The Psalter-Hymnal Project

Danny E. Olinger and Alan D. Strange

Last year at the Eightieth (2013) General Assembly, the Committee on Christian Education, working with the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) Psalter-Hymnal Committee, presented a “First Reading” of 238 metrical psalms, 19 psalm paraphrases, and 15 psalm partials for the psalms portion of a proposed OPC-URCNA Psalter-Hymnal. The CCE also posted the psalm selections on OPC.org for the feedback of the entire church. At the upcoming Eighty-first (2014) General Assembly, the CCE plans to present these psalms again in a “Second Reading,” for an up-or-down vote on their inclusion in the proposed Psalter-Hymnal. The URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee will also be presenting the same psalms for approval to their Synod 2014, which this year will meet before the OPC General Assembly meets. How did the Psalter-Hymnal project get to this point?

Overture to the Seventy-third (2006) General Assembly

The Seventy-third (2006) General Assembly started this process by adopting the following response to an overture from the Presbytery of Ohio:

That the Seventy-third General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church authorize its Committee on Christian Education to seek to develop a Psalter-Hymnal by 2011—which includes musical settings of all 150 psalms, in their entirety, with as much accuracy and as little archaic language and confusing syntax as possible—for use in our congregations; that it authorize the Committee on Christian Education to appoint a special Psalter-Hymnal committee.

Having been authorized by the General Assembly to seek to develop a Psalter-Hymnal, the CCE formed a special committee to investigate the interest in OPC churches. As part of that investigation, the special committee sent a survey to ministers and sessions. When asked if the church they served was satisfied with its current hymnal or psalter, 93 sessions answered yes and 43 sessions answered no. When asked if the church they served would be interested in using a psalter-hymnal produced by the OPC, 112 sessions answered yes and 23 sessions answered no.

From this feedback and its own additional study, the CCE concluded that, while many Orthodox Presbyterians were satisfied with Trinity Hymnal (original or revised), there was also an interest in adding a Psalter-Hymnal containing all 150 psalms for singing that were well-translated and versified with appropriate tunes, together with excellent hymns, both old and new. In the CCE’s opinion, adding such a Psalter-Hymnal to supplement—not replace—Trinity Hymnal would enhance the biblical worship of the church.

The CCE then communicated its findings to the Seventy-fourth (2007) General Assembly and stated its intention to develop a Psalter-Hymnal containing settings of all 150 psalms and a selection of the best hymns from the history of the church. The CCE also communicated that it would consult with other Reformed churches through the OPC Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations regarding this project. This report was presented to the Seventy-fourth (2007) General Assembly, and no opposition was expressed in the CCE’s disclosure that it had determined to develop a Psalter-Hymnal as mandated by the Seventy-third (2006) General Assembly, which had given a completion date target of 2011.[1]

Work on the Psalter-Hymnal

The CCE next established a Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee from its membership to oversee this project and to implement the mechanisms necessary to see this through to publication. Appointed to the Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee were the Reverends Alan Strange (chairman) and Stephen Pribble, Dr. Darryl Hart, and the General Secretary, the Reverend Danny Olinger.

The Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee, in turn, determined to carry out its work through the erection of a Composition Subcommittee and a Production Subcommittee. In addition to Mssrs. Strange (chairman), Pribble, and Olinger, those accepting invitations to serve on the Composition Subcommittee were the Reverends Peter Wallace, Larry Wilson, Brian Estelle (Hebraist), and Terry Johnson (Presbyterian Church in America), ruling elder James Blake (Calvin OPC, Phoenix) (who could not continue after a year), and Dr. Timothy Shafer (Westminster OPC, Hollidaysburg, Pa.). Mrs. Timothy (Lou Ann) Shafer accepted an invitation to serve as musical editor, and Dr. Dale Grotenhuis (URCNA) agreed to serve as a consultant (but died in 2012). Mr. Olinger and Dr. Hart, along with Dr. James Scott, were appointed to the Production Subcommittee.

The Composition Subcommittee’s Work on the Psalms

The Composition Subcommittee began its work by tasking its Hebraist, Dr. Estelle, to translate every psalm from the Hebrew with detailed explanation of each psalm’s meaning and particular nuances of English translational choices. Before the Subcommittee approved any text and tune for a particular psalm, Dr. Estelle would share the results of his study and answer questions concerning the theme and affect of the psalm.

The Subcommittee then considered extant psalm versions from multiple hymnals, Psalters, and Psalter-hymnals, including the Trinity Hymnal original (1961) and revised (1990) editions, Trinity Psalter (1994), the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA) Book of Psalms for Singing (1973), the RPCNA Book of Psalms for Worship (2009), the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) Psalter Hymnal Centennial Edition (1959), the CRC Psalter Hymnal (1987), and the Free Church of Scotland Sing Psalms (2003). Original translations and tune arrangements were also considered.

In the working process of discussing and then selecting psalm selections, the Subcommittee adopted as a starting point the psalm list created by Dr. Wallace and the members and friends of Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church in Granger, Indiana. A wiki (a web application that allows people to add or modify content in collaboration with others) was created for the members to post comments. The wiki also allowed the members to see the recommended selections, texts, and tune, and even to hear the selections played. E-mails were exchanged, teleconferences were held, and numerous in-person meetings took place.

After five years of labor, in which the Subcommittee had worked on translations and tunes for the Psalter selections from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, a set list was prepared for the CCE to review at its October 2011 meeting. The list was also forwarded to the URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee for its study.

URCNA and OPC Working Together

Talks between the two churches about working together began in November 2010, when CCE members met with the members of the URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee at Lynwood URC in Lynwood, Illinois. The two groups discussed sharing the fruits of each other’s labors and a potential working arrangement.

The CCE petitioned the Seventy-eighth (2011) General Assembly to issue a formal invitation for the OPC and the URCNA to join together in producing a Psalter-Hymnal. The Seventy-eighth (2011) General Assembly passed the following motions: (1) that the General Assembly approve the Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee working together with the URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee with a view to producing a joint OPC/URC Psalter-Hymnal, and (2) that an official invitation from the Assembly be extended to the URCNA Synod (next meeting in New York in 2012) to work together to produce a Psalter-Hymnal for use in a wide range of confessional Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

The URCNA Synod 2012 accepted the invitation. Representatives from the respective Psalter-Hymnal Committees then met to lay out a plan for the work to go forth in a combined manner. Presenting an interesting dynamic to the discussions was the fact that the URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee had worked on presenting first a list of hymns to its Synod while the CCE through its Composition Subcommittee had worked on presenting first a list of psalms to the General Assembly. Consequently, the Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee requested the opportunity for the CCE to finish its Psalms review and for the Composition Subcommittee to have time to make necessary amendments from the CCE review prior to meeting jointly.

CCE Review of the Psalms

Spread over three in-person meetings between October 2011 and October 2012, the CCE review included singing each selection, accompanied by volunteers from the Philadelphia-area congregations at Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and with volunteers from the Wheaton and Hanover Park congregations at Bethel OPC in Wheaton. The CCE recorded comments from the volunteers on how to improve the selections. It also deliberated internally regarding the selections. The CCE finished its process of review at its October 2013 meeting and asked its Composition Subcommittee to incorporate its feedback and to recommend a final list of psalms to be sent to the URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee. The Composition Subcommittee met in person in January 2013 to review the CCE’s comments and also to recommend which psalm selections put forth by the URCNA should be added.[2]

The Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee and Dr. Shafer met with the URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee in Mt. Olive, Michigan, in March 2013. The two committees agreed on the 238 metrical psalms, 19 psalm paraphrases, and 15 psalm partials that were put before the Eightieth (2013) General Assembly for a “First Reading.”

Review of Psalms prior to the Eighty-first (2014) Assembly

After the first reading, all interested OPC and URC parties were welcome to study the Psalter proposal and suggest changes through the end of 2013. The Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee, in addition to working with these comments and with the URC, is now consulting with musical, linguistic, and poetic authorities to make this list of psalms the best product possible.

Lord willing, the final amending of the psalms list will take place on March 4 and 5, 2014, when the Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee and URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee meet in Wheaton, Illinois. The CCE will put the agreed-upon list of psalms to the Eighty-first (2014) General Assembly. The URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee will put forth the same psalms to Synod 2014.

Work on Hymns

If the Eighty-first (2014) General Assembly and Synod 2014 vote affirmatively on the proposed psalms list, then the work will shift to the selection of the hymns. The URCNA Psalter-Hymnal Committee presented 285 hymns to Synod 2010 for review. It has been interacting with feedback from its consistories and amending its list of hymns. The Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee has sent to the URCNA a preliminary list of hymns from Trinity Hymnal that the CCE has approved for consideration. The goal of the Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee is to add from multiple sources to the list of potential hymns in 2014 with the goal that an agreed list of hymns from the two committees would be available for review at the Eighty-second (2015) General Assembly. This will constitute a “First Reading” of those hymns, with opportunity for online feedback for the rest of the year (as with the current psalms section), with a view to seeking approval for the hymns as a package at the Eighty-third (2016) General Assembly, followed by presentation to Synod 2016 of the URCNA. If both General Assembly and Synod approve, an OPC-URCNA Psalter-Hymnal would be printed for use in the churches by the end of the 2016 calendar year.[3]


[1] Each year following 2007, the CCE has delivered to the General Assembly a detailed report of its work on the proposed Psalter-Hymnal.

[2] At the CCE’s October 2013 meeting, the Composition Subcommittee was dissolved, and Dr. and Mrs. Shafer (as musicologist and editor) were added to the Psalter-Hymnal Special Committee.

[3] It is anticipated that the OPC edition would include the Shorter and Larger Catechisms. The URCNA edition would include the Heidelberg Catechism.


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