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  • Beth Lantinga

Why the Genevan Psalter?

The Genevan Psalms for the 21st century?

By the time I had worshipped in other Hungarian Reformed churches, I recognized many of the Genevan Psalms. I could even sing along once in a while. Again, I was struck by their fervor and the deep emotion their singing revealed. In Ukraine it was clear that many were living on the edge of poverty, yet their singing reflected a steadfast faith in spite of their circumstances. Though I had heard only bits and snatches of their stories, I wondered what was behind their fervent psalm singing of lament, longing, and faith.

In retrospect, it wasn’t strange that I felt drawn to the Genevan Psalter. According to my mom, our California grandfather loved the Genevan Psalms. I can only remember one visit with him when I was about five years old, but it was a good one. Always an early bird, I was one of the first kids awake. I remember sitting at a small table on the porch drinking sweet milky coffee with him. When I was older, I wanted to please him when Mom asked us to learn one of the Psalms in Dutch. My attempt was pretty short-lived, and I can’t say that my failure haunted me. But I did think about him when I heard the Psalms sung in Hungarian. His life as a destitute immigrant was hard, and an assault on one of his children a few years later uprooted their family. It’s no wonder the psalms were precious to him.

An assault in 2001 brought the Psalms into sharp focus for me. One fall morning when it was still dark my husband and I were taking our usual early morning walk. As we rounded the corner on the homestretch, we hardly noticed a bicycle rider until he was on top of us – literally. We never figured out what he wanted and didn’t really have time to ask, because in a flash he jumped off his bike and grabbed me around the throat. Neither of us saw the blade in his hand. My husband reacted immediately. In the resulting melee, my face was slashed and he ended up hospitalized with stab wounds. When neighbors heard the ruckus and came outside, the attacker jumped on his bike and escaped.

It wasn’t long before the physical wounds healed but frightening dreams continued for me. One of my strategies for putting the event in perspective and getting on with life was to consciously remember that others had suffered far more. When I compared my stitches to the suffering of the brave souls I had met in Ukraine, my trauma lost some of its impact. And I remembered the Psalm singing in Hungarian Reformed Churches. Because I had heard brief mention of survivor stories, the idea of collecting the memories of Hungarian Reformed psalm singers slowly took shape. Eventually the project earned support from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Ars Longa Foundation.

I called it the Psalm Project. We launched the interview effort in June of 2003. After we collected the stories, I continued to work with the Ars Longa Foundation for a few more years. During that time, I worked intermittently to edit the translations. And then when my direct involvement with Ars Longa ended, I began to look more carefully into the history surrounding communist domination of East Central Europe. That proved to be disturbing – but more of that in another post.

More About the Genevan Psalter

For all you enthusiastic, reluctant, or non-Calvinists, here’s a brief introduction to the Genevan Psalter from Encyclopedia Britannica.

Genevan Psalter, hymnal initiated in 1539 by the French Protestant reformer and theologian, John Calvin, and published in a complete edition in 1562. The 150 biblical psalms were translated into French by Clement Marot and Theodore Beza and set to music by Loys Bourgeois, Claude Goudimel, and others. With the pubication of this psalter in French, Calvin intended to return singing to the congregation rather than to rely upon the trained singers of a choir. The Genevan Psalter was soon translated into the Dutch language, and, though it had less influence on the English church, its importance to the hymnody of reformed churches throughout the world cannot be exaggerated.”

The Genevan Psalter was translated into Hungarian in 1607 by Albert Szenczi Molnar. To get a better sense of the Hungarian Psalter, I visited the Reformed library in the city of Debrecen. There, the librarian, Dr. Csaba Fekete, did more than show me old, old manuscripts; he let me hold a book of maps from the 13th century. Even more wonderful was the collection of Genevan hymnbooks from the Hungarian Reformed Church.


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