The Imperishable Charm of Lutheran Hymns

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We just celebrated the Festival of the Reformation. A central part to the success of the Reformation was the hymnody. Lutheran hymnody took the world by storm nearly 500 years ago. Though one of the first hymnals only contained 25 hymns, these hymns were foundational for the liturgical life of the church and the laity’s (and ministers’ for that matter) understanding of the central teaching of the Reformation – justification by faith alone.

Lutheran hymnody remained a vital component to the success of the Reformation as it spread across Europe. Since then, Lutheran hymnody has been an integral part of confessional Lutheran churches throughout the world. As we begin preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation it would be helpful to step back and consider why our hymnody is so important and vital to us.

Some of my favorite quotes about Lutheran hymnody come from Reu’s insightful tome, Catechetics:

The church hymn is not, like its brother, the folk song, the property of merely a certain period of life, that of youth; it belongs to the whole congregation, to all periods of life. It is learned by heart by the children, criticized by those in a state of inner ferment, explained by the lessons of life, learned anew and comprehended by the adults, fathomed more deeply through progressive experience, transfigured by age, and tested by death.

The hymn is your companion form the cradle to the bier, the expression of your every need. Its deep, central notes not only thunder down from the organ loft; they also rise from the pew. And when the time for singing is past, it trembles upon the lip as a prayer; when the word loses its power in depths of woe, the old comforters once more begin to gleam; and in the darkest night of suffering they sparkle as inextinguishable stars.

One of the best gifts parents can give to their children is constant familiarity, intelligent appreciation, and hearty, and sincere use of the world’s great hymns. Like all good things it will demand time and effort; but the expenditure will be more than compensated by the gain.” (417-418)

F. W. Herzberger says: “Our Lutheran Church is pre-eminently the Singing Church of Evangelical Christendom. No other Church can rival her in the rich, soulful music in which she sings her immortal hymns. Countless other songs and melodies have been composed in their day, delighted their audience for a short while, and then passed into hopeless oblivion.

Our majestic Lutheran chorales, however, have survived the wrecks of time, and are still today the delight of all true lovers of sacred music, irrespective of creed or language. “The Lutheran Church”, says Dr. Schaff, the noted Reformed theologian, draws the fine arts into the service of religion, and has produced a body “of hymns and chorals, which, in richness, power, and unction, surpass the hymnology of all other Churches in the world”.

The late Alexander Guilmant, a Frenchman and devout Catholic, the unrivaled master of the organ in his day, declared that the Lutheran chorals are the most heart-stirring and inspiring tunes in the whole realm of sacred music. Now what is it that gives to our Lutheran chorales or church tunes their imperishable charm?

Knowing their history as we do, we must say that it is the spirit of heroic faith, singing in every note its profound adoration of the merciful and omnipotent God that makes these old Lutheran chorales so universally and solemnly impressive in their character.

They are alive with pure and holy devotion. They thrill every depth of the Christian heart because they are born from the deepest and holiest passion of their inspired singers. With few exceptions, they were composed in the heroic days of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, days that called for heroic courage to believe and confess the truth as it is in Jesus; days that demanded heroic submission to the inscrutable ways of our God and Redeemer.

The same spirit of sublime, God-given heroism that inspired the texts of our immortal hymns also inspired the heart-stirring tunes. Hence the tunes are an integral part of our hymns. Deprive our hymns of their historic musical setting, sing them to a new modern tune, and you have deprived the rose of the fragrance she alone possesses, you have robbed the nightingale of her most rapturous note. You may then have a sorry hybrid of a poem and some sort of tune, but never more the original, forceful, edifying, compact hymn!

For in our Lutheran hymns the text and tune are welded as inseparably together as body and soul in man. The reason is that one and the same spirit of holy devotion gave birth to the text as well as the chorales, or tunes, of our Lutheran hymnology. Broadly speaking then, our Lutheran chorales are preeminently devotional in character.” (418-419)

Lutheran hymnody is a great treasure in the Lutheran Church; a treasure that is in danger of being buried and forgotten in many of our churches today. May we never forget what a great and invaluable treasure this hymnody is and how fundamental it is to who we are as Lutherans and how integral it is to passing on the faith to the next generation. May all Lutherans meditate on these quotes and carefully consider the beauty and depth of our heritage as we prepare for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

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