Matthew Myer Boulton argues that the reforms in worship inaugurated by Calvin were intended to establish a worship that “was in the first place a matter of verbal, catechetical, intellectual engagement with God’s word revealed in Scripture and expounded from the pulpit” ( Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology , 33).
He adds, importantly, that this was “corrective, not reductive,” and was part of “a broad, multidimensional program of Christian formation.” A key dimension of this was “one of Calvin’s lifelong passions - and arguably one of his most influential triumphs”: the Genevan Psalter.
Boulton writes, “as early as the opening paragraph of one of Calvin’s first acts as a reformer in Geneva, the 1537 Articles for Church Organization , he calls for congregational singing of psalms ‘for the edification of the church.’ . . . ‘Certainly as things are,’ Calvin explains, ‘the prayers of the faithful are so cold, that we ought to be ashamed and dismayed. The psalms can incite us to life up our hearts to God and move us to an ardor in invoking and exalting with praises the glory of his Name.’ Calvin wanted to sharpen the minds of the faithful, but at least as much, he wanted to engage and enliven their hearts” (33-34). As a result, “for many in the sixteenth century reform movements, the psalms became identified as the music of the people, God’s Word once only accessible to a few, now sung by one and all” (34).
Ardent Psalm-singing was part of Calvin’s program to turn “Geneva as a whole . . . [into] a magnum monasterium ” (27).