Singing psalms helps persecuted Christians in Pakistan keep the faith. Their dependence on God is a story that Eric Sarwar, a Presbyterian Church of Pakistan pastor, is eager to share with Christians elsewhere, who have wealth and government on their side.
“When you hear news from Pakistan, it’s only suicide bombers, arms, the Taliban—all threatening news from one small corner up near Afghanistan. But let’s see with the eyes of the church the amazing things God is doing. From Islamabad south to Karachi, the country is mostly peaceful. Church is free to worship, free to do whatever they want to do in their own community,” he says.
As a fourth-generation Christian, Sarwar lives the difficulties that Pakistani Christians endure. “Christian people are largely illiterate and poor, disadvantaged and marginalized. We have no political power and thus no ability to bring about change. Planted in this hard place, our only hope is God himself,” he says.
That’s why Sarwar is on a mission to help Pakistani Christians reclaim a heritage of singing psalms set to indigenous melodies and rhythms. Singing psalms bathes their lives in God’s Word.
More than a century ago, missionaries expected faith to spread from Christian institutions on down to the masses. Instead it was psalm singing that helped ignite mass conversions among persecuted people in the Punjab, the area of India that is now Pakistan. Protestants and Catholics still sing psalms of praise, penitence, and petition but have lost 80 percent of the psalm songs that their ancestors knew.
Most Christians in the world’s sixth most-populous country trace their roots to 19th century American and British missionaries. They set up schools, hospitals, and churches in British-controlled areas of the Punjab to evangelize higher-caste urban people.
When United Presbyterian Church (UPC) pastor Andrew Gordon began the Sialkot Mission in 1855, he learned Urdu because it had written grammars, dictionaries, and Bible translations. Few people spoke Urdu as their mother tongue, but they used it in courts, schools, and government business. Punjabi, then as now, was looked down on as the language of illiterate people.
In 1857 Gordon baptized his first two converts together—a high-caste Hindu and outcaste Chuhra.
Influential Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh families sent their children to the excellent mission schools and attended “inquirers’ classes.” Yet after 20 years, less than 200 adults had been baptized. Many converts were weavers from the low-caste Meg tribe. Others were Chuhras, also known as Churas, untouchables, or (today’s term) Dalits. They learned the gospel from Ditt, an illiterate man who scavenged dead animals and sold their hides from town to town.
Gordon and his peers finally took note of “illiterate believers…accompanied by the Spirit of God.” They resolved “to get down to the level” at which Christ labored, and “give special attention to the poor….Unless we bring the gospel to them very directly and particularly, they think it is intended only for their superiors,” he wrote in his memoir, Our India Mission, 1855-1885.
“Early missionaries converted and baptized masses of outcaste tribal peoples without any social status, education, homes, jobs, and even lands. Missionaries established villages for these new believers and gave them dignity and honor,” Sarwar says.
The UPC was an ethnically Scottish American denomination that sang only psalms in worship. Gordon asked I.D. Shahbaz, a scholar, poet, and Anglican pastor, to translate psalms into metric Urdu, so they could be sung to Western tunes.
Though educated city congregations sang the metric Urdu psalms, they were not a hit among rural Punjabis. But the psalms that Shahbaz translated to poetic Punjabi and set to folk tunes were instantly popular.
“There are 150 psalms in the Bible, but according to topic and meaning, Dr. Shahbaz divided them into 405 parts. He worked with such a devotion and activeness, day in and day out, that he lost his sight,” Sarwar says. A helper then read the zaboors (psalms) to Shahbaz in Urdu, English, and Persian so he could translate them. A professional singer helped set them to Indian ragas (melodies) and talas (beats).
A missionary woman traveled to churches and schools to teach the songs. Preachers could gather marketplace crowds simply by singing Punjabi psalms. “Their very weirdness, wildness, plaintiveness and curious repetitions chain the attention and entrance the heart even of a foreigner,” UPC missionary Robert Stewart wrote in his memoir, Life and Work in India.
The number of Punjabi Christians soared from 3,823 in 1881 to 37,980 in 1901. The first Sialkot Convention, in 1904, launched a revival across the Indian sub-continent. “Two thousand copies of Psalms were published for the 1905 Sialkot Convention. They sold out quickly and have been reprinted more than any religious book in Indo-Pak,” Sarwar says.
Soon Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, and other Christians included Punjabi zaboors in their hymnals. As psalm singing spread across denominations, classes, and borders, the number of Punjabi Christians leapt from 163,994 in 1911 to 315,031 in 1921. Christians from across Asia still attend the annual Sialkot Convention for prayer, preaching, training, and learning new music.
Eric Sarwar grew up singing 70 of those same psalm portions at home and church. When strangers attacked him in 2009, and his parents and wife in 2010, he took comfort in Psalm 18, “the most popular psalm in Pakistan. It represents God’s providence, safety, power, deliverance, and kindness. In our context of living below poverty line and facing discrimination and hard challenges every day, it gives hope and encouragement. Its musical tune and rhythm is simple, catchy, and on high notes with shouts of joy,” he says.
“Other psalms that help in every critical situation are Psalms 4; 16 (Part 1); 20 (Part 1); 23; 31 (Part 4); 34 (Part 2); 40 (Part1); 46 (Part 1); 62 (Part 2); 119 (Parts 11, 20); 121; 139; and 145. People also love liturgical psalms, like Psalm 100 for call to worship.
“Majority of people in village congregations speak only Punjabi. They love to sing psalms of praise, laments, penitence, petitions, and prayers. They memorize them by heart. Only two or three persons in my congregation can read, so Punjabi Zaboors is their Bible. It helps them in their daily life, especially when they face questions from Muslims in their work places,” he explains.
Few Pakistani Christians can read words, let alone decipher musical notation. They learn songs by hearing them. As the first generations of Christians died, psalm tunes faded from collective Christian memory. Sarwar says that worshipers began singing newer “theologically lightweight” songs and neglecting “precious pearls of worship.” Discovering a complete 1905 Zaboor psalter in Western notation inspired him to “preserve and transfer this great heritage and musical identity to coming generations.”
Watch a brief video of Eric Sarwar sharing favorite psalms. Watch a chapel service led by Eric Sarwar at Calvin College. Enjoy psalm singing videos produced in Pakistan by Heart Sounds International, Gospel Broadcasting Network, and Johnson Wilson.
For fascinating insights into Christian history in Pakistan, check out these chapters in Google Books:
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, or church education meeting. These questions will help people identify with fellow believers in Pakistan.
Eric Sarwar says that paying attention to worship renewal and music is reinvigorating Christianity in Pakistan. Psalm singing also creates bridges with moderate Muslims, which is vital as persecution spreads against Christians and other religious minorities.