Sing. Play. Edify.

The enduring success of the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter

Oct 19, 2017

Author note: the post below is a little outside the norm for the Grace Music blog. It’s a short research paper from several years ago, but I remember it as an enjoyable study and thought I’d share it with you, my readers. Enjoy!



Image result for sternhold and hopkins“It is a great prejudice to the New,” wrote Bishop Beveridge, “that it is new, wholly new; for whatsoever is new in religion, at the best is unnecessary.  People having been religious before, they may still be so if they will, without it [sic].”[1]  The “New” to which Beveridge was referring was the 1696 New Version of the Psalms of David by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady.  This controversial new versification of the psalms was the first successful challenger to the venerated “Old Version” of Sternhold and Hopkins, which had reigned supreme in private and corporate worship throughout England for more than 130 years.  Nearly 150 editions of Sternhold and Hopkins were published during the reign of Elizabeth, and approximately 1,000 editions in all; making the Old Version perhaps the most widely published book in the history of the English language after the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.[2]  Even with the gradual acceptance of the New Version, underscored by years of fierce protest and enough dialectical publications to fill libraries, the Old Version continued to be used throughout England.  Its universality waned only with the inexorable rise of new philosophies and literary trends of the nineteenth century, and yet editions continued to be reprinted as late as 1861.[3]  In the end, the Old Version succumbed to the same fate as the New, giving way to Hymns Ancient and Modern.

The breadth of influence that Sternhold and Hopkins exerted for nearly two centuries is mystifying in light of its literary inferiority.  Criticism of its verse began around the first decade of the seventeenth century.  George Wither published a scathing criticism of Sternhold and Hopkins in 1624, almost certainly due in part to his frustration at the suppression of his own metrical psalter.  He wrote that the psalter is “full of absurdityes, scolescisms, improprietyes, non-sence, and impertinent circumlocutions (to more than twice the length of their originalls in some places).”[4]  John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, framed his critique in satirical verse:

Sternhold and Hopkins had great qualms
When they translated David’s psalms
To make the heart full glad;
But had it been poor David’s fate
To hear thee sing, and they translate,
By God! ‘twould have made him mad.[5]

It was not only Sternhold and Hopkins that faced such scathing satire; Thomas Fuller writes of the other authors of early English metrical psalmody that “their piety was better than their poetry; and they had drank more of Jordan than of Helicon [sic].”[6]  Yet the breadth and strength of the criticism surrounding Sternhold and Hopkins reveals just how influential and entrenched this body of metrical psalms had become.  The longevity of Sternhold and Hopkins can be seen as a reflection of the religious, literary, and social climate of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England.

The metrical psalter was one of the distinguishing marks of the Reformation that swept through England and northern Europe.  D’israeli states that the history of psalm-singing is itself a key element in the formulation and growth of the Reformation, “that great religious revolution which separated forever, into two unequal divisions, the great establishment of Christianity.”[7]  The theological epiphanies of Luther and Calvin compelled their constituents to adopt a corporate worship that was vernacular, congregational, and above all, participatory – what Luther described as a “plain, simple, fair and square catechism.”[8]  Simple settings of the psalms in meter provided such an opportunity.  Smith points out that the most obvious reason for a metrical setting of the psalms is that they were, in fact, poetry.[9]  Davies explains that the great advantage of the metrical psalm was that it “provided for the people of the average parish church an easily memorized set of rhymes and tunes, thus returning to the common people the privileges snatched from them by professional choirs singing complex polyphonic motets and anthems.”[10]

Although English trends are often seen as isolated from Continental ones (or belatedly imitative), this was not the case with the Reformation.  The influence of Luther and Calvin was quickly seen in English religious thought and worship.  Miles Coverdale’s Goostly psalmes and spirituall songes of 1535 was the first English psalter to be published, clearly influenced by Luther.  However, it was suppressed in 1546 and had little resulting influence.[11]  In 1549, Robert Crowley published the first complete English psalter (and the first to include musical notation).  Crowley was an early and influential proponent of psalm-singing in the Swiss Reformed tradition, but his psalter also had little lasting impact.[12]

Thomas Sternhold was himself a product of the Reformation.  He resided in Henry’s court with the title of “Grooms of the Robes,” and it was at court that he first began setting the psalms to meter.  His peers praised his metrical settings as “fine Englysh meter” and exquisite doings.”[13]  The first printing of his psalm texts, nineteen in all, was undated; but it was dedicated to Edward VI, and thus cannot be earlier than 1547.  Sternhold’s purpose in metricizing the psalms was to replace the worldly songs of the courts with spiritual ones.  Following is an excerpt from the dedication to Edward in the preface to his first edition:

Seeing furdre that youre tender and godlye zeale doth more delyght in the holy songes of veritie than in any fayned rymes of vanitie, I am encouraged to travayle furder in the sayed boke of psalmes, trustyng that as your grace taketh pleasure to heare them song sumtimes of me, so ye wil also delight not onely to se and read them your selfe, but also to command them to be song to you of others, that as ye have the Psalme it selfe in youre mynde, so ye maye judge myne endevoure by your eare.[14]

Like Coverdale, Sternhold’s primary focus was didactic and devotional, not literary or affective.[15]  Sternhold was in a unique position of influence at court, holding close audience with a young king of deep religious convictions.  Indeed, it was undoubtedly Edward’s patronage of and enthusiasm for Sternhold’s psalter that made it so immediately popular.[16]  In light of later literary criticisms, it is worth noting that Sternhold’s psalms were first used at the royal court; their influence clearly was not limited to the common classes.[17]

Perhaps the single most notable trait of Sternhold’s settings was their meter: ballad (common or “Master Sternhold’s Metre” as it later came to be called), which Quitslund describes as “essentially a transitional form between fourteener couplets and iambic quatrains.”[18]  All except two were written in abcb form, with absolutely consistent text stress.  There is some discussion about whether Sternhold wrote in ballad meter because it was the popular metrical form, or if ballad meter was made popular because of Sternhold’s psalm settings.  Leaver asserts that the latter is likely true: Sternhold used a meter that was un-common and made it universal.[19]  Gerould argues instead that the ballad was a very common form, showing that out of a collection of 305 contemporary poems, 179 of these were in ballad meter.[20]  Whatever the case, it is certainly true that ballad meter at least had not previously been associated with private or corporate sacred songs.

The second edition of Sternhold’s psalter was published in December of 1549, four months after his death.  It contained thirty-seven psalm settings by Sternhold and seven by John Hopkins.  The psalter was taken to the continent by exiles during the Marian persecution, during which time it was continually expanded.  Whittingham produced a notable revision to the text in 1556.  The complete psalter was published by John Day in 1562, the work of twelve authors.  Forty-three of the settings are by Sternhold, fifty-six by Hopkins.[21]  The psalter was intended to function both for choirs and for congregational use, as it was set in parts but with a strong sense of melodic line that was easily followed by a congregation.  This edition was the basis for all subsequent editions until Tate and Brady published their New Version in 1696.  Later versions published by Day and others were basically just reprints, with new harmonizations and occasional peripheral additions of prose commentary, companion texts, and instructions.[22]

The Old Version had its challengers.  Rival psalters tended to fall into one of two categories: either they used the same meters and tunes as Sternhold and Hopkins (to allow for easy substitution), or they forged a new direction entirely.  The difficulty was that the Old Version, quickly entrenched in the public consciousness, was not easily unseated.  Psalters of the first category were viewed as unnecessary and inconvenient, and those of the second were viewed with suspicion.  The most notable were Archbishop Parker’s Psalter of 1567, a more refined version by George Withers in 1623, and a somewhat plainer setting by George Sandys in 1636.  None achieved any lasting influence.  The psalters of Parker and Sandys were meant primarily for private worship, and they “lacked the earthly, common tongue of Sternhold and Hopkins.”[23]  Withers’s psalter was suppressed by the London Stationers’ Company, which held a printing monopoly that was not easily broken.  Even the psalter commissioned by James I, prepared for publication with the Authorized Version of 1611, failed to gain widespread support.

The answer to why the Old Version was so dominant for two centuries is, predictably, broad and somewhat conjectural.  Probably the most easily demonstrated reason for the success of Sternhold and Hopkins is the same characteristic for which they received such scathing criticism.  Their plain, rough, and direct poetry ensured their lasting influence, for it was verse well-suited for devotion.  Sir Walter Scott himself confessed,

I am not sure whether the old-fashioned version of the Psalms does not suit the purposes of public worship better than smoother versification and greater terseness of expression.  The ornaments of poetry are not perhaps required in devotional exercises.  Nay, I do not know whether… they are altogether inconsistent with them.  The expression of the old metrical translation, though homely, is plain, forcible, and intelligible, and very often possesses a rude sort of majesty which perhaps would be ill-exchanged for more elegance.[24]

In his somewhat acerbic defense of the Old Version against the “heresy” of the New, Bishop Beveridge writes that the Old is simpler and better suited to devotion,

For, that which tickles the fancy never toucheth the heart, but flies immediately into the air from whence it came; which therefore ought to be avoided as much as is possible, in all discourses and writings of religion.  For religion is too severe a thing to be played with.[25]

Not only were the metrical psalms devotional and didactic in their purpose, but they were also sung.   As song, they took on a powerful influence that made them largely immune to literary criticism.  Watson describes this phenomenon in the context of corporate worship:

A hymn exists, not just on the page, but in sound; it functions in a private reading, but also in a church.  The building is filled with sound, made by musical instruments and human voices, and the text becomes no longer the marks on the page, but a series of sounds in the air.  It may be revisited later, and reflected upon, but it is no longer just a text, no longer writing, but something else in addition to writing.  In the sense that it exists in a book, and that book may be held in the hand and read, the hymn is there as writing; but it is only there because it is also music, sacred song, congregational praise.[26]

The Old Version was not only sung, but it was easily sung.  The tunes were quickly learned, usually spanning no more than an octave, with smooth voice leading and strong overall structure.  As is often the case with hymnody, many uninspiring texts were rescued by inspiring tunes.  The result was widespread approval.  In this sense, the veneration of Sternhold and Hopkins by the masses was not entirely random or uncultured; rather, it was based on a different set of criteria than that of literary critics.  The simplicity of the Old Version reflects the simple, rough devotion of the devout Reformers under Edward, and later under Elizabeth.  Dickinson observes:

On the whole a generation obtains the hymns it deserves.  If it is intensely in earnest about religion, it will demand austere hymns.  If it favours the grand manner in public worship, or an excessively subjective sentimentalism, its hymns will reflect the trend.  If it proclaims unity of spirit, it will insist on …properly congregational settings.[27]

Sternhold’s plain, rough translation can also be seen as a timely contribution to the English literary scene.  Present-day English verse tended to be prolix and confusing.  The Old Version sought to make its verse plain, simple, and clearly metered.  In fact, Sternhold himself actually went so far as to remove some of the figurative language of the original texts.[28]  Hosking sees the Old Version as an important linguistic force; in a time of great change, language is preserved through the common people.  The universality of the psalter, used by the equivalent of the entire English-speaking world, was such a preserver of language for more than two centuries.[29]  Its broad influence makes it not only a preserver of language, but a powerful influencing force.

Indeed, the ubiquitous presence of the Old Version cannot be overstated.  People were simply accustomed to it.  Speaking of the psalm settings, Beveridge writes, “They have got many of them by heart… They also that cannot read… can say many of them by heart.”[30]  There was undoubtedly an emotional connection, as demonstrated in an exchange between a parishioner and his minister, recorded by James Lightwood in his book Hymn Tunes and Their Story.  When asked why he did not join in singing the songs from the New Version, the parishioner is said to have replied, “David speaks so plain that we cannot mistake his meaning; but as for Mr. Tate and Brady, they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him.”[31]

Another important consideration in the longevity of Sternhold and Hopkins concerns the state of linguistics and translation in Tudor England.  It its preface, the Old Version describes itself as “conferred with the Ebrue.”  This claim is somewhat spurious, since of the twelve authors represented in it, only Whittingham was a Hebrew scholar.[32]  However, Sternhold and Hopkins’ claim to accuracy was largely unverifiable.  In Sternhold’s day, there were few original texts even available.  Sixteenth-century (and, to a lesser degree, seventeenth-century) English scholarship had almost no knowledge of biblical Hebrew.[33]

Among translators and Bible scholars, a general lack of interest in the Scriptures as a purely “literary” text allowed great freedom in paraphrasing techniques.  There were few treatises on translation in sixteenth-century England, so there was no consistency in translation and no accountability for loose translation practices.[34]  This was especially true of the psalms, which presented a unique difficulty as writers attempted to set them to meter.  There was a broad range of opinion regarding the use of paraphrase, and to what degree the original sense should be retained.  For these reasons, the veracity of the Old Version’s claims to accuracy was undisputed for nearly the entire span of its usage.

An immediately obvious reason for the longevity of Sternhold and Hopkins was its universality.  In 1559, Elizabeth issued a series of royal injunctions, which included the following direction concerning worship:

  1. Item… and that there be a modest and distinct song, so used in all parts of the Common Prayers in the Church, that the same may be as plainly understanded, as if it were read without singing. And yet, nevertheless, for the comforting of such as delight in music, it may be permitted, that in the beginning, or in the end of Common Prayers, either at morning or evening, there may be sung an hymn, or suchlike song, to the praise of Almighty God, in the best sort of melody and music that may be conveniently devised, having respect that the sentence of the hymn may be understanded and perceived.[35]

This was one in a series of religious injunctions that led to a rise of psalm-singing in the service.  Leaver states that, through these injunctions, “metrical psalmody was officially recognized and given a place within the vernacular worship of the English church.”[36]  By the 1560’s, psalm-singing in church was widespread.  The Old Version was frequently bound together with the Book of Common Prayer, ensuring its broad influence.[37]  An addition to the title of the 1574 edition shows the versatility that the Old Version was beginning to enjoy: “Set forth and allowed to be song in all Churches, of all the people together before and after Morning and Evening prayer: as also before and after Sermons.”[38]  Psalms quickly dominated everyday life: church, family, personal devotions, allusions in plays and theater, and records in diaries.[39]  Metcalfe states that, initially, the primary purpose of the psalters was social; they were intended to replace worldly ballads with sacred devotion, especially in the home.[40]  The title of the 1562 version states that the psalms were to be sung “in private Houses, for their godly Solace and comfort: laying apart all ungodly Songs and Ballads, which tend only to the nourishing of Vice, and corrupting of youth.”[41]  Through their everyday function, the psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins soon became an inseparable part of the fabric of society.  It is also important to point out that it was not only those of Puritan leaning that used the psalter, but also Royalists and other high-church groups.[42]

The final, and perhaps least illustrious, reason for the long life of Sternhold and Hopkins was the monopoly enjoyed by its printers.  John Day printed the 1562 version, and his patent (later passed onto his son Richard) was eventually bought by the London Stationer’s Company.  They exerted a great deal of power and influence in the printing world and succeeded in suppressing many rival psalters of the seventeenth century, most notably the Withers Psalter of 1623.  It was only the passage of important legislation in 1641 that finally weakened the Stationer’s royal patent.[43]  It is evidence of the Stationer’s declining influence that they agreed to publish the New Version jointly with its authors.  John Playford’s influence as an author and printer was also important in sustaining the popularity of the Old Version though the last quarter of the seventeenth century.[44]

The eventual success of Tate and Brady was partly due to the undercurrent of literary reform that swept through England in the second half of the seventeenth century.  This reform was partially motivated by a resolution passed by the Royal Society in 1664 which sought to pursue a wholesale improvement of the English language:

They [the Royal Society] have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution, the only remedy, that can be found for this extravagance: and that has been, a constant Resolution, to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivere’d so many things, almost in an equal number of words.[45]

Despite such changing times and attitudes toward language, the Old Version continued to prevail throughout England until the second half of the nineteenth century.  Its ultimate demise came only with the decline of psalm singing, and the publication in 1861 of Hymns Ancient and Modern.  By the time of its final printing in 1861, one year short of its tercentennial, the Old Version had finally passed from common use.



[1] William Beveridge, A Defense of the Book of Psalms, Collected into English Metre, by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others.  With critical observations on the late New Version with the Old (London: R. Smith, 1710).

[2] Beth Quitslund, The Reformation in Rhyme: Sternhold, Hopkins, and the English Metrical Psalter, 1547-1603 (Ashgate: Burlington, VT, 2008), 1.  New Grove states that the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter underwent no fewer than 452 editions.

[3] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, s.v. “Psalms, metrical.”

[4] George Wither, The Schollars Purgatory (London, 1624; facs. ed. Amsterdam, 1977), p. 37.

[5] Hannibal Hamlin, Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 22.

[6] Thomas Fuller, The church-history of Britain (London, 1655), p. 406.

[7] Isaac D’israeli, “Psalm Singing,” from A Second Series of Curiosities of Literature (London: J. Murray, 1823), I. p. 195.

[8] Robin A. Leaver, “Goostly psalmes and spirituall songes”: English and Dutch Metrical Psalms from Coverdale to Utenhove, 1535-1566 (Oxford University Press, 1991), 10.

[9] Hallett Smith, “English Metrical Psalms in the Sixteenth Century and Their Literary Significance,” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1946), 252.

[10] Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England, From Cranmer to Hooker, 1534-1603 (Princeton: University Press, 1970), p. 389.

[11] Leaver, Goostly Psalmes, 84.

[12] Hamlin, Psalm Culture, 24.

[13] Quitslund, The Reformation, 22.

[14] Thomas Sternhold, from the preface to Certayn Psalmes, [1547].

[15] Quitslund, The Reformation, 29.

[16] Leaver, Goostly Psalmes, 120.

[17] Hamlin, Psalm Culture, 25.

[18] Quitslund, The Reformation, 23.

[19] Leaver, Goostly Psalmes, 119.

[20] G. H. Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (Oxford, 1932), p. 126.

[21] Herbert Byard, “A Sternhold and Hopkins Puzzle,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Apr. 1970), 226.

[22] Leaver, Goostly Psalmes, 255.

[23] Byard, “Sternhold and Hopkins,” 227.

[24] Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody (Oxford: University Press, 1949), p. 213-14.

[25] Richard F. Hosking, ”Bishop Beveridge on the Metrical Psalms,” in Perspectives on Language and Text: Essayes and Poems in Honor of Francis I. Andersen’s Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Edgar W. Conrad and Edward G. Newing (Eisenbrauns, 1987), 92.

[26] J. R. Watson, The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study (Oxford: University Press, 1997), p. 96.

[27] A. E. F. Dickinson, “Some Thoughts about ‘The English Hymnal,’” The Musical Times, Vol. 97, No. 1359 (May, 1956), 243.

[28] Smith, “English Metrical Psalms,” 265.

[29] Hosking, “Bishop Beveridge,” 92.

[30] Ibid., 94.

[31] James T. Lightwood, Hymn Tunes and Their Story (1904, reprinted Moran Press, 2008), 120.

[32] Hamlin, Psalm Culture, 42.

[33] Ibid., 6.

[34] Ibid., 8.

[35] W.H. Frere and W. M. Kennedy (eds.), Visitation Articles and Injunctions of the Period of the Reformation (3 vols: Alcuin Club Collections, 14-16: London, 1910), iii: 23.

[36] Leaver, Goostly Psalmes, 240.

[37] Hosking, “Bishop Beveridge,” 90.

[38] Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Collected into Englysh Metre (John Day: 1574).

[39] Hamlin, Psalm Culture, 6.

[40] J. Powell Metcalfe, “The Music of the Church of England, as Contemplated by the Reformers,” The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, Vol. 12, No, 274 (Dec. 1, 1865), 178.

[41] Sternhold and Hopkins, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Collected into Englysh Metre (John Day: 1562).

[42] Hamlin, Psalm Culture, 32.

[43] Ibid., 42.

[44] Byard, “Sternhold and Hopkins,” 227.

[45] Watson, The English Hymn, 98.