The Reformation’s First Lutheran Hymns

This excerpt is from “The Reformation and Lutheran Confessionalism to 1620” by Christopher Boyd Brown. Read the entire essay and learn more about the Reformation and its impact on Lutheran worship in Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns

In the ears of contemporary observers, the outpouring of vernacular song accompanying the spread of the Reformation heralded a seismic shift in western Christendom, as the chronicle of the Saxon town of Annaberg vividly records:

1524. This year there arose great strife with the monks and nuns, who ran from the cloister; the priests took women in marriage; and then Mass was held in German. The Sacrament was also distributed in both kinds, and German hymns were sung. … [T]he people were emboldened and held up Luther’s doctrine as the pure religion, publishing psalters and hymnals.

While building on rich connections to earlier tradition, the Lutheran embrace of music in the service of the Gospel constituted a new epoch in the song of the Church, with the development of a theology and culture of music for the church, school, and home that set Lutherans apart not only from the medieval Church but also from their sixteenth-century contemporaries of other confessions.

Music and the Gospel 

Martin Luther affirmed music in its many forms as a gift of God—instrumental music as well as vocal, congregational unison singing as well as choral polyphony. Although the good employment of music, in Luther’s judgment, was not confined to narrowly religious purposes, its highest use was to be joined with God’s Word for “preaching in song.” Luther’s new understanding of the singing of the Church—not as distraction or mere ornament, nor simply as praise due to God, but as proclamation of the Gospel—was the foundation of Lutheran hymnody. Following Colossians 3:16, Luther identified the hymns as bearers of the Word of God, a conception that shaped and defined the Lutheran use of hymnody in all contexts:

St. Paul … exhorted the Colossians to sing spiritual songs and Psalms heartily unto the Lord, so that God’s Word and Christian doctrine might be instilled and implanted in many ways. Therefore I, too, … have with the help of others compiled several hymns, so that the holy Gospel which now by the grace of God has risen anew may be set forth and given free course.

In 1523, Luther began writing German hymns and called upon others to join him “so that the Word of God may abide among the people through song.” Those who responded to Luther’s initial call included many clergy, such as Paul Speratus, but also laity such as the Nürnberg city secretary Lazarus Spengler and the shoemaker Hans Sachs, members of the nobility, and Elisabeth Cruciger, a liberated Cistercian nun and wife of the Wittenberg professor Caspar Cruciger.

These first hymns were written in a range of styles, including ballads—the songs that served as the newswire of early modern Europe—as well as metrical psalms in rhymed stanzas, Luther’s own influential innovation. But for Luther, the essential characteristic of Christian hymnody was not a literal reproduction of biblical texts, but the faithful articulation and application of scriptural teaching. His hymn “Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice” (LSB 556), with its uncompromising depiction of humanity’s bondage to sin and its joyous proclamation of Jesus’ coming as deliverer, conveys not only the outlines of biblical doctrine as Law and Gospel but the affective response of faith moving from despair to joy. Like many early Lutheran hymns (and many of the psalms themselves), it is addressed to the congregation rather than to God.

The hymns, as forms of the Word, carried the divine power of the Gospel to create and strengthen faith and to comfort troubled consciences. Lutherans insisted that the Holy Spirit was at work through the hymns just as He was through the words of Scripture. “Without a doubt,” wrote the Wittenberg superintendent Paul Eber, “God is active by His Holy Spirit in the hearts of many who make serious use of such Christian hymns.”



Post adapted from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns volume 2. Copyright © 2019 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Continue reading this and other immersive music essays in Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns.

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