whittle lose his arm in combat? No. At Vicksburg on 22 May 1863 the 72nd Illinois Infantry was part of Thomas Ransom's Brigade in McPherson's XVII Corps, the middle of three corps facing Vicksburg's fortifications from the east (Battle and Siege of Vicksburg). After an unsuccessful assault on 19 May, General Grant ordered a second attempt on 22 May. At one point Ransom's Brigade on the extreme right of McPherson's XVII Corps joined with Giles Smith's Brigade on the extreme left of Sherman's XV Corps, and made an attempt on the Confederate defenses between Graveyard Road and Jackson Road. (On a personal aside, Whittle's position was almost right next to the 8th Missouri Infantry (U.S.), in which my great-great-grandfather McMannis served--he was taken ill before Vicksburg, however, and was not present. My great-great-uncle James Hamrick was in fact present, but on the other side of the fortifications with the 36th Georgia Infantry.)

View this location in Wikimapia.
According to Adam Badeau, one of Grant's staff officers at the time, "the ground over which they passed is the most difficult about Vicksburg" (1:313-314). Things went very badly, very quickly. Two of the five regiments in the brigade lost their commanders, one killed and the other incapacitated (Eddy 469), and the loss of officers at the company level was also high. Whittle's 72nd Illinois Infantry suffered the greatest number killed overall, and its second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Wright, was mortally wounded (Rood 303-304).

According to Eddy's Patriotism of Illinois, Whittle, who was Acting Adjutant of the regiment and thus attached to the headquarters staff, "moved up to the assault with a smile, saying: 'Come on, my brave fellows, rebel bullets can not hit us!'" (Eddy 468-9). Whether these were his actual words or not, they proved incorrect. Whittle's record at the time of the engagement shows that he was "wounded at Vicksburg May 22, 1863 severely in [the] arm" (Detail report #273665). Amputation in such cases was common enough; but his new service record following his promotion to captain, 15 August 1863, says "slightly wounded at Vicksburg Miss. May 22, 1863" (Detail report #273666). Even by the standards of the iron men of those days, an amputation would have to be described as more than "slightly wounded!"

Whatever his injury, it was serious enough that he was sent home to Chicago for a couple of weeks, as evidenced by the following items in the Chicago Tribune:
A Worthy Compliment. The Chicago Literary Union, we understand, purpose giving gallant Lieut. Whittle, of the 72d Regiment, a complimentary supper, at the Briggs House, on Saturday evening of the present week. It is a compliment worthily bestowed.
For the Seventy-Second. Lieut. Whittle, of the 77d [72nd DRH], will return to his regiment, on Tuesday, next, and will take with him any letters addressed to that regiment, if left at the American Express Office by next Monday (12 June 1863 page 4).
This supports the events recounted by Jacob Hall's Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers in which Whittle, home on leave, met with Dwight Moody (not, however, for the first time, as Hall states--see Historical Sketch 27). In his own words (unfortunately not sourced), Whittle was "still weak from loss of blood and with my arm in a sling" (Hall 186). This agrees with the report of Whittle's regimental commander Colonel Staring, in a letter written the day after the battle, that Whittle was "shot through the arm" (Chicago Tribune 5 June 1863 page 2). This must have caused extensive bleeding, but if the wound was through Whittle's arm it probably did less permanent damage. It also spared him the even greater danger of having a bullet extracted by the regimental surgeon, with the attendant risk of infection! And if Hall's report of Whittle's words is accurate, his arm was "in a sling," injured but intact.

Regardless of the extent of his wounds on 22 May 1863, Whittle's actions were courageous in the face of a nearly hopeless situation. He took the lead and pressed forward, knowing that he would likely meet the same fate as the men who had gone before him. General Thomas Ransom's after-action report for his brigade noted "Adjutant Whittle" of the 72nd Illinois for special commendation (Official Records 24/2:298).

4. Was Whittle ever a prisoner of war? Not as far as I can tell. It is hard to prove a negative, of course, but becomes nigh unto impossible when the question involves prisoner-of-war status in the Civil War. The records of the prisoner-of-war camps in the Confederate States are often fragmentary or lost; there is also the possibility of capture in the field with a subsequent escape or exchange that was not documented. That said, I have found no reference to Whittle being a prisoner beyond unsourced anecdotes written in the 20th century.

There are at least two possibilities for the source of this idea. In the records made available at Civil War Prisons, 56 soldiers from Whittle's regiment, the 72nd Illinois Infantry, are listed in the prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. All but a dozen of these were captured on 30 November 1864 at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. Whittle, however, was not present at the battle, having been reassigned to the headquarters staff of General Oliver O. Howard on June 11 of that year (OR 38/4:461). At the time the 72nd Illinois was engaged at the Battle of Franklin, Whittle was with Howard's Army of the Tennessee near Clifton, Georgia (OR 44:603-604).

Another possible source of confusion is the fact that Whittle was significantly involved in the supervision of Confederate prisoners of war. On 16 July 1863, a week and a half after the surrender of Vicksburg, General Ransom sent Whittle from Natchez, Mississippi back to XVII Corps headquarters in charge of a group of Confederate prisoners of war (OR 24/2:682). Later, in his role as Assistant Provost Marshal General (supervisor of military police activities) of the Army of the Tennessee, he was responsible for overseeing the treatment of prisoners of war in custody of that command. General Howard's report dated 28 December 1864 on operations in Savannah includes this paragraph:
Capt. D. W. Whittle, assistant provost-marshal-general, receives my hearty approbation for his activity in discharging the public duties of his department, for his careful record and disposition of prisoners, and for his unremitting attention to the comfort and interest of myself and staff; while acting in his capacity of commandant of headquarters (OR 44:74-75)
General Howard was sometimes called the "Christian general" because of his strict piety and attempt to guide his command by Christian principles (Wikipedia). Howard later recalled Whittle as "my beloved staff officer and companion" (American-Spanish War 460). No doubt he found in him a kindred spirit and believed he would deal fairly with prisoners of war and with the civilian population under military occupation.

5. Was Whittle involved in Sherman's "March to the Sea?" Yes. This is confusing, because Whittle remained on the rolls of the 72nd Illinois throughout the war; and though that regiment was meant to join with Sherman's forces during October 1864, they arrived too late. The 72nd remained behind as part of a "Detachment of the Army of the Tennessee" and fought alongside the Army of the Cumberland in the Battles of Nashville and Franklin. They remained in the Western half of the theater for the duration of the war (Adjutant General Report 2:210-211).

But Whittle was on General Howard's staff from at least 11 June 1864 onward, when Howard was commanding IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in the early battles of the Atlanta campaign. After the death of General McPherson in late July, Sherman appointed Howard over the Army of the Tennessee, a position he held during the March to the Sea. Military correspondence from Whittle includes a letter to Howard dated 5 October 1864 from Marietta, Georgia, just north of Atlanta (OR 39/3:96), and a letter from near Savannah, Georgia on 8 January 1865 (OR 47/2:25-26), showing just how swiftly this scorched earth campaign unfolded. Whittle's letters to Howard usually passed military intelligence gleaned from his interaction with prisoners of war, deserters, and the civilian population, in the course of his duties.

The railroad cut at Allatoona Pass, inspiration for the song "Hold the fort!"
Scheips, page 3. Photo from National Archives.

6. Did Whittle witness Sherman's communications with Federal forces at Allatoona Pass, later the basis for the song "Hold the Fort"? Maybe. After the fall of Atlanta, Confederate General Hood moved to cut Sherman's supply line, particularly the railroad leading down from Chattanooga. At the beginning of October 1864 the Allatoona Pass became a crucial prize, because the high ground and narrow passage could be held at length by whichever side took the position with sufficient forces. Federal defenders being badly outnumbered at first, General Sherman sent General Corse to reinforce them, with more troops on the way. U.S. Army Signal Corpsmen atop Kennesaw Mountain communicated by flags with the Allatoona defenders, twenty miles away, to keep them apprised of the situation. Army records show that on 4 October 1864 the following message was sent: "General Sherman says hold fast. We are coming." (Scheips 1-3).

Years later, Whittle related this event as an illustration of the need for Christians to remember that, however beleaguered we may become in our fight against temptation, divine help is close at hand. Philip Bliss heard Whittle use this in a sermon, and wrote his famous song, "Hold the fort, for I am coming!" based on Whittle's recollection of the wording Sherman's message (Bliss Memoirs 68-70).

In 1971 Paul J. Scheips published a thoroughly researched study of this song, titled "Hold the fort! The story of a song from the sawdust trail to the picket line," in the series Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology. He notes that none of the three known messages signaled from Kennesaw Mountain said, "Hold the fort, I am coming," in exactly those words. Other details of Whittle's recollection were blurred as well; he gave the Federal strength at 1,500 men against 6,000 Confederates, when the true numbers were closer to 2,000 and 3,200 respectively--misremembering the odds, "as any old soldier might have done" (Scheips 9). Refining of the verbiage of a famous statement is another of the transformations a tale often undergoes in the retelling.

But could Whittle have witnessed this scene firsthand? Scheips notes that Whittle never claimed to have been at Kennesaw Mountain, though General Howard said he was; and Howard's statement was given in a letter written in 1899, more than thirty years after the event (Scheips 8-9). The U.S. Army's records of correspondence do however preserve a statement recorded by Whittle at the "Headquarters of the Department & Army of the Tennessee, in the field, near Marietta," concerning intelligence gathered from a Confederate deserter who arrived sometime after 5 p.m. on 5 October 1864 (OR 39/3:95-96). Kennesaw Mountain is a mere 5 miles from the Marietta town square, so Whittle might easily have been up to the mountain during the battle.

General Howard's autobiography, which accurately quotes nearly all of the signal messages found by Scheips in the official U.S. Army records (2:58-62), claims that Sherman sent his first messages on 4 October by dispatch from Vining's Station (southeast of Marietta) to Kennesaw Mountain, where they were signaled across to Allatoona Pass (2:57ff.). This gives a rather different but hardly surprising picture of the communication process, in which messages went through multiple hands. Whittle's presence at Howard's headquarters on the date in question makes it easily conceivable that he saw or heard the messages as they passed through the chain of command. Whether he remembered them accurately five years later is another matter!

7. Was his rank actually "Major Whittle," as he was commonly called after the war? Yes, "but." Whittle was breveted as a major by General Order 148, 14 October 1865, for "faithful and meritorious service during the campaign against the city of Mobile and its defences." (Scheips 47). "Brevet rank" was a term of considerable confusion. Officially, it was honorary, not affecting actual responsibilities or pay; but sometimes a man was breveted as a matter of decorum, especially if serving in a position usually reserved for a higher rank (for example a lieutenant commanding a company instead of a captain). Some officers held a brevet rank at the level of their actual responsibilities, but were never officially promoted, and remained a grade or two lower in official rank. The majority of brevet ranks, however, were conferred at the end of the war as rewards for meritorious service (Bielakowski).

In Whittle's case, he was mustered out of service on 7 August 1865, well after the conclusion of hostilities, as a captain in the 72nd Illinois Infantry (Detail report #273666). Since his brevet rank of major was awarded in October, he never actually served with that rank. For this reason he is sometimes referred to as "Major" Whittle (with quotes) in older sources, when the practice of post-war brevet ranks was quite familiar. His pension record with the U.S. Veterans Administration, filed July 1899, records his rank and service as "Capt., Company G, 72nd Reg., Ill. Inf. (Organization Index). This is identical to Whittle's self-identification in a notarized letter from 1868, written to support the pension application of the widow of John F. Schellhorn, one of his soldiers from Company G (Case files WC108741). Whittle's signature is pictured below, with the rank described as "Late Capt., G Co., 72nd Reg. Ill. Infy."

But in informal usage, especially when being introduced as a speaker, no doubt it was "Major Whittle" most of the time. His service as provost marshal to the Army of the Tennessee was certainly equal to the rank, even if it was never officially granted during the war, so it was nothing if not appropriate in ceremonial usage.

Uncovering the truth about some of the details of Whittle's life has proven yet again the tendency for the stories of beloved songs and beloved songwriters to "grow in the telling." The ability to access primary sources online has made it easier now to look back--however imperfectly--past the traditions and legends that grow around these things. In the case of Daniel W. Whittle, even if the truth was not quite as dramatic in some points as the legend, we find a man who exhibited courage, responsibility, and a lifelong commitment to serving the spiritual needs of his fellow human beings.

Daniel W. Whittle in his older years.
Photo from Ira Sankey, My life and the story of the Gospel Hymns
(Philadelphia: P. W. Ziegler, 1907), page 213.


The American-Spanish War: a history by the war leaders. Norwich, Conn.: Haskell & Son, 1899.

Badeau, Adam. Military history of Ulysses S. Grant: from April, 1861, to April, 1865. 3 volumes. New York: Appleton, 1881.
Volume 1:
Volume 2:
Volume 3:

Battle and siege of Vicksburg, MS: May 18-July 4, 1863 (map). Civil War Trust.

Bielakowski, Alexander M. "Brevet rank." Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: a political, social, and military history, ed. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. New York: Norton, 2000.

Case files of approved pension applications of widows and other veterans... 1861-1934. United States Veterans Administration. ARC Identifier 300020.

Chicago Tribune 9 November 1861 page 4. "The City."

Chicago Tribune 15 April 1862 page 472. "The City."

Chicago Tribune 29 April 1862 page 546. "Chicago Literary Union."

Chicago Tribune 17 July 1862 page 4. "Meeting of the Union Defense Committee."

Chicago Tribune 8 Aug 1862 page 4. "Progress of recruiting."

Chicago Tribune 5 June 1863 page 2. Letter from Thomas A. Staring, 23 May 1863.

Chicago Tribune 12 June 1863 page 4. "The City."

Eddy, Thomas Mears. The Patriotism of Illinois. A Record of the Civil and Military History of the State in the War for the Union. Chicago: Clarke and Co., 1865. Digital version by Northern Illinois University.

Hall, J. H. Biography of gospel song and hymn writers. New York: Revell, 1914.

Historical sketch of the Young Men's Christian Association of Chicago. Chicago: Y.M.C.A., 1898.

Howard, Oliver Otis. Autobiography, 2 volumes. New York: Baker & Taylor, 1908.
Volume 1:
Volume 2:

Illinois Civil War muster and descriptive rolls. Illinois State Archives.

"The late Major D. W. Whittle." Record of Christian work 20:4 (April 1901), 241-242.

McGranahan obituary pamphlet.

Memoirs of Philip P. Bliss, ed. Daniel Webster Whittle. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1877.

Official records of the War of the Rebellion. Washington, D.C.: War Records Publication Office, 1881-1901. Online full-text version provided in the Making of America Collection, Cornell University Library.

"Oliver O. Howard." Wikipedia. Viewed 28 January 2013. (Citations provided in article.)

Organization index to pension files of veterans who served between 1861 and 1900. United States Veterans Administration. ARC Identifier 2588825.

Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, 9 volumes. Springfield, Ill.: Phillips Bros., 1900.

Rood, Hosea W. Wisconsin at Vicksburg. Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin-Vicksburg Monument Commission, 1914.

Scheips, Paul J. Hold the fort! The story of a song from the sawdust trail to the picket line. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971.

"Whittle, Daniel W." (Record #273664). Illinois Civil War detail reports. Illinois State Archives.

"Whittle, Daniel W." (Record #273665). Illinois Civil War detail reports. Illinois State Archives.

"Whittle, Daniel W." (Record #273666). Illinois Civil War detail reports. Illinois State Archives. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

"The Fruit of Our Lips:" A Cappella Praise through the Centuries (Part 4)

In this series I am attempting to give a rudimentary overview of the practice of a cappella singing in Christian worship down through the centuries, using examples where possible to illustrate the survivals of this practice. Prior installments have looked at a cappella singing from the early church through the Middle Ages, continuing a cappella holdovers in the Catholic, early Anglican, and Russian Orthodox traditions, and a cappella singing in the Waldensian, Lollard, and Anabaptist churches. In this post we will look at a cappella singing in the Calvinist Reformation, and in similar movements within the English and Scottish Reformation.

Jean Calvin and the Reform of Worship

Jean Calvin (1509-1564) is one of those figures with whom I must often respectfully disagree. Respectfully, because he was undoubtedly a first-rate intellect even in an era of intellectual giants. But disagreeing, because I believe the main thrust of his teaching--the "five points"--shoehorns God's nature and interaction with humankind into a humanly devised (thus inherently limited) framework. Calvinism is logical, terrifyingly so, but it eventually leads to conclusions out of harmony with what God has plainly revealed. That said, Calvin took an enormous step forward by calling church traditions to heel in light of the Scriptures. He understood the tendency of humanity to veer away from God's will, and the necessity of returning to God's will by following the revealed Word. In his Necessity of Reforming the Church, presented to the Diet of Speyer in 1544, Calvin states:
For there is a two-fold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish His authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray (Calvin Necessity 10).
In the last sentence we see Calvin's doctrine of total depravity, to be sure; but considering the history of God's people presented to us in Scripture "for our learning" (Romans 15:4), he has a point. Time and again, godly prophets, kings, and apostles had to return the people to God's Word, including His will about worship. Calvin's view on worship is often called the "Regulative Principle" in Reformed circles, because it acknowledges that it is God's place to regulate worship, and our place to obey His expressed will without addition or subtraction.

As the Christian world at large has moved farther away both in time and in temperament from the fervor of the Reformation, Calvin's views on music have fallen on hard times. By the end of the 19th century, the opinion of Douen (one of the pioneer scholars on the Genevan Psalter) was held as gospel: Calvin was the "enemy of all pleasure and of all distraction, even of the arts and of music" (Clement Marot et le psautier huguenot, quoted in Garside 6). Garside astutely points out, however, that, "Calvin very rarely, if indeed ever, wrote about music independently of its relationship specifically to public communal worship or the praise of God in general" (Garside 6). Like Zwingli, Calvin could separate an appreciation of the art of music itself from the consideration of its proper use in Christian worship. In the "Epistle to the Reader" that prefaced his 1542 La forme des prieres et chantz ecclesiastiques (Form of prayers and ecclesiastical songs) he stated:
There is a great difference between the music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and His angels (quoted in Garside 18).
Contrary to the view that Calvin was "anti-music," in fact his first comprehensive statement on the subject was unreservedly positive:
Furthermore it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some Psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be aroused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love (Geneva Articles, quoted in Garside 7-8).
He was equally firm in his grounding of this practice in New Testament Scripture and practice:
The Psalms . . . we wish to be sung in the church as we have it from the example of the ancient church and also the testimony of Saint Paul, who says that it is good to sing in the congregation with mouth and heart (Geneva Articles, quoted in Garside 10).
Finding a path of safety within God's will marked Calvin's approach to worship from the start; it was probably his fear of doctrinal error creeping in through the church's singing that caused him ultimately to exclude any texts from being sung except for the Psalms and a few of the other poetic passages found in Scripture.

Charles Garside has shown that Calvin's embrace of congregational singing in the Apostolic tradition was likely influenced by Martin Bucer, an earlier reformer in Strasbourg. During the 1520s Bucer introduced congregational Psalm-singing in between each of the other acts of worship, not unlike the common practice among Churches of Christ today. Bucer detailed this practice in his Grund und Ursach auss gotlicher Schrifft (Justification and demonstration from Holy Scripture) of 1524, the title of which is itself instructive. He added in the conclusion of his discussion of congregational singing: "in this we know that we are following the teaching of the Spirit of God" (Garside 11).

Calvin and Bucer were on friendly terms, though of different languages; after Calvin was expelled from Geneva in 1538, Bucer helped him to establish a French-speaking congregation in Strasbourg. Here was ample opportunity for Calvin to observe the impact of congregational singing on worship, and by the time of his return to Geneva in 1541 he was an ardent champion of congregational psalmody (Catholic encyclopedia).

The two men seem to have differed, however, in their teaching on the use of musical instruments. Bucer says in his preface to the Neue Straßburgische Gesangbüchlein:
Music, all singing and playing (which above all things are capable of moving our spirits powerfully and ardently), should be used in no other way except for sacred praise, teaching, and admonition. . . . Music, as in other things, has been placed before and directed to God our Father, so that absolutely no song and no instrumentalizing may be sung and used except by and for Christian spiritual activities (quoted in Garside 30).
Bucer seems to present a rather extreme version of the familiar arguments that "All of life is worship," and "Why would God give me this talent if I am not meant to use it to His glory?" Without digressing too far into this topic, I would just point out that although all of life should be lived worshipfully, in reverent respect for God's will and to His glory, to claim on this ground that there is no difference between the activities of everyday life and the worship assembly commanded in Scripture is facetious. And though there are many activities (such as athletic contests or musical performances) that can glorify God by encouraging the pursuit of excellence, providing wholesome entertainment, and celebrating the talents God has given, this alone does not make them appropriate for the worship assembly.

Calvin, on the other hand, showed no such equivocation. In his commentary on Psalm 71:22, he explains:
To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law, and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures; but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to Him only in a known tongue (Calvin Psalms volume 3).
The latter point is an unusual and thought-provoking argument about the nature of language, music, and communication. Paul of course was not talking about playing instruments, but about speaking in unknown tongues (languages not familiar to the assembly). In verse 9 of the same chapter he explains, "So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air." But the problem Paul identified did touch on singing as well. In verses 14-15 he says,
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
According to Paul, an unknown language would be just as inappropriate in song; the praising, thanksgiving, teaching, and admonishing taught in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 6 are expressed in understandable verbal communication, "with . . . mind also." If musical instruments in worship are not praising, thanksgiving, teaching or admonishing, what part do they have in Christian worship music? This brings up the question of what instrumental music communicates on its own, a debate of long standing in Western aesthetics. Many of the 19th-century Romantics believed that purely instrumental music was a form of expression even higher than the spoken word; E. T. A. Hoffmann, for example, said that "vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words." Or, put the other way round, purely musical expression lacks the (comparatively) specific signification of verbal communication. Paul's argument against using unknown tongues in worship rests on the need to communicate with one another not only in the spirit but in the understanding, and thus Calvin may have a point in bringing this passage into the argument against instrumental music in worship.

In his commentary on Psalm 81:3, Calvin covers more familiar territory:
With respect to the tabret, harp, and psaltery, we have formerly observed, and will find it necessary afterwards to repeat the same remark, that the Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been His will to train His people, while they were as yet tender and like children, by such rudiments, until the coming of Christ. But now when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law, and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time (Calvin Psalms volume 3).
There is one passage from Calvin's writings that seems to muddy these waters: his commentary on Colossians 3:16. In his discussion of the phrase, "Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," he says:
Under these three terms [Paul] includes all kinds of songs. They are commonly distinguished in this way--that a Psalm is that, in the singing of which some musical instrument besides the tongue is made use of; a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; while an ode contains not merely praises, but exhortations and other matters. He would have the songs of Christians, however, to be spiritual, not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles (Calvin Philippians Colossians & Thessalonians).
Here I believe Calvin was speaking merely of technical distinctions between types of songs existing in the 1st century, at least as he understood them; if he were commending the use of instruments, it would run counter to the much plainer statements cited previously, and to the practices in the churches under his guidance. Neither is his statement about instrumental accompaniment in these genres particularly accurate. In Paul's era the Psalms were only sung accompanied in Temple worship, but were sung a cappella in synagogues across the ancient world. By contrast, the hymns and odes of pagan Greek and Roman worship were nearly always accompanied.

The Genevan Psalter

When Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541--this time to stay, and with virtually undisputed authority in church practices--he immediately set to work building a repertoire of French-language psalms and tunes for congregational use. The result was the Genevan Psalter, which came out in stages beginning in 1542 and reached a complete form in 1562. The importance of this work can hardly be overstated. Walter Blankenburg noted that in the three years following the publication of the complete Psalter in 1562, "not less than 63 recorded editions were published, undoubtedly a unique event in the history of Protestant hymnals"(quoted in Garside, 5). In its final form it included all 150 Psalms and the traditional canticles such as the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). It was particularly abundant in provision of tunes, with 125 different melodies available for use (Slenk 349).

The texts of the Genevan Psalter came from a somewhat unexpected venue--the court of the French king Francis I. Clément Marot, a prominent poet in the royal retinue, first began writing French paraphrases of the Psalms for court entertainment and private use, but Calvin found them to be just the thing for congregational singing by the common people as well. Marot fled to Geneva in 1542 because of persecution for his Protestant beliefs, and was employed in the translating of the Psalter until his death in 1544. The theologian Théodore de Bèze completed the remaining part of this work (Slenk 348).

The person most associated with the music in the Genevan Psalter is Loys Bourgeois, who taught music in Geneva from 1545-1552. He is only known to have edited the music for the 1551 edition, and claimed sole credit for only 38 of the 85 tunes in that work. (By comparison, the 1562 edition of the Psalter introduced 40 new tunes by the enigmatic "Maître (Master) Pierre.") But Bourgeois's editorial oversight was far-reaching, shaping the entire concept of what a Psalm tune should be (Slenk 348-9). One of his tunes is still known around the world even today--OLD 100TH, which is included in Praise for the Lord no fewer than three times (#17 "All people that on earth do dwell," #64 "Before Jehovah's awful throne," and #528 "Praise God from whom all blessings flow"). This tune was actually Psalm 134 in the Genevan Psalter, but English-language psalters quickly matched it instead with William Kethe's translation of the 100th Psalm, "All people that on earth do dwell."

Bourgeois's melodic style is simple, sturdy, and spare, using only one note for each syllable, and only two different note lengths throughout. This served two purposes: it made the tunes easy to sing, and it kept the worshipers from being distracted from the words by the music itself (Trocmé-Latter 337). Many historians have suggested that the Genevan Psalter music was adapted from popular music of the day, but though a number of prominent composers made settings of the Psalter tunes in popular styles, few of the melodies themselves show evidence of secular origin (Slenk 349-351).
One such tune that has been much debated is PSALM 42 (see PFTL #109 "Comfort, comfort ye my people"), which some suggest is derived from the tune of "Ne l’oseray je dire" found in the c. 1510 Bayeux Manuscript (Hymnal 1982 3:127). The comparison does not quite convince me, but there is very much of the popular Italian frottola style in PSALM 42. With its bouncy alternation between 6/8 and 3/4 time, it is not hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth's condemnation of these "Geneva jigs" in comparison to the high-church style of her Chapel Royal (Owens). (Though the note values in the example below are the equivalent of the modern whole and half notes, the tempos were not slow; the semibreve or "whole note" gets the beat.)

Pidoux, Le psautier huguenot, 51. 

Bourgeois's comments in the 1551 Psalter indicate, however, that he did use well known melodies from the Catholic plainchant tradition (Trocmé-Latter 338-339). One obvious borrowing is found in PSALM 80, which is adapted from the medieval Easter sequence "Victimae Paschali laudes."

Pidoux, Le psautier huguenot, 81.

 As can be seen in the examples above, the Genevan Psalter tunes were originally written without any parts. Only unison singing was accepted in public worship in Geneva at that time, once again to avoid distractions from the words (Trocme'-Latter 337). Outside of the worship assembly, however, it was acceptable to sing in parts, and arrangements of these tunes for multiple voices soon became popular. The 16th century saw the birth of the music publishing industry, and the rising middle class had a voracious demand for printed music for amateur entertainment. Given the racy nature of many popular songs of the day--nothing is new under the sun!--it was thought better to encourage the singing of spiritual songs at home and in social gatherings.

Bourgeois himself arranged some of the Psalm tunes for four voices; and following the completion of the 1562 Psalter, Claude Goudimel actually wrote three different four-voice settings of the entire book--all 125 tunes! The most basic kind of arrangement simply harmonized the melody using the same rhythm in all voices, one note per syllable; more advanced styles included rhythmic decoration of this basic structure or even a fully contrapuntal treatment in the manner of a motet (Slenk 350-351). The first of these methods became the default style for a cappella Psalms and (much later) hymns, and is the "hymn style" most people associate with congregational part-singing to this day. The music in the following video is Goudimel's setting of PSALM 42 in this simple fashion, sung with the text "Comfort, comfort ye my people." (Performance by the Chapel Choir of Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario.)

Singing the Psalm tunes in parts became so popular that Marcus van Vaernewijck, chronicling events in Ghent during the 1560s, said that "these Psalms appealed to the members of the new religion so much that in the evening they would gather in groups of two to three hundred and sing them in different streets and alleys of the city" (quoted in Slenk 353). Composers of the first rank--Janequin, Arcadelt, Le Jeune, and Lassus--wrote entire volumes of arrangements of these tunes (Slenk 351). The video below is a motet setting of the OLD 100TH tune by the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, sung by Doulce memoire. The tune is heard in the tenor voice in somewhat longer notes, supported by imitative voices that elaborate on ideas from the melody.

Eventually, of course, the Calvinists allowed part-singing in worship. The seriousness with which they resisted innovation in worship, however, can be seen in an incident connected to Bourgeois's editing of the 1551 Psalter. In the process of compilation he altered a few notes of the traditional tunes in the interest of making them easier to sing. On 3 December 1551, Bourgeois was arrested by the Geneva authorities for having "changed the melodies without permission." Calvin defended his corrections and secured his release, but not before Bourgeois had spent a night in jail (Trocmé-Latter 337).

The Impact of Geneva Psalmody on the European Continent

Wherever Calvin's doctrines went, Geneva psalmody went as well; collections of Marot's Psalms, sometimes with Geneva tunes, appeared in Antwerp as early as 1541. A cappella congregational psalmody was so associated with the underground Reformed churches in the Netherlands that the Catholic Habsburg rulers actually forbade the public singing of Psalms! Still the practice of psalmody spread during the 16th century, even during periods when it was punishable by death (Slenk 353).

In the French-speaking Low Countries the Genevan Psalter quickly caught on. Dutch-speaking Reformed groups had a home-grown psalter in the Souterliedekens ("Little psalter songs"), first published in Antwerp in 1540, but this eventually was overshadowed by the Geneva tradition (Slenk 354-5). The following video begins with a solo rendition of the "Lofzang van Zacharias" (Luke 1:68-79) from the Souterliedekens. The secular song at 0:55 is believed to be the source of the tune. The four-part setting at 4:50 is by Gherardus Mes, and is here performed a cappella up until 6:00.

In German lands, most Reformed churches adopted Ambrosius Lobwasser's adaptation of the Genevan Psalter, the long-lived Psalter des königlichen Propheten Davids. This achieved such popularity that it was even used by some Lutheran congregations (Slenk 356-7). A similar adaptation in for the Hungarian Reformed churches was prepared by Albert Szenci Molnár, known as the Genfi Zsoltar (Koyzis). The following video is the 89th Psalm sung to one of Claude Goudimel's four-part settings by young people of the Reformed Church in Nagykőrös, Hungary.


For more than two centuries, the heirs of Calvin on the European continent held to a cappella Psalm-singing; but over the course of the 19th century the organ was reintroduced. Compared to the polemics produced by the instrumental music controversy in the U.K. and U.S., sources and scholarship on this trend on the Continent are quite scant. In his La protestantisme et la musique, Bernard Reymond notes that organs were used sporadically by a few Swiss congregations in the late 18th century, but were by far the exception until the second half of the 19th century (110).

The mixture of reactions at that time was interesting: though some objected on the same grounds that Calvin had expressed, others seem to have been more concerned that instrumental music would discourage congregational singing, or that it was a return to Catholicism, or that it was a break with tradition (Reymond 108-9). These concerns proved true in varying degrees, but essentially surrendered the fundamental question of the need for Scriptural authority.

The impact of Reformed psalmody during the 16th century was also felt keenly in the British Isles, and by extension in the North American colonies in the following century. The next post in this series will address the a cappella church music practices that emerged in these lands, many of which survive to this day.


Garside, Charles, Jr. "The origins of Calvin's theology of music: 1536-1543." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, volume 69 number 4 (August 1979), pages 1-36. (Available with a free user account at

Calvin, Jean. Commentary on the book of Psalms, 5 volumes, translated by James Anderson. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845-49.
Electronic version by Christian Classics Ethereal Library: (volume 1) (volume 2) (volume 3) (volume 4) (volume 5)
Calvin, Jean. Commentaries on the epistles of Paul to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, translated by John Pringle. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851. Electronic version by Christian Classics Ethereal Library:

Calvin, Jean. The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Diet of Speyer, 1544), translated by H. Beveridge. London: W. H. Dalton, 1843.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. "Beethoven's instrumental music" (1813). Electronic version by Cengage Learning.

Hymnal 1982 companion, ed. Raymond F. Glover. New York: Church Pension Fund, 1994.

"John Calvin." Catholic encyclopedia. Online edition 2009.

Koyzis, David. "Genfi Zsoltar: the Psalms in Hungarian." The Geneva Psalter.

Owens, Michael E. "The Geneva Psalter." 2008. From The Genevan Psalter Resource Center.

Pidoux, Pierre. Le psautier huguenot du XVIe siècle. Mélodies et documents. Basel: Bärenreiter, 1962.

Reymond, Bernard. Le protestantisme et la musique. Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2002. 

Slenk, Howard. "Psalms, metrical, II: The European continent." The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians, 20 volumes. London: MacMillan, 1980, 15:348-358.

Trocmé-Latter, Daniel. "'May those who know nothing be content to listen': Loys Bourgeois's Advertissement to the Psalms (1551)." Reformation & Renaissance Review 11/3 (2009), 335-347.