Singing with the Pilgrims: The “Old Hundredth”

Arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers

Do you ever wonder what songs the American Pilgrims sang? I know one of them. It is probably the only one still printed in some of our hymnbooks.

It’s called the “Old Hundredth” and it may have been sung at the first Thanksgiving!

Let’s back up. One of the great psalms of thanksgiving in the Bible is Psalm 100. Do you know it? It reads:

            Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!

            Serve the Lord with gladness!

            Come into his presence with singing!

            Know that the Lord, he is God!

            It is he who made us, and we are his,

            We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

            Enter his gates with thanksgiving,

            And his courts with praise!

            Give thanks to him; bless his name!

            For the Lord is good;

            His steadfast love endures forever,

            And his faithfulness to all generations.

Did you catch the thanksgiving part?   Enter his gates with thanksgiving, . . . . give thanks to him; bless his name!

Throughout church history, Christians have been taking psalms, like Psalm 100, and putting them to music so they can be sung in worship.

One of the most famous of all the psalm songs is Psalm 100.

It was actually paraphrased into a hymn during the Reformation period and first appeared in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter of 1561. The paraphrase is attributed to Scottish clergyman and Bible translator William Kethe (d. 1594).

Kethe fled his homeland for Switzerland due to the persecutions of the Catholic Queen Mary in England who went on a rampage against Protestants.

While in Switzerland, Kethe helped translate the Geneva Bible into English. He also contributed 25 psalms to the Anglo-Geneva Psalter, and then carried that new hymnbook back to England after the restoration of Protestantism by Queen Elizabeth I.

Kethe’s paraphrase of Psalm 100 is called “All People that on Earth do dwell,” otherwise known as the “Old Hundredth,” The words are usually sung to the tune of the “Doxology.”

All people that on earth do dwell,

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.

Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell;

Come ye before Him and rejoice.

The Lord, ye know, is God indeed;

Without our aid He did us make;

We are His folk, He doth us feed,

And for His sheep He doth us take.

O enter then His gates with praise;

Approach with joy His courts unto;

Praise, laud, and bless His Name always,

For it is seemly so to do.

For why? the Lord our God is good;

His mercy is forever sure;

His truth at all times firmly stood,

And shall from age to age endure.

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost,

The God Whom Heaven and earth adore,

From men and from the angel host

Be praise and glory evermore.

The melody that Kethe used for the “Old Hundredth” is one of the most famous Christian hymn tunes. It goes back to the Geneva Psalter of 1562. It was composed or adapted by the Frenchman Louis Bourgeois. Bourgeois (d. 1560) was invited to come to Geneva when John Calvin returned there in 1541 for the second part of his pastorate. In 1545 he became the chief musician of Geneva.   Calvin brought congregational singing back into the church and wanted to put an emphasis on singing God’s Word. He also wanted a psalter for use in worship. So in 1547 Louis Bourgeois was given the job of providing tunes for a new metrical psalms. He was largely responsible for the Geneva Psalter. His job was completed two years before Calvin’s death in 1562.

The tune that we sing to the “Old Hundredth” was included in the Genevan Psalter, but originally put to the French version of Psalm 134.

It was William Kethe who wed this melody to his paraphrase of Psalm 100—All People That On Earth Do Dwell. Then he included it in his Anglo-Genevan Psalter and shared it with the rest of the English speaking world.

So, not only did the tune become known as the “Old Hundredth,” but it was sung by people of the English Reformation—including those Puritans and Separatists who believed in only singing psalms or psalm paraphrases in worship.

Which means, of course, that because of its popularity, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony would have known and sung this hymn in their worship. In fact, it’s probably the only hymn in our modern hymnbooks (for those who still use hymnbooks) that the Pilgrims actually sang.

In Colossians 3.16 we are told to, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

So this Thanksgiving, as you give thanks, do so with song. In the words of Kethe,

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.

Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell.

And if you’d like to actually sing with the Pilgrims this Thanksgiving, well then, there’s only one place to go. It’s to the “Old Hundredth.”

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