The Imperishable Charm of Lutheran Hymns

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.

About Pastor Andrew Packer

Andrew Packer is the pastor, headmaster, and a teacher at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. He graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne with an M.Div. in 2012. He was ordained and installed as the pastor of Our Savior on June 24, 2012. He has been married to Destiny since 2001. God has graciously blessed them with six children so far: Ethan, Abigail, Allison, Olivia, Lucia, and Micah.


The Imperishable Charm of Lutheran Hymns — 11 Comments

  1. Thank you for a good reminder about “the imperishable charm” of our Lutheran hymns. Btw, is there some place where I could find what hymns in LSB or LW are specifically, “Lutheran Chorales.”

  2. Does anyone know if there are good Lutheran hymns available on Pandora? The closest thing I can find is Anglican or Catholic chorale music. Some of it is in Latin, which is fine if you speak Latin, but I don’t. Some songs are hymns to the Virgin Mary, which I’m pretty sure constitute worshiping the creature, rather than the Creator.

    There is some decent contemporary stuff where they take classic hymns from the American Evangelical tradition and play them with either a praise band or an acoustic guitar (Fernando Ortega can be really good), but I can’t find any Lutheran hymns besides A Mighty Fortress.

  3. @Ken Miller #4

    I’m not sure about Pandora, but if you have Amazon Prime you can listen to a lot of great Lutheran Music from CPH through the Amazon Music App.

  4. Former Episcopalian and prospective Lutheran here. Could you offer advice on selecting a specific hymnal? My understanding is that when “Lutheran Service Book” was released the text of many hymns were reverted back to the formal language which predated “Lutheran Worship”. Our local LCMS church still uses LW which poses a dilemma when it comes to learning hymns at home; I’d like to purchase a hymnal so as to learn classic Lutheran hymns with my son, however, I’m not sure which specific version of the hymns we should learn long term.

    Also, is “The Lutheran Hymnal” still in use in LCMS congregations? I certainly prefer the typesetting in the old hymnal from what I’ve seen in CPH’s preview. Given the reversion in LSB, would the text of many of the old hymns in TLH match those hymns which were carried over into LSB?

  5. @Gary #7

    Here’s what I do in my congregation and in my home: LSB is our main hymnal, but I also use TLH and ELH for great hymns that are not in LSB.

    Some congregations do still use TLH (a great hymnal) but most are now using LSB. Often the text of hymns in TLH and LSB match, but there can be changes to the wording (even in the number of stanzas used).

  6. @Pastor Andrew Packer #5

    Thanks, Pastor Packer. We use my mom’s Amazon Prime at home, but I can’t put it on my iPhone, since there are a limited number of devices that you can load it to. I’ll try to check it out at home sometime.

    Thanks again,


  7. @Gary #7

    It depends on how old your son is. My sons are 4, 2 1/2, and 8 months, so we use the “My First Hymnal” at home for family devotions. It has three CD’s that follow the liturgical calendar and the music is really great.

    As a former Baptist, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of Lutheran hymns, so I’ve been learning along with my family this past year. There are some really good songs in there, but they are sung by children, so it might not be the best thing for older children.

  8. Good site! Allow me to comment please. I am a Catholic and basically we have allowed the old hymns of the church to wither on the vine. I have gone through the Lutheran hymnal 1941 edition and many of these old hymns are exquisite! We used to sing these in church with full pipe organ especially during pro and recessionals. Now we sing a few little ditties with little depth. You guys need to treasure these truly inspired songs!!!!! Look at for instance, Hail to the Lord’s anointed. How majestic and uplifting! Is not God still majestic and uplifting? Treasure these classics before they are all gone. Blessings, Dave k

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