Psalms as Hymns

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Switzerland and Germany

The earliest known edition of a Protestant translation of the Psalms as a hymnal appeared in Paris in 1541 and contained 30 Psalms, which John Calvin re­published at Geneva in 1542. It was the work of Clement Marot (ca.1419-1544). In 1543 appeared a third edition increased by 20 new Psalms and with a foreword by Calvin. The rest of the psalms were translated by Theodor Beza in 1550-52. In 1552 appeared the first complete Psalter with a poetic foreword by Beza. Melodies for most of these Psalms were composed by Loys Bourgeoucs; the four-part version of the music was composed by Claude Goudimel (the martyr of the massacre of St. Bartholomew's night in 1572 at Lyon). This Psalter became the hymnbook of many Reformed churches.

This precious treasury of songs soon became the common possession of German church music. The French Psalms by Marot and Beza were translated into German by Ambrosius Lobwasser (1515-1585), and published in 1573 in Leipzig as Die Psalmen Davids nach französischer Melodey in deutsche Reymen gebracht durch Dr. Ambrosius Lobwasser. It was inevitable that the verse suffered some deteriora­tion in the process of translation. Nevertheless the work was used in Reformed circles, especially in Switzerland. In the 17th century the Bern govern­ment commissioned Johann Ulrich Sulzberger, the music director of Bern, to revise the music and re­publish the Psalter. This revision with Lobwasser's text, of which several editions were printed, soon became the common possession of the Swiss Re­formed Church.

In the course of the 18th century the inadequacy of this translation of the Psalms became more and more apparent. Johann Jakob Spreng (1699-1768), a professor at the University of Basel, therefore under­took the task of producing a rhythmically improved edition of the Psalms. A little later, Johannes Stapfer (1719-1801), a professor of theology at the University of Bern, revised the Lobwasser Psalms on the basis of Spreng's edition. The new revision of the Psalms for Germany was made by Mathias Jorissen (1739-1833). The work of these men made a real contribution in poetic improvement. Their texts follow the Scripture closely. Musically these Psalms are also valuable. The leading voice (cantus firmus) lies in the tenor. In the 19th century when many of these Psalms were included in the newer hymnals the leading voice was changed to the so­prano part.

Among the Swiss Mennonites the Lobwasser Psalms were used until the late 19th century, rarely also the Stapfer version. In order that these strictly conservative Anabaptists would not feel that this was a state church hymnal, the title page with the imprint of the Bernese government was simply torn out of their copies. With the appearance of modern hymnals, especially of those of English melodies, the old books of Psalms had to yield. In Switzer­land many of these old well-bound books can still be found. In more recent times an effort has been made to revive at least a few of the beautiful old Psalms. The Lobwasser Psalms were also taken to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, by Swiss Mennonite immi­grants in the early 18th century.

In Anabaptist circles (see Hymnology) Sigmund Salminger of Munich was the first to make a translation; in 1537 he issued Der gantze Psalter, das ist alle Psalmen Davids an der Zahl 150 in gesangweiss gestellt (Keller, 426). Jakob Dachser, also an Anabaptist preacher, made a rhymed version of several Psalms and in 1538 published Den gantz psalter Davids nach ordnung und anzahl aller Psalmen. The Hutterite Chronicles relate con­cerning Wolf Sailer, that he rhymed the en­tire Psalter, "as we have and sing it in the brother­hood" (Geschicht-Buch, 257). Unfortunately little is known about these songs. This translation is said to be in the Archiepiscopal library in Gran as Manuscript III, 190. - SG


In the early 16th century and even before, some of the Psalms had been translated into Dutch; they were usually called Souterliedekens. A complete rhymed version of all the Psalms, published in 1540 at Antwerp, went through at least ten editions, and other rhymed versions of the whole psalter or parts of it were published in the same period. These Souterliedekens may have been sung by the early Anabaptist-Mennonites in the Netherlands. But until the end of the 16th century the Dutch Mennonites preferred to sing the hymns composed by the martyrs and the songs deal­ing with their faith and sufferings (see Hymnol­ogy). The Waterlanders were the first among the Dutch Mennonites to use Psalms; by 1581 the singing of Psalms was usual in the Waterlander congregations. This was largely due to the influence of Hans de Ries. In his hymnal of 1582 he included a number of Psalms, and the 1618 edition of his hymnal contained all the Psalms. In the early 17th century it was an excep­tion, not only among the Waterlanders, but also among the Flemish Mennonites, to sing any hymn but a Psalm. Harmen Hendriksz van Warendorp, who had given a meetinghouse to the Amsterdam Mennonite congregation in 1632, stipulated in his will that a fine was to be paid whenever a hymn other than a Psalm was sung. The Psalms used by both the Waterlanders and the Flemish were in the Dathenus version. Since the artistic quality of this version was not very satisfactory, efforts were soon made to get a better version. It is not clear why the excellent rhymed version of D. R. Camphuysen was not used by the Mennonites. In 1684 the Amsterdam Lamist congregation introduced a new version (De Psalmen Davids, nieuwlyx op rym-maat gestelt), rhymed by Joachim Oudaen, Joost van den Vondel, Antonides van der Goes, Anslo, van Hoogstraten, Camphuysen, Galenus Abrahamsz, and others. In 1713 the Peuzelaarsteeg congregation of Haarlem introduced a new version (De Psalmen Davids, in't Nederduyts berijmd), different from the 1684 Amsterdam version; this psalter was also used by a number of other congregations. A version, rhymed in 1759 by the rhetorical society "Laus Deo, Salus Populo," was introduced in 1762 in the Am­sterdam Zonist congregation, and soon after in the Amsterdam Lamist congregation and other church­es. In 1900 this version was still used by three Mennonite congregations. The new version intro­duced in the Dutch Reformed Church in 1773 was also used by the Mennonites; in 1900 at least 81 congregations were using it. In 1900 (reprinted in 1906) an anthology of Psalms in a somewhat re­vised version was published in the Leidsche Bundel. The Doopsgezinde Bundel (Mennonite hymnal) of 1944 contains 46 Psalms. - vdZ


Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1865): 69-83.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 407 f.

Keller, Ludwig. Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien : in ihrem Zusammenhange dargestellt. Leipzig : S. Hirzel, 1885.

Kühler, Wilhelmus Johannes. Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinden in Nederland: Gemeentelijk Leven 1650-1735. Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1950: III, 33-37.

Wolkan, Rudolf. Geschicht-Buch der Hutterischen Brüder. Macleod, AB, and Vienna, 1923.

Zieglschmid, A. J. F. Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder: Ein Sprachdenkmal aus frühneuhochdeutscher Zeit. Ithaca: Cayuga Press, 1943.

Author(s) Samuel Geiser
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Geiser, Samuel and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Psalms as Hymns." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 4 Aug 2021.

APA style

Geiser, Samuel and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1959). Psalms as Hymns. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 4 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 226-227. All rights reserved.

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