Book of Praise


During the Reformation in the 16th century music in the church took a new direction. John Calvin's Genevan Psalter has been sung by the church ever since.

John Calvin's Legacy

We, and many others use it frequently and John Calvin left it us. No, it’s not his Institution of Christian Religion. Not his letters or his sermons either. It is the Genevan Psalter. Every time when you take your Book of Praise on Sunday morning, you are reminded of the legacy of the Reformer.

Would there be one of Calvin’s projects that took as long as the Genevan Psalter? Of course, his Institution of Christian Religion took 23 years – this started in 1536 and became his magnum opus in 1559. The Genevan Psalter project started also in 1536, but… this was finished three years after the completion of the Institution of Christian Religion.

When we consider the degree of influence, the Genevan Psalter is comparable to the Institution of Christian Religion. In the 16th and 17th centuries these Psalms spread out across France, England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands. At the end of the previous century a Japanese translation became available, and this year a complete translation was beautifully published by the Reformed Church of Korea.

The psalms were also used: in the church and in the arts; at the dining table and behind closed doors. And of course not just in the French language anymore. And the rhythm had to give way to the isometric version (in the Netherlands and some places in North America). But the melodic character of the Genevan Tunes remained and they could be recognized always.

It all goes back to Geneva in the 16th century.
It all goes back to John Calvin.


It all starts in 1536. John Calvin arrives in Geneva. In October of that year all pastors in the (protestant) city receive a request from city hall about how the church should be organized. Already in November the pastors reply with a number of proposals regarding the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, teaching, marriage forms, and… psalm singing. Remember the congregations in Geneva do not sing yet at that time.

Whether Calvin was the author of these proposals cannot be confirmed. We know that they were written in his characteristic style.

The thought behind singing is obvious: singing together “contributes strongly to the edification of the church”. The way it happens right now we have to be ashamed of, write the pastors. “The Psalms can stimulate us to call on the name of the Lord with zeal, as well as to glorify Him with fervor through the songs of praise.”

And how the congregation should be taught singing, has also been considered by the pastors. Children and young people can learn the songs and sing them in church while the congregation listens and follows in their hearts what is being sung. Once people know the songs they will start singing along.

This was a beautiful and realistic proposal. Regretfully, the city council only discusses the proposals in 1537 and decides to delay the decision about the proposal regarding singing Psalms indefinitely.


Shortly thereafter Calvin and Farel are expelled from Geneva. Calvin ends up in Strasburg serving as pastor of a French refugee congregation.

Here Calvin continues the work he started in Genevan. Within a few weeks after his arrival, the French congregation is singing, in their own language.

In order to do this, Calvin publishes a songbook: “Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant”. It is published in 1539 and it contains 19 Psalms and three ”Cantiques”: a rhyming of the 10 Commandments, the Song of Simeon, and the Apostolic Creed.

How does Calvin get these songs together? He uses thirteen French Psalms that are already going around in Strasburg and of which he does not know the author (he found out later that these were composed by the poet Clément Marot). The other songs he wrote himself.

This songbook is used as soon as it is available, with the assistance of children. Requests from other cities for this songbook, and the booklet is distributed throughout the regions and abroad.


In September 1541 Calvin returns to Geneva. He continues where he left of, which includes the singing in the church. Remember: it is still quiet during the church service.

In 1542 he publishes a songbook with 35 Psalms and four hymns. Five Psalms and two hymns are by Calvin and the rest is by Marot. In November Marot travels to Geneva as well.

Already within a year Calvin publishes a larger edition of the songbook. Apparently he has realized that his talents for poetry and rhyming were limited because this edition only contains rhymings by Marot: 49 Psalms, the Song of Simeon (considered a psalm) and three Hymns.

Calvin also writes an extensive preface in this edition. Singing, he writes, is praying. And praying requires fitting and sacred songs.  “And even Paul speaks not only of praying by mouth: but also of singing. And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.” That is why fitting and sacred songs are needed. Where would you find those? “When we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him”, Calvin writes. Regarding the tune, it should be “neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty.”

Calvin’s vision for the singing of the church will have vast influence in France, but also in the Netherlands, where Calvin’s preface to the Psalms was often included in the Dutch Psalters. The Calvinistic tradition becomes are characteristic psalm-singing tradition.

Half a year

After 1543 the development of the psalms is shortly put on hold. Then Théodore de Bèze arrives in Geneva. Calvin convinces him to continue with the psalm project. That results in the publication of a revised edition of the Psalm book in 1551. It contains 83 psalms of which 48 are by de Bèze.

After this there is a short break again. Only in 1561 de Bèze can dedicate time again. This time it is within a year that the next edition is published. All 150 psalms are included as well as two hymns (Song of Simeon and the Ten Commandments).

In this 1562 publication a schedule is included. In every worship service 30 stanzas should be sung. Ever week there are three worship services: two on Sunday and one on Wednesday. This means that all 150 psalms would be sung completely in half a year. (In Langley we sung only 25 stanza’s on Christmas day, which was more than the 15-18 stanzas we usually sing J)


The Genevan Psalter turns out to become of monumental value in church and cultural history. And it is unique. Many reformers of the 16th century provide their congregations with a prayer book that often included also a few of the Genevan Psalms. The congregations of Calvin however had the complete Psalter.

John Calvin –he dies in 1564– has witnessed the completion of this major project at the end of his life. And how “his” Psalter starts to spread out, being used in many congregations in many countries. What he envisioned in 1536 was blessed by the Lord: countless congregations sing the psalms, and all psalms.

Psaume 42 Theodorus Beza, 1562

1. Ainsi qu’on oit le cerf bruire,
Pourchassant le frais des eaux,
Ainsi mon coeur qui souspire,
Seigneur, apres tes ruisseaux,
Va tousjours criant, suyvant
Le grand, le grand Dieu vivant.
Helas donques, quand sera-ce
Que verray de Dieu la face?

5. Tous les grans flots de ton onde
Par dessus moy ont passé:
Mais sur un poinct je me fonde,
Que n’estant plus courroucé,
De jour tes biens m’envoiras,
De nuict chanter me feras,
Priant d’une ame ravie,
Toy seul autheur de ma vie.