A friend of mine, John Roxborogh, has been doing some fascinating detective work in recent days around the claim that Calvin authored the hymn ‘I greet thee who my sure Redeemer art’. It’s a wonderful hymn, but did Calvin write it?
Here’s where John has gotten to:
That the hymn is merely attributed to Calvin in most English sources is a hint that the authorship may be uncertain. Calvin is associated with the versification of Psalms (though he gave it up in favour of the poet Clément Marot) but not with the writing of hymns. The first line in French which appears in a number of sources (Je te salue, mon certain rédempteur) is not on any French website, but only in English hymn books or on English websites. It seems agreed that the French text originates from the Strassburgh Psalter La Forme des Prières et Chants Ecclésiastiques of 1545, where the hymn is referred to as Salutation à Jesus-Christ. This edition appears to have been lost. It is item 22 in the ‘Genealogical Bibliography’ in W D Maxwell, The Liturgical Portions of the Genevan Service Book used by John Knox while a minister of the English Congregation of Marian Exiles at Geneva, 1556-1559, Westminster, Faith Press, 1931, 1965, p.70.
Andrew Myers in his blog Virginia is for Hugenots on 13 July 2009 also raised the same question, and quotes extensively from sources I have not been able to access fully. His preference for Jean Garnier as the likely author of the text and his confidence that Calvin is not seems well argued. It is a conclusion I am happy to go with.
The English attribution to Calvin appears to be wishful thinking dating especially from the translation in 1869. The mistaken attribution is a fine example of Calvinism and Calvin not being the same thing, but it nevertheless does serve as a powerful connection with the middle period of the Reformation, and to a time when making congregational singing possible was somehow achieved in the midst of the turmoil. It’s a reminder that many people and places helped sort out what a Reformed church should look like. If it would be fair to say that the hymn belongs more to Strasbourg than to Geneva, that too is a reminder we need to know about Strasbourg too as a laboratory of Reformed faith, worship and society.
Perhaps in our times the more accurate story of the origins of this particular hymn will help us connect with God and with those known and unknown in our history who put faith to music and remind us that renewal in the church is never the work of just one person.
John proceeds to draw attention to a number of other sources:
Andrew Myers: Credit where credit is due – is the author Jean Garnier?
Emmanuel Orentin Douen, Clement Marot et le Psautier Huguenot, Vol. 1, p. 452, on the hymn in question:
Ce morceau n’est point, on le voit, une traduction de la Bible, mais une composition libre qui ne rentre dans la maniere de Calvin, et dont Garnier est peut-etre l’auteur.
Erik Routley and Peter Cutts (ed.), An English-Speaking Hymnal Guide (2005), p. 83: 386. I GREET THEE, WHO MY SURE REDEEMER ART
French: JE TE SALUE, MON CERTAIN REDEMPTEUR, which according to Douen appears in the Strasbourg Psalter (1545), and according to E. [Pierre] Pidox is certainly in the edition of 1553 but not that of 1548. It has been attributed to John Calvin, but Pidoux judges this ascription very unlikely; also attr. to J. Garnier, which Pidoux says is mere “guesswork” (Le Psautier Huguenot, 1962). It must be regarded as anonymous.
A copy of an enlarged Strassburg ed. of 1545, entitled La forme des prieres et chantzs ecclesiastiques, was preserved in the Public Library at Strassburg till Aug. 24, 1870, when it was burnt at the siege of the city in the Franco-German War (Douen, I. 451 sq.)
Note 552: They were printed at Strassburg, 1539, and republished, together with an original hymn (Salutation à Jesus-Christ), from an edition of 1545, in Opera, VI. 212-224.
Douglas Bond on a Calvin 500 Tour visits Strasbourg and blogs on 9 July 2009
We discussed what Calvin wrote in his commentary on Genesis about music and its role in Christian worship. Here in the Strasbourg Psalter published 1544, was included “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art,” clearly not a strict Psalm versification (though it has hints of Psalm 67 in it, “shine on us with the light of thy pure day”). Calvin commended Psalm singing, versified poetry from the Psalms himself, commissioned Clement Marot, the work carried on by Beza after him, but nowhere during or after his time in Strasbourg, where German Lutheran hymns were widely sung, did he condemn the writing or singing of hymns of human poetic composition. In the Geneva Psalter published 1551, Calvin included “I greet thee.” Some hymnologists believe Calvin wrote this hymn; it is very Calvin and may have been so; the fact that we don’t know who wrote it is actually a vote in favor of humble, un-self-serving Calvin.
The hymn is 457 in the Presbyterian Hymnal. It is also found in the Australian Hymnbook and With One Voice as number 128:
Author (attr.): John Calvin
Tune name: TOULON
Translator: Elizabeth Lee Smith (1868)
Scripture: John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Colossians 1:27
Key: F Major
Source: French Psalter, Strassburg, 1545
Source: Genevan Psalter 1551, adapt. from Genevan 124
Words: Attributed to John Calvin, 1545 (Je te salue mon certain rédempteur); translated from French to English by Elizabeth L. Smith in Schaff’s Christ in Song, 1869. Music: Toulon, Genevan Psalter, 1551
Rejoice and Sing, 1991.
When the 1991 United Reformed Church Hymnal Rejoice and Sing was being compiled a web-site of sources, the Enchiridion was developed, which includes Notes on Source Books (French & Genevan Psalters). The cross reference is to Rejoice and Sing, 501.
La Forme des Prières et Chants Ecclésiastiques, 1545 &c.
Various editions of the Psalter were published at Paris, Lyons, Strasbourg and Geneva in the years following the death of Clement Marot (1544); these included a Strasbourg edition of 1545 with psalms &c. from various sources and a hymn attributed to Calvin. (The Strasbourg Town Library copy was lost when the library was destroyed in the bobardment of the town during the Franco-German war (Julian, p.579a). )
Xrefs: RS-501 I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art.
The Westminster Directory of Public Worship (1645) article by Alan Clifford, 1989, fn 70
See the hymn ‘I greet Thee who my sure Redeemer art’ in Christian Hymns, Evangelical Movement of Wales, Bridgend, 1977, hymn 124; also Hymns and Psalms, Methodist Publishing House, London, 1983, hymn 391.
The hymn first appeared in the 1545 Strasbourg Psalter, the very same year Calvin produced the new liturgy for his old congregation. Is it not possible that he wrote the hymn for them too? According to Philip Schaff, it was also discovered in ‘an old Genevese prayer-book.’ (Christ in Song, Anson Randolph, New York, 1869, 678). While external evidence might not be conclusive (see Bushell, op.cit., [Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, Crown and Covenant Publications, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1980.”] p.199, n. 56), strong internal evidence of style and piety comparing the hymn with Calvin’s recorded prayers arguably strengthens Schaff’s case for Calvin’s authorship of the hymn.