The work was commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival at Chichester Cathedral by the cathedral's organist, John Birch, and the Dean, Walter Hussey. However, the world premiere took place in the Philharmonic Hall, New York on July 15, 1965 with the composer conducting, followed by the performance in the Chichester Festival on July 31, conducted by John Birch.
Chichester Psalms was Bernstein's first composition after his 1963 Third Symphony (Kaddish). They are his two most overtly Jewish works. While both works have a chorus singing texts in Hebrew, the Kaddish Symphony has been described as a work often at the edge of despair, while Chichester Psalms is affirmative and at times serene.