Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: Lining The Psalm

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Lining The Psalm

It would be interesting, were we furnished with sufficient data, to exhibit the different methods of singing, as a part of the devotional exercises of the Sabbath, practised here at different times since our history began. But no record or other document has been found that throws much light on time subject, so far as relates to our own place. The probability is, that the practice here was not essentially different from the practice in New England generally. The metrical version of the Psalms used by most of the early planters, was that of Sternhold and Hopkins, which was made in England about the year 1550, and was the authorized version of the Established Church. So little poetic merit had this work, that it has been well said of its authors, that their "piety was better than their poetry."

In 1640, another version of the Psalms, made in New England, was published at Cambridge. This version, called the New England or Bay Psalm Book, was meritorious principally for time fidelity with which its authors had translated it from the original Hebrew. Yet this work came into general use throughout New England, and held the ascendency more than a century. A specimen of these versions may afford some idea of their metrical character. The 9th verse of the 48th Psalm has been selected. In Sternhold and Hopkins it reads thus:

"0 Lord, we wait and doe attend
On thy good helpe and grace;
For which we doe all times attend
Within thy holy place."

In the New England or Bay Psalm Book, it is thus:

"0 God, our thoughts, have been upon
Thy free benignity;
And that in the middest of
Thy house of Sanctety."

But the people were in a state of progress. Hence, the versions of the Psalms, that, in one generation were so much admired, in a succeeding generation failed to give satisfaction. An improved taste demanded a higher order of poetry in the songs of the sanctuary. In the early part of the year 1772, at a special town meeting called by request of thirty or more of the freeholders, it was voted to exchange Dunson's Version of Psalms, for Dr. Watts' Psalms and Hymns. But as some of the people appear to have been reluctant to give up the use of the Psalm Book, endeared to them by many pleasant associations, it was further voted, that Dunson's Version should continue to be used at the morning service on the Sabbath, while it should give place to Watts' Psalms and Hymns at the afternoon service. This arrangement was to continue three months, and if, at the end of that period, any persons should request the pastor to use Dunson's still longer, it might be retained three months longer, and by request at the end of those three months, till the annual meeting the next March. As nothing further is found on the records relating to the subject, it may fairly be inferred, that at the time last mentioned, Dunson had been wholly superseded by Watts.

The psalm was first named and read by the minister, as at the present day. The first line was then read again, usually by one of the deacons, and immediately after sung by the person who was accustomed to "tune the psalm," that is, to pitch the tune and sing the first strain, -- usually alone. Then all the congregation who could sing, catching the tune, accompanied the header through the rest of the psalm, as it was read, line by line. The reading of the psalm was often performed by two of the deacons, who read the lines alternately. This was called "lining the psalm," and not infrequently, "deaconing" it. Lining the psalm must sometimes have excited a smile on countenances usually sedate, by completely subverting the sense. For example, take the following lines and read them independently of each other, and each line is a paradox.

"The Lord will come, and he will not" --

This having been sung, the deacon proceeded to read the next line, which was equally intelligible:

Keep silence, but speak not."

But when the lines were read alternately by the deacons, it must sometimes have been still more difficult to keep a sober countenance; and it requires no uncommon share of credulity to believe, that there was more of fact than of fiction, in an anecdote of two deacons who on one occasion read a version of the 102nd psalm. One of the deacons, remarkable for the sharpness of his voice read:

"I'm like unto a pelican."

The other equally remarkable for gruffness responded:

"And like an owl am I."

Notwithstanding the objections to this method of reading and singing psalms, which to the present generation appear so obvious and so serious, and which were not unnoticed by our ancestors, this practice continued through a long series of years. The custom probably originated in a scarcity of psalm books, a very few copies only being found in an ordinary congregation. The psalms were then read and sung line by line, so that, in singing, the words might be remembered by all who joined in singing them.

The custom, originating in this manner, was retained long after the necessity which gave rise to it, had ceased to exist. From association, it had become endeared to very many of the people, especially the aged, and it was not without great reluctance, that they submitted to innovations. It was hard for them to give up their old version of the psalms for Dr. Watts' Psalms and Hymns. Another innovation, made at the same time, was regarded with little favor by some of the older people. The town voted "to introduce some new tunes to be sung here on the Lord's day," and Mr. Joseph Philbrick and Dr. Samuel Page were appointed to tune the psalm in the New Version for time afternoon. The town, however, had some regard for the feelings of the aged, and did not make an entire change in the arrangements for singing. As has already been related, the old version of the Psalms was not wholly discarded at once. So also with the former leader of their singing, for it was voted that "Dea. Samuel Dow shall tune the psalm in the forenoon," "Dea. Jona Tuck & Dea. Saml Dow, to read the psalms."

But these innovations were followed by another, that met within open opposition. A town meeting was held, March 18, 1783, to see if the town would pass a vote to sing a new tune the last time on every Sunday, without reading line by line, as recommended by the late Dr. Watts: But this was voted in the negative. About this time, however, the experiment was actually made. The exact date is not known -- whether it was after this town meeting and in disregard of the vote passed, or, which is more probable, before the meeting, and that called in consequence.

During the Sabbath on which the innovation was attempted, the exercises in the house of worship appear to have been performed as usual, till the last psalm or hymn was read by the pastor. Then, instead of waiting for the deacons to read it again, line by line, the leader named the tune and the singing was immediately commenced. This was too much to be borne with patience. One venerable man, who had several years before passed the age of three score and ten, and I who had for many years been a consistent member of the church, rose from his seat and turning towards the minister, said, "Reverend sir, do you allow of all this?" Another man, a few years younger, with less reverence, called out to the singers: "You make a worse noise than the wolves did forty years ago." A third speaker, also aged, in grief at what he regarded as a desecration of the place, gave vent to his feelings thus: "I deont waint to hear sich a neoise in the heouse of Gad." A fourth man was affected still more unpleasantly. He had before this sometimes shown signs of partial derangement. Excitement on this occasion produced such a state, that he called out with earnestness: "Toll the bell, ye devils! toll the bell!" The experiment in singing failed, and the meeting closed in disorder. The most aged of the four men mentioned, on reflection, regretted the part he had acted, and the next day, went voluntarily to a magistrate and complained of himself for breaking the peace.

The old order of things was continued a few years longer; but a change was again proposed in March, 1789, when it was voted "to have some new tune sung in the Meeting-house in time for publick worship, once every Sabbath, without reading line by line." The change was then made without producing any disturbance in the community. Not long afterward, the lining of the psalm ceased entirely, and it is now known only as a relic of the past.

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