My Songs Extol Thy Name: Thomas Sternhold and English Psalmody

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Thomas Sternhold is the founder of English psalmody and the inventor of the metrical form at the base of English hymnody. Little known except in histories of church music, Sternhold’s contribution is now better understood, thanks to the pioneering work of scholar Beth Quitslund.

Sternhold is commemorated on August 23, or at least he would be if he were on the church calendar. Consider this article an argument for his addition, both to rekindle a leading light in our Anglican patrimony and also to elevate the psalms in congregational singing.

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Singing the psalms, we join David in the praise of God, as in Sternhold’s translation of Psalm 9:2:

I will be glad and much rejoice
in thee, O God most high,
And make my songs extol thy name
above the starry sky.

In the Court of Henry VIII

Thomas Sternhold was a courtier to Henry VIII, whose name first appears in court documents from 1538. Though Sternhold likely said little on theology, he was briefly imprisoned in 1543 during the failed attempt to topple Thomas Cranmer, which suggests he was associated with the reforming party at court. Evidently, Sternhold became a favorite of the king, for Henry named Sternhold in his will and left him funds when he died in 1547.

We know little about Sternhold’s literary or musical training. Though he may have enrolled at Oxford, he never earned a degree. As a courtier, however, Sternhold would have regular experience of court entertainment, including poetry, music, and poetry set to music. Henry VIII was notorious not only for loving women but also for loving music, and we still have a songbook from his court, including songs he wrote himself.

Certain Psalmes for Edward VI

In 1548, just months after Henry VIII’s death, Sternhold published Certain Psalmes, a volume of 19 psalms translated into English meter. Sternhold dedicated these translations to King Edward VI, commending them to the king who “with Godly zeal doth more delight in the holy songs of verity than in the feigned rhymes of vanity.” While the topics of these psalms are various, Sternhold disproportionately selects psalms that include specific instruction to earthly rulers, notably Psalms 2, 20, 29, 78.

Consider, for example, Sternhold’s rendering of Psalm 2:10:

Now ye O kings and rulers all
be wise therefore and learn’d,
By whom the matters of the world
be judged and discerned.

Or Psalm 29:1:

Give to the Lord ye potentates
and princes of the world.
Ye rams that guide the Christian flock,
give laud unto the Lord.

Sternhold’s translations were notable not only because they were in English but particularly because they were in a meter designed to be sung. In his introduction, Sternhold suggests that he was already in the practice of singing these psalms to the King, and he suggests that Edward should “command them to be sung to you of others.”

Sternhold’s Meter

Sternhold organized his psalms in stanzas with a unified pattern of rhythm and rhyme, 8-6-8-6 in abcb. This differed from the Latin chant of the monasteries, drawing instead on his experience of court music and popular ballad. In time this became known as “Sternhold’s Meter.”

In the court, there were songs in long meter: stanzas of four lines with eight syllables each (8-8-8-8). There were also songs in short meter: stanzas of four lines with six syllables each (6-6-6-6). Sternhold split the difference and created an original form: stanzas of four lines, with eight syllables in the first and third lines and six in the second and fourth lines (8-6-8-6). The second and fourth lines would also rhyme, such that the rhyming pattern was abcb.

By way of example, here is Sternhold’s rendition of Psalm 19:7:

So perfect is the law of God,
his testimony sure
Converting souls and maketh wise
the simple and obscure

Congregational Psalmody

“Sternhold’s Meter” worked brilliantly for congregational psalmody for two reasons. First, the parallel structure of the stanza, with its repeated 8-6 and rhyming second and fourth lines, provided a good fit for the parallelism in Hebrew poetry and captured its frequent didacticism. Second, it offered a simple and unified rhythm and rhyme that was easy for congregations to learn and match to various tunes. With the growing popularity of Sternhold’s psalms, composers quickly went to work creating tunes in the new meter.

Because metrical psalms were not an official part of the BCP liturgy, congregations that sang them often placed them at the beginning and the end of the service, like our processional and recessional hymns. Some of Sternhold’s psalms were also adapted for special occasions, such as his rendition of Psalm 128, which was sung at weddings:

Blessed art thou that fearest God
and walkest in his way,
For of thy labour thou shalt eat:
happy art thou, I say.

Like fruitful vines on the house sides,
so doth thy wife spring out;
Thy children stand like olive buds
thy table round about.

Thus art thous blest that fearest God,
and he shall let thee see
The promised Jerusalem
and his felicity.

Thou shalt thy children’s children see,
to thy great joy’s increase,
Full quietly in Israel,
to pass their time in peace.

Marian Exile: Singing Psalms in a Strange Land

In 1549, Sternhold published a second edition with 45 psalms, eight of which were contributed by John Hopkins. Though Sternhold died later that year, a group of successors worked to create a complete psalter in Sternhold’s form. Ironically, the death of King Edward and the rise of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary was the most significant factor in completing the work.

As Queen Mary worked to revert England to Roman Catholicism, burning Books of Common Prayer with the reformers who had produced it, it was no longer possible to sing Sternhold’s psalms in England. And so Sternhold’s psalms became incredibly precious to the communities of English exiles abroad. William Whittingham was a leader in the continued development of the psalter. Here is his translation of Psalm 137:4:

“Alas,” said we, “who can once frame
his sorrowful heart to sing
The praises of our loving God,
thus under a strange king?”

Thus in Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Wesel, and especially Geneva, the English exiles sang and extended the psalter in Sternhold’s style. Along the way, they picked up the influence of French music and the Geneva psalter, adapting both to Sternhold’s distinctive meter.

The Whole Booke of Psalmes

Once Mary died and Elizabeth came to the throne, many of the exiles returned to England. After a few years of continuing creative ferment, John Day published The Whole Booke of Psalms in 1562. Attributed to Sternhold and Hopkins, it incorporated the work of more than a dozen authors and an untold number of composers.

This complete metrical psalter quickly swept through England and became the musical expression of the Elizabeth Settlement. Adopted in nearly every parish church and used in homes, it became the most published book in early-modern England, beyond even the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Thus metrical psalmody became and remained the principal form of Anglican congregational song for some three hundred years.

Sternhold & English Hymnody

The transition from congregational psalmody to congregational hymnody occurred in the 19th century, often with some conflict between the advocates of psalms and hymns. A complete account of that transition would require another article. The point I wish to make here is that English psalmody and hymnody actually share much in common and should not be set so much in opposition.

In fact, it is English psalmody in general, and Sternhold’s Meter in particular, which is at the foundation of the development of the English Hymn. Isaac Watts was a master of the psalm before he was the originator of the hymn. Indeed, Watts used a wide variety of meters, but even in his hymns, he made significant use of Sternhold’s Meter.

So did many of the great authors of the English hymn tradition. Consider the following list of hymns that use Sternhold’s Meter:

  • “O God Our Help In Ages Past” (Isaac Watts, 1708)
  • “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” (Charles Wesley, 1740)
  • “Amazing Grace” (John Newton, 1779)
  • “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” (Edmund Sears, 1849)
  • “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (Phillips Brooks, 1868)

Sternhold Today

Both Sternhold specifically, and metrical psalmody in general, are due for a 21st-century revival. This is not at all to the exclusion of hymns but rather as a restoration of both psalms and hymns in the Anglican congregational repertoire. In this way, we shall follow Paul’s instruction, stated twice, that we sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19). And in this, we shall rejoice, as Sternhold writes in Psalm 32:11,

Be merry therefore in the Lord;
ye just, lift up your voice,
And ye of pure and perfect heart,
be glad and eke rejoice.


Image: An aged copy of the Sternhold-Hopkins Psalter. Photo by juxtapose^esopatxuj, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

August 23, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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