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The First Hymn-Book of Reformation Scotland

Editor’s note:  This little-known article was first published by B.B. Warfield on May 17, 1905, in The Presbyterian (Vol. 75, No.20) and has never been re-published. Providing some insight into an often-overlooked chapter of Reformation history, we provide it here for Credo readers, just as originally published, as part of our October commemoration of the Reformation.  ~ Fred G. Zaspel

In his account of the martyrdom of George Wishart, John Knox tells us that on the night on which he was taken by his enemies, as he was about to retire, after edifying converse — “‘Thairwith,’ ” he said, ‘Will we sing a Psalme?’ And so he appointed the 51st Psalme, which was put in Scotishe meter, and began thus —

‘Have mercy on me now, good Lord,

After thy great mercy, etc.’”

From this it appears that already in 1546 the singing of psalms in the vernacular was a customary solace of those of the new religion in Scotland. And this implies the wide circulation among them of vernacular versions of Psalms, either in broad-sheets or in volume form. Perhaps this is the earliest notice which implies so much as this, although corroborative testimony treads close upon its heels.

First Scottish Psalm and Hymn Book

The Psalm which Wishart “appointed” to be sung on this affecting occasion actually occurs in what we may call the first Scottish Psalm and Hymn Book — the “Psalms and Spiritual Songs” of John Wedderburn, which in its most rudimentary state may well have been in book form by this time. But in the shape in which it has come down to us the lines adduced by Knox open the second, not the first stanza. The piece extends to no less than forty verses. The following partially modernized transcript of four of these will probably give a sufficiently clear idea of its quality:

“Have mercy on me, God of might,

Of mercy Lord and King

For Thy mercy is set full right

Above all earthly thing.

Therefore I cry both day and night,

And with my heart shall sing:

To Thy mercy with Thee will I go.


Have mercy on me, O good Lord,

After Thy great mercy.

My sinful life does me remord,

Which sore has grieved Thee:

But Thy great grace has me restored,

Through Christ, to liberty:

To Thy mercy with Thee will I go.


Only ’gainst Thee did I offence

And evil much have done:

For which, most obviously, defence

To me is none abone;

Thus men will judge Thy just vengeance

Has put me from my throne:

Yet to Thy mercy with Thee will I go.


Behold Thou lovest Truth, good Lord,

Thou art the verity.

This well thy promise can record

Where Thou does show to me,

The hid things of Thy godly word

That were unsure to me.

To Thy mercy with Thee will I go.”

The versification, it will be observed, is rather notable for its rather elaborate scheme of rhymes — three lines rhyming together throughout; and for the refrain which accompanies each stanza. In both matters, however, it is surpassed by another old Scottish version of the same Psalm of similar or perhaps even superior age. The corresponding stanzas of this fine piece, somewhat modernized, run as follows:

“Lord God, deliver me, alas!

Sore mourning, groveling on my face

For thy great mercy, ruth, and grace

Pity my misery!

Hear for the multitude and space

Of Thy high clemency, my case,

And my trespass expell and chace, —

Lord God, deliver me!


Wash me and make my soul serene

From all iniquity that been;

Cleanse me of crime and make me clean,

All vices for to flee:

For my transgression have I seen

Which torments me with Tray and teen,

And aye my sin’s before my e’en:

Lord God, deliver me!


’Gainst none but Thee did I offend;

Thou only canst my sin amend:

In Thy blessed Word Thou art well kenned

To all sin contrary:

In filth, lo! I begin and end,

With sin maternal hither tend

With vice I vanish and must wend, —

Lord God, deliver me!


Thou hast for truth so great a zeal,

That of Thy love, Thou didst reveal

Uncertain hid things for my weal

And laid before my e’e.

For when Thy force of grace I feel

I shall be cleansed as clean as steel, —

And whiter than snow, great deal, —

Lord God, deliver me!”

One fancies that out of either of these earlier versions there could have been framed a more moving hymn of contrition and surrender than seventeenth century Scotland succeeded in making out of the English version of Francis Rouse, which as revised by the General Assembly has supplied the Scottish churches with its “allowed” version of the Fifty-first Psalm for the last two hundred and fifty years:

“After Thy loving-kindness, Lord,

have mercy upon me:

For Thy compassions great, blot out

all mine iniquity.

Me cleanse from sin, and thoroughly wash

from mine iniquity:

For my transgressions I confess,

My sin forever see.


’Gainst Thee, Thee only, have I sinned,

in Thy sight done this ill;

That when Thou speak’st Thou might be just,

and clear in judging still.

Behold, I in iniquity

was formed the womb within;

My mother also me conceived

in guiltiness and sin.


Behold, Thou in the inward parts

with truth delighted art;

And wisdom Thou shalt make me know

within the hidden part.

Do Thou with hyssop sprinkle me,

I shall be cleansed so;

Yea, wash me Thou, and then I shall

be whiter than the snow.”

Inspiration from German Protestant hymnology

To return, however, to the earliest Psalm and Hymn Book of the Reformation in Scotland. It by no means consisted solely of versions of the Psalms. By their side are to be found also a very considerable number of hymns. They were largely inspired by German Protestant hymnology; and indeed a number of the Psalms owe something also to the contemporary German versions. There are also a number of satirical songs, which being set to popular tunes and indeed, in many cases, being themselves little more than parodies of popular secular songs, supplied in the mouth of the Protestant singer, a sharp and effective scourge to the corruptions and abuses of the Romish Church. A very good example of these satirical songs is that stirring ballad beginning:

“The Pope, that pagan full of pride,

He has us blinded long,

For when the blind the blind doth guide

No wonder both go wrong;

Like prince and king he led the reign

Of all iniquity:

Hay trix, tryme go trix, under the greenwood tree.”

It is, however, in the properly so-called Psalms and hymns that the collection attains its height of value. It is even probably that the satirical pieces were no part of it in its first form. The distinctively spiritual pieces are naturally of varied merit; but they were on the whole a noble collection of sacred songs, and those that seem wholly original with Wedderburn do not yield in excellence to those, which he has adapted from Continental originals. There is no Psalm in the earlier collection, for example, that is more nobly conceived and expressed than the 81st — for which no Continental original has been discovered. It opens thus:

“Who on the Highest will depend

And in His secret help will trust,

Almighty God will him defend

And guide him with His Holy Ghost.”

The following verses are (with some slight alterations) taken from one of the original hymns. This hymn is all the more characteristic of the alteration because it is a parody of a secular song. By an odd chance, moreover, the secular song has itself come down to us, and we are enabled to observe the precise method by which it has been turned into the hymn:

“Welcome , Lord Christ, welcome again

My joy, my comfort and my bliss,

That could me save from hell’s dire pain

But only Thou, non was nor is.


Therefore I may right boldly say,

If Christ, He who has me redrest,

Be on my side, — He who did pay

My ransom — none can me molest.


O Christ, who now has made me one

With God the Father, and didst die

To make me just, to heaven Thou’rt gone,

And reigneth evermore on high.


My part is then from sin to cease

And cleave to Christ, who has supprest

Sin, death and hell, and made my peace

Through faith in Him that I might rest.”

Luther’s Christmas hymn

As a specimen of the translations we select a well-known Christmas hymn of Luther’s, an English version of which, by Miss Winckworth, is to be found in the “Church Hymnary.” As in the former cases, we have allowed ourselves considerable freedom in modernizing it:

“From heaven high I come to tell

The gladdest news that e’er befell,

To you these tidings true I bring

And I will of them say and sing.


This day to you is born a child

Of Mary meek and virgin mild;

That blessed child, benign and kind,

Shall you rejoice, both heart and mind.


It is the Lord Christ, God and man,

He will do for you what He can:

Himself your Savior will He be,

From sin and hell to make you free.


Let us rejoice and be blithe

And with the shepherds go full swithe,

And see what God in grace has done

Through Christ to bring us to his throne.


My soul and life stand up and see

Who lieth in a crib for thee.

What babe is that so good and faire?

It is the Christ, God’s Son and Heir.


O God that madest all creature,

How art Thou now become so poor

As on the hay and straw to lie

Among the asses and the kye?


O were the world ten times as wide,

And strewn with gold and stones of pride

Unworthy it, compared to Thee

Under Thy feet a stool to be.


O my dear heart, young Jesus sweet,

Prepare Thy cradle in my spirit;

And I shall rock Thee in my heart,

And never more from Thee depart.


Praise be to God eternally

Who gave His only Son for me:

O World, the joyful tidings hear, —

The gracious gift of this New Year!”

Book of Geneva and the old Wedderburn book

Such was the first Psalm and Hymn Book of the Scottish Reformation. Meanwhile there was a Psalm Book preparing in Geneva and from 1561 this “Book of Geneva” became the “allowed” “Psalm Book” of the Church of Scotland. But the old Wedderburn book still retained its hold on the hearts of many, and editions of it were still printing almost up to the time when the “Geneval Psalter” itself was supplanted in the middle of the seventeenth century by the Assembly’s revision of the version of Francis Rouse.

Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary  and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.

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