Singing Psalms in Baptist Worship

by Justin Wainscott

I am thankful, as many Center for Baptist Renewal readers probably are, for the growing movements of worship renewal that are taking place in Baptist churches today (the increased attention given to the public reading of Scripture, the renewed significance placed on congregational singing, more frequent and meaningful celebration of the Lord’s Supper, public prayers of confession, the usage of creeds and covenants, adapted forms of the church calendar, etc.). But one area of renewal that we still seem to be overlooking and neglecting is the practice of psalm singing in worship. Most Christian traditions sing the psalms, and most Baptists did too up until the last century. However, very few Baptist churches these days sing the psalms in their worship.

Sure, we may read the psalms or pray the psalms or even preach from the psalms. But sing them? Such a thought hasn’t even crossed some of our minds. If we’re honest, some of us didn’t realize the psalms were meant to be sung. So if such a practice sounds strange to you or you’re not sure how to begin, then keep reading.

My aim in this article is to suggest that one aspect of worship renewal still needing to take place among Baptists is recovering the practice of psalm singing. But why? And how? I want to offer three reasons why recovering the practice of psalm singing is worthwhile. And I also want to help you realize that singing the psalms is easier than you might imagine. Let’s begin with why the effort to recover this practice is worth your time and energy.

1. It Is Biblical

First, recovering the practice of psalm singing in worship is worthwhile because it’s biblical. The psalms themselves demand to be sung. That’s one of the reasons they were collected, and that’s how they were intended to be used. Many of the psalms are clearly directed to “the choirmaster” or to “the chief musician,” indicating that their purpose is to be sung. Others make clear by their language and context that they are to be sung corporately in public worship. Not to mention, we have instances in Old Testament narratives of God’s people actually singing the psalms (see 1 Chronicles 16:4-36 or Ezra 3:10-11). When we come to the New Testament, we have examples of Jesus and the apostles singing, and most likely, what they are singing is the psalms (Matthew 26:30; Acts 16:25). In James 5:13, James writes, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” The word for praise there is psallo (let him sing “a psalm”). Then there is the parallel command in both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…” So both implicitly and explicitly, the Bible itself gives us reason to sing the psalms. If we Baptists are truly a people of the Book, and if we want our worship to be shaped by the Book, then one of the best ways for that to happen is to sing the inspired songs included in the Book. That’s not all we have to sing, but it should at least be some of what we sing.            

2. It Is Historical

Second, recovering the practice of psalm singing in worship is worthwhile because it has good historical precedent. We know that the early church followed the pattern of the Jewish synagogue in singing the psalms, and that pattern continued for many centuries. We also know that the psalms were very important to the church during the Reformation. And we know that psalm singing was basic to the worship of the early Baptists, both in England and in America. In their comprehensive survey of the history of Baptist congregational singing in North America, David Music and Paul Richardson state, “During the period when Baptist churches were first organized in the New World, the congregational repertory of most English-speaking churches followed…the pattern of exclusive metrical psalmody. Metrical psalmody – the biblical psalms versified into English hymnic meter and rhyme – was generally considered to be the only material worthy of singing by the churches, since it was given by God himself.

Furthermore, it was a way to put the word of God into the minds, hearts, and mouths of the people.”[1] In fact, Music and Richardson go so far as to say, “It may be taken as a matter of course that when early Baptist churches in America sang at all, they probably used a metrical psalm...”[2] So even though we today may find psalm singing to be unfamiliar and maybe even strange, most generations of God’s people prior to our own would find it very strange that we don’t regularly sing the psalms. Believe it or not, we are actually the historical exception in this scenario, even among Baptists.

3. It Is Practical

Third, recovering the practice of psalm singing in worship is worthwhile because it has a number of practical, spiritual benefits. It aids us in our prayers and praise, infusing them with biblical language and imagery. It helps us give voice to the full range of our emotions (depression, rejection, sorrow, lamentation, joy, celebration, etc.), filling in the gaps that are often missing in many of our hymns and worship songs. It helps us better memorize the Word of God, causing it to sink deep into our hearts and minds in a way that reading alone cannot do. In addition, it helps shape and form the way we think, pray, and live – individually and as congregations. So, for biblical reasons, for historical reasons, and for practical reasons, we ought to sing the psalms.

And singing the psalms is easier than you might think. In fact, you probably already do it without even realizing it. For instance, if you sing “Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come,” you are singing Psalm 98. If you sing “All People That on Earth Do Dwell,” you are singing Psalm 100. So it’s actually not as foreign a practice as you might think.

But even if you have to start from scratch, there is a fairly simple method you can use.[3] Let’s consider a metrical version of Psalm 23. What I mean by “metrical version” is that someone has poetically arranged or phrased the psalm in a meter that can be easily sung. One of the most common metrical versions of Psalm 23 is the one taken from the Scottish Psalter of 1650 (“The Songs of David in Meter”). The Scottish Psalter actually has all 150 Psalms arranged in meter. Of course, the language is the language of 1650, so it is a bit archaic in places. And some of its poetic arrangements are better than others, but it is a helpful place to begin.[4] Plus, the entire psalter can be accessed online for free here.

Singing a Psalm

Below are the first three stanzas of the Scottish Psalter’s version of Psalm 23 (which correspond to Psalm 23:1-4). I want to use them as an illustration of how easy singing the psalms can be. Try singing them to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.

He makes me down to lie

In pastures green: He leadeth me

The quiet waters by.


My soul He doth restore again;

And me to walk doth make

Within the paths of righteousness

E’en for His own name’s sake.


Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,

yet will I fear none ill:

For Thou art with me; and Thy rod

and staff me comfort still.        

See how easy that was? Now, you can do that with every psalm in the Scottish Psalter. Of course, you can choose other tunes as well that fit that meter (known as Common Meter), such as the tunes to “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,” or “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” But the point is, singing the psalms is much easier than you might have thought at first. There are a number of ways to do so, but this is one way that nearly everyone can practice. Singing psalms in this way already provides you with a metered version (from the Scottish Psalter) of whatever psalm you choose to sing, and it allows you the freedom to choose a familiar Common Meter tune that you already know how to sing. It doesn’t get much easier than that.     

The psalms have been a staple in the spiritual diet that has fed God’s people for millennia. To neglect them is to leave ourselves undernourished and to stunt our spiritual growth. So by all means, let us read the psalms. Let us pray the psalms. But let us also sing the psalms. For that too is a part of our Baptist heritage, a part that I believe is worth retrieving and recovering.               


[1] David Music and Paul Richardson, I Will Sing the Wondrous Story: A History of Baptist Hymnody in North America (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2008), 80.

[2] Ibid., 81.

[3] For a similar but more thorough discussion of this method, see James Grant’s helpful chapter, “How I Introduced Psalm Singing to My Church…without Getting Fired!” in Richard Wells and Ray Van Neste, eds., Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 91-107.

[4] If you prefer something with more updated language (and in an actual book form), then I recommend either the Trinity Psalter or Psalms for All Seasons.