The Westminster Directory for Public Worship and the Lining of the Psalms
By Chris Coldwell
Copyright © 1998, 2000 First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

The "Lining of the Psalms" is one of the practices the Steelites make a term of communion and a reason (among others) for separating or remaining separate from other churches.Richard Bacon in his Defense Departed does a fine introduction to the general problems and errors of the Steelites, and it is not my intent to go over that ground again. Here I would simply like to point out the degree of absurdity to which men can go when they bind themselves to the doctrines and commandments of men. "Lining of the Psalms" is a clear illustration of this. As the Steelites are simply imitating the errors of others in the past in this regard, it is not an unprofitable study to review the practice of lining in relation to the Westminster Directory for Public Worship. It is the point of this paper to show that the necessity of lining was not an "attainment" of the First or Second Scottish Reformations, and as instituted it was not considered a "necessary" practice.

Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God

The Westminster Divines intended the Directory for the Public Worship of God to be an agenda or prescribed order, not a set of forms and words that tied ministers’ performance to the letter of the liturgy.3 In fact one of the factors the Divines gave for rejecting the Book of Common Prayer was that the prelates had raised its stature such that no other way of worship was acceptable and the ignorant treated the book as an idol.4 What the height of irony it is that any today would treat the Westminster Directory in a similar fashion! But, as the Westminster Divines acknowledged, even something initially good and useful to the church (e.g. the Book of Common Prayer), can become abused as to become a cause of offense, and even an idol and idolatry itself, like the Brazen Serpent that Hezekiah had destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).

Intent of the Directory

One need only look at the disputes among the compilers of the Westminster Directory to see that it was never intended as a liturgy binding to the letter. The Directory has several instances of compromise within it. The practice of using the form of the prayers as opposed to extemporaneous prayer was favored by some, opposed by others. Each wanted their specific view specified in the Directory. C. G. M’Crie cites Neal’s History of Puritans saying "those who were for set forms resolved to confine themselves to the very words of the Directory, while others made use of them only as heads for their enlargement."5 Between the Scots and the English Independents there was a great difference over coming to the table for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Compromise language was adopted, and the Church of Scotland in their adopting act maintained their practice as the correct one. Another instance that displeased the Scots was the addition to the Directory of the English practice of "lining the Psalm" which had been added when the Scots Commissioners were absent. They were allowed to prepare a paper on their objections, and what made it into the directory is hardly any kind of binding statement, but a very provisional one.6 The phrase in question is merely a suggestion, and to treat it otherwise is a misunderstanding of the Divines’ intent. To do so would certainly be contrary to understanding the document in the "plain tenor" of the words,7 as the Scots phrase it in their adopting act for the Directory. Here they also specified that previous practices adopted in Scotland not denounced by the Directory (practices in the Books of Discipline, Book of Common Order, etc.) are not condemned.8

Scottish Practice Prior to Westminster

It very clearly was not the practice of the Scottish Kirk to "line the psalm" until the Westminster Directory brought the practice into the church. It perhaps was not even practiced until the nationwide implementation of the 1650 Psalter put the whole nation in the position of having to become acquainted with the new Psalter. Prior to the Westminster Assembly, it was the practice in many places to post the next weeks’ Psalm selections in a prominent place so the congregation would be prepared to sing them the next week. It is the testimony of Calderwood9 and Steuart of Pardovan,10 that the people generally could either read or had the Psalms by heart. And while it evidently was the practice to have the selection read in its entirety prior to singing it, by the Minister, Reader, or Precentor, "reading the line" was not a known practice until the change to the new directory and Psalter.11 There were also "song schools" instituted in many cities in the 16th century which carried over into the 17th century. Often, the master of the school served as Precentor in public worship, and it was sometimes the practice to have his students sit near him in worship to aid the singing.12

While lining was certainly a method proposed by the Directory if a church was generally illiterate, it was by no means the only way to achieve the goal of learning the tunes, nor was it a goal in and of itself. Lining was for the purpose of learning the psalm tunes, not a proposed form of singing. As outlined above the Scottish Church had other ways it had used in the past to ensure that church members learned the psalm tunes to be sung in public worship. The adopting act of the Directory specifically makes it clear that practices not specifically denounced by the Directory were not to be viewed as condemned by it. It is true there were some practices that the English wished the Scots to abandon, but these were handled "behind the scenes" so to speak, and we have record of those particular practices and the reasons for the changes. Nowhere is the practice of singing without giving the line condemned with the view of replacing it with lining. This is perfectly in keeping with the idea which the words of the Directory expressly indicate, that lining was a convenient or useful expedient to adopt where the majority of a congregation were unable to read. It was an expedient indifferent in nature, and not a thing of necessity, no more than using the exact words of the prescribed prayers was necessary. The problem is that an expedient adopted to aid the ignorant to learn the psalms became a cherished tradition in many quarters of the Scottish church and it was with great difficulty removed in later ages.

Two Helpful Summaries

What follows are two helpful summaries regarding the practice of "lining the psalms." The first is from Nicholas Temperley, The Music of the English Parish Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 1:81-82. The second is from Andrew Edgar, Old Church Life in Scotland (Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1885), pp. 68-70, citing Walter Steuart of Pardovan’s Collections (first published in 1709 and many times after). Collections was an early attempt at collecting in an organized form the statutory practices of the Church of Scotland.

Temperley writes: " The Directory for publique worship had this to say ‘Of singing of psalms’: ‘In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered: but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord. That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book: and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.’ (Directory: 83-4) In this way was introduced the practice of ‘lining out’, which was to have far-reaching consequences of a kind undreamed of by the assembled divines. It is not very likely that lining out had been practiced to any significant extent before it was enjoined by the Assembly, and it may even have been a completely new idea. Bishop Wren, writing some notes in 1660 on the revision of the Book of common prayer, proposed the omission of the words ‘saying after’ for the general confession, partly on the grounds that ‘it gives some countenance to another uncouth and senseless custom, not long since brought in by some factions, one to read a line of a psalm, and then all the rest to sing it’ (Jacobson: 55). Playford spoke of ‘the late intruding Scotch manner of reading every line by the clerk before it is sung’ (PC 29: fol. A3r), but although the Scots had certainly taken up the custom, it is improbable that it was of Scottish origin, for the commissioners of the Church of Scotland had opposed the move to allow it when the matter was debated at the Westminster Assembly (W. Shaw: 1, 351n.).13 It quickly became a normal practice. By 1662 it was ‘a custom generally used in most if not all parish churches of this kingdom, as well among Presbyterian as others’ for ‘the psalms that is sung before and after sermon’ (Durel: 183). But it was doubtless a Puritan innovation, designed to make sure that the people sang and understood the words of the psalms, as well as the tunes they knew by heart. In addition it facilitated the introduction of a new version of psalms (Rouse: preface; PC 22: preface)."

Edger writes: "Pardovan states that ‘it was the ancient practice of the Church of Scotland, as it is yet of some Reformed Churches abroad, for the minister or precentor to read over as much of the Psalm in metre as was intended to be sung at once, and then the harmony and melody followed without interruption, and people did either learn to read or got most of the Psalms by heart.’ What is here called the ancient practice of the Church of Scotland in the rendering of praise, is just the practice that is observed at the present day. But soon after 1645 a different practice arose and continued long in the Church of Scotland. Pardovan says that when the new paraphrase of the Psalms was appointed to be sung - that is, when the present metrical version of the Psalms was introduced – ‘It was not at first so easy for the people to follow, and it became customary for each line to be read out by itself, and then sung.’ And it is worth noting, that this author, writing in 1709, thought that that new way should be abandoned and the old custom revived. The number of people that can read, he says, is now increased, and if the psalms to be sung each Sunday were intimated the Sunday previous, they might be got by heart by those that can not read. It is doubtful, however, if Pardovan is quite correct in his account of the origin of the practice of giving out the psalm line by line while it is being sung. The present metrical version of the psalms was not introduced into the Church of Scotland till 1650, but the Westminster Directory for public worship was adopted by the General Assembly in 1645, and the Directory recommends that ‘for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.’ It is more likely, therefore, that it was the recommendation in the Directory rather than the difficulty of following the new version that led to the practice of giving out the Psalms line by line. It is alleged that the Scots Commissioners at Westminster were much opposed to the insertion of that recommendation in the Directory - it was contrary, they said, to the usage in the Scotch Church, and it was not required by the backward state of education in Scotland ? but the English divines were in love with it, and would have it, and as the Scots were anxious for uniformity of worship over the two kingdoms, the General Assembly took no exception to the clause. The practice was accordingly introduced into the Church of Scotland soon after, of giving out the Psalms in stalments of one line at a time, and so popular did the practice become, and so essential a part of revered use and wont, that very great difficulty was found long afterwards in getting it discontinued. . . . Pardovan, we have seen, was anxious to have the practice abolished, and for that end he says, ‘it were to be wished that masters of families would path the way for the more easy introducing of our former practice by reviving and observing the same in their family worship.’ This suggestion was taken up by the General Assembly, and in 1746 the Assembly recommended to private families that in their religious exercises they should in singing the praises of God go on without the intermission of reading each line."


1. Why the PCA is Not a Duly Constituted Church and Why Faithful Christians Should Separate from this Corrupted "Communion" Two letters from Larry Birger, Jr. to the session of his former congregation in the PCA, with an historical introduction (Still Waters Revival Books web site). Birger insisted that lining of the Psalms was one of the reforms necessary to be instituted for him to remain in his PCA church. He writes: "2) A repudiation of uninspired hymnody, and the singing only of Psalms from the aforesaid Psalter, and that being done by lining them out, as detailed in the Directory for Public Worship (that all in the assembly may be edified, not simply the most part)." The Directory nowhere indicates this as the reason for lining. This is Steele’s reason, but not that of the Westminster Divines. The Directory clearly allows for the practice if the majority of a congregation is illiterate. Nowhere does the Directory indicate that lining is necessary for edification. It was presented as an expedient resolution for a particular case (illiteracy) and not as a necessity.

It should be noted with regard to this particular production by Larry Birger, that Birger was excommunicated for contumacy from Immanuel Presbyterian (PCA) on September 14, 1996. Those who have need for the documents of the case should contact the session of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Norfolk VA. Thankfully, and to their commendation, Immanuel has not "written off" the issue of worship song because of the misbehavior of one individual, and they will be studying the issue of Psalmody (in May 1998) with Michael Bushell, the author of Songs of Zion ( The Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody [Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 1993), who is a member of Immanuel. Songs is the modern definitive work defending the practice of the exclusive singing of the psalms in the public worship of God.

Lining is rather pathetically defended as the only means of singing unto edification in public worship in Continuous Singing, In The Ordinary Public Worship Of God, Considered In The Light Of Scripture And The Subordinate Standards Of The Reformed Presbyterian Church; In Answer To Some Letters Of Inquiry Addressed To The Writer. By David Steele. The errors in Steele's tract amount to mostly an improper appeal to authority, or simple non sequiturs. And, as noted above, he distorts the meaning of the Directory for Worship, and never really proves a major assumption that lining of the Psalm will allow the young children, who cannot read, to sing with understanding, rather than merely repeating what they hear. It is historical fact that rather than aiding the public singing of the psalms, the tradition of lining actually developed into quite a hindrance to singing unto edification, particularly in this country. There are several historical studies on the web dealing with the lining controversy as it developed in this country. See The Regular Singing Controversy: The Case Against Lining-Out, in The Early American Review, vol. II no. 2, Fall 1997 and two unattributed articles on lining out and Singing-Schools at Carnegie Mellon.

2. Richard Bacon, Defense Departed: Being a Refutation of "A Brief Defence of Dissociation in the Present Circumstances."

3. Henderson says "ministers, although "not tied to set forms and words," are "not left at randome, but have their directory and prescribed order." C. G. M’Crie summarizes Calderwood’s understanding of the Scottish order prior to the Westminster Directory: "we have, he declares, our agenda and an order to be observed in conducting divine service; and yet no one is tied down to the prayers or exhortations which are given as so many examples, in which, while structure and substance are indicated, there is no intention of binding ministers to the exact terms employed."(p. 194-195).

[Added October 3, 2000. Gillespie's understanding of the Directory is also clear from the following he wrote in a letter to Rev. Robert Morray (or Mr. Patrick Gillespie).

"London, May 9, 1645.

...I pray you be careful that the Act of the Gen. Assembly, approving the Directory, be not so altered as to make it a straiter imposition, and take heed that it contain still an approbation of the Preface set before the directory, for which I could give many reasons. I shall only say this, that the more straitly it be imposed, it will the more breed scruples, and creat controversies, which wyse men should doe well to prevent, and the rather, lest we crosse the principles of the good old Nonconformists, by too strait impositions of things in their own nature indifferent, such as many (tho' not all) be in the Directory. Sure I am the Directory had never past the Assembly of Divines, if it had not been for the qualifications in the Preface. This is only for yourself, except ye hear any controversy about it in your meeting.

There is a draught of the Act about the Directory agreed upon here, and sent doune to your meeting, having no alteration but in words, and the substance being the same, only it is thought clearer, and that it will sound better here. This draught of the Act, in the decerning part of it, doth not only approve the preface of the Directory, but saith that the preface expresseth the intent and meaning of the Directory, and relative to this, it is said after, that such rules and practises are to be laid aside as are contrary to the intent of this Directory. Let no noise be made of any question in the business, but let it be quietly and calmely setled...." Robert Baillie, Letters and Journals, David Laing, ed. (Edinburgh: Robert Ogle, 1841) 2.505-506.]

4. See The Preface of The Directory for The Public Worship of God in the Free Presbyterian Publications edition of the Westminster Standards.

5. The Preface to the Directory (which the Scottish Kirk specifically pointed to as important in understanding the intent of the directory), while allowing the use of the forms, also warns against this becoming a trap to slothfulness. The Divines encouraged ministers not to limit themselves to only the words and that a minister "be careful to furnish his heart and tongue with further or other materials of prayer and exhortation, as shall be needful upon all occasions."

6. "But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof." The Directory for the Public Worship of God, "Of the Singing of Psalms." See C. G. M’Crie’s Public Worship in Presbyterian Scotland, pp. 204-205.

7. See Steele’s Continuous Singing. The purpose of this piece is to condemn what the author calls continuous singing, as opposed to ‘lining the psalm.’ Steele’s logic is poor, and he turns into a necessity, what the Westminster Divines proposed as a convenient remedy. It is lamentable that subsequent generations to the Westminster Assembly made this expedient into a binding rule (as Steele does), and that alone makes the practice worthy of the fate of the brazen serpent.

8. "… the General Assembly… doth unanimously, and without a contrary voice, agree to and approve the following Directory, in all the heads thereof, together with the Preface set before it; and doth require, decern, and ordain, That, according to the plain tenor and meaning thereof, and the intent of the Preface, it be carefully and uniformly observed and practised by all the ministers and others within this kingdom whom it doth concern…" "It is also provided, That this shall be no prejudice to the order and practice of this kirk, in such particulars as are appointed by the books of discipline, and acts of General Assemblies, and are not otherwise ordered and appointed in the Directory." Assembly at Edinburgh, February 3, 1645. Sess. 10. Act of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, for the establishing and putting in Execution of the Directory for the Publick Worship of God.

9. In his anonymous piece against the Psalter of King James.

10. Pardovan’s Collections.

11. William McMillan, Worship of the Scottish Reformed Church 1550-1638 (London, 1931), p. 82.

12. Ibid, pp. 81-82. McMillan is biased in the episcopal direction in some of his interpretation of the facts.

13. Shaw writes:: "…The Directory was finished and passed in the absence of the Scotch Commissioners, and on their entering the Assembly they expressed dislike at the permission accorded of reading the psalms line by line. It was accordingly referred to them to draw up something on the point, and to present it to the assembly (Mitchell, 21 and Lightfoot, 344). On the 27th, the final report was made, and the Directory adopted and ordered to be sent up (ibid., 23).