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The Whole Church Sings

During the summer and fall the Institute is posting in this space each month a review of a recent book that we commend as a good resource for reading about the Reformations of the 16th century. This fourth review is by E. Quinn Fox, Associate Pator for Discipleship and Christian Formation/Grow Ministries. The first review by Eric O. Springstead can be found here, the second review by Ann White can be found here, and the third review by James F. Cubie can be found here.

Most know that the posting of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses for Debate” in Wittenberg touched off a series of events that have come to be known as “The Reformation.” Luther’s reform led to a recovery of biblical theology, as well as the refrain of “Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone.” We know these events included a transformation in the church’s liturgy. It moved away from emphasizing the Roman Catholic sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, and the veneration of Mary in formal Latin liturgy, toward the vernacular (common language) expression of Luther’s theology, which was centered on the proclamation of the Scriptures. Perhaps we even know how the revival sparked by Luther’s dramatic protest in 1517 eventually led to new ways of viewing work, government, economics, and more.

But who knew that the Reformation also inaugurated a new era of hymn-writing, changing the way we sing in church, and that as the practice of congregational singing grew in the early years of reform in Luther’s Wittenberg, it helped to solidify and shape the Reformation movement itself?

The title, The Whole Church Sings, aptly summarizes this important aspect of Luther’s legacy, one that Robin Leaver tells with great erudition and scholarly care: while The Reformation may be said to have begun in 1517, it was not until hymns in German (for singing by congregations) began to appear in 1523 that reform really began to take hold.

Unlike the way we listen to music in the late 20th and early 21st, in earlier centuries (and in particular the 16th Century) people made music. Martin Luther, like so many of his time, was familiar with and loved all manner of vernacular singing: folk songs, “master songs,” ballads, and more. Singing permeated 16th-century culture. “No aspect of life, serious or frivolous, no detail of news, national or local, no human emotion, euphoric or dysphoric, no natural event, phenomenal or catastrophic, would be allowed to pass without becoming the subject of vernacular songs” (8). Indeed, “every aspect of life was put into songs, especially the things that were deeply felt, such as one’s religious beliefs” (81). These myriad vernacular songs, both secular and religious, were sung primarily from memory: “singing was by ear rather than by eye” (13). Songs about Luther’s protest soon made it into the popular repertoire. There is evidence of early religious devotion being expressed when the Wittenberg congregation spontaneously broke into song on Christmas Eve, 1521. It was a song with references to Mary and the baby Jesus, sung to a popular folk tune.

Although vernacular church singing was not unknown prior to Luther’s reform, it was mainly Latin music (sung by various choirs to passive congregations) that was heard in church. Luther led the way in changing this, building on the existing culture of popular music, by writing new hymns and encouraging others to write them as well. The result was many new hymns, which remain at the core of Lutheran hymnals to this day. Luther also knew many Latin sacred songs, from his schooling as well as his early years in the Augustinian monastery, enabling him to translate lyrics into German (although in almost every instance Luther made theological revisions to align the words with his theology).

With the advent of movable type, and due in no small part to the popularity of Luther’s ideas, vernacular religious song increasingly found its way into print, especially in the form of inexpensively printed broadsheets and pamphlets. (Almost none of these survive, presenting a significant challenge to historians such as Leaver!)

On July 1, 1523, two Augustinian monks were burned at the stake for heresy in Brussels. In response Luther wrote a protest song about the martyrdom: “A New Song” (Eyn newes lied—note that this is not modern German). It was 10 stanzas long, composed in a simple musical form. “A New Song” was similar in style to the news ballads of the time, sharing the narrative of events around the martyrdom. By choosing a familiar style, Luther ensured a receptive hearing. He also chose a melody in the popular style of the “Meisterlieder.” In other words, his “New Song” was “singable.” At the same time, he demonstrated his considerable poetic skill and familiarity with the folk song tradition. In addition to being a theologian and a pastor, Martin Luther was an able musician and composer.

Eyn newes lied was the “new song” that began Protestant hymnody. It also inspired the introduction of vernacular congregational singing into the worship of the Wittenberg churches (65). This in turn inspired other writers, especially Hans Sachs, to compose vernacular hymns. Sachs was among the first, and was certainly the most skillful (next to Luther himself) in putting Luther’s reform into vernacular song. In late 1523 (or early 1524) the first Wittenberg “hymnal” was published: Enchyridion geistlicher gesange und psalm fur die leyen (Handbook of Spiritual Song and Psalm for the Laity). It contains the early fruit of Luther’s work as well as some first fruits of his inspiration of others. This first hymnal contains popular folk hymns, newly written liturgical hymns, translations of Latin hymns, and—especially important for Presbyterians and those in the Reformed tradition—a new genre of congregational song: metrical versifications of biblical Psalms.

This musical development in early-Reformation Wittenberg, skillfully charted by Leaver, took place in the context of the broader reform movement in Germany (Nuremburg, Zwickau, Leipzig, Erfurt, Worms and Augsburg). He provides a helpful narrative to set the development of congregational singing in the broader historical context of the German Reformation, showing how certain events contributed particularly to how and why congregational singing developed as it did. Those familiar with early Reformation history will recognize the above places as well as the cast of characters: Tetzel, Cajetan, Albrecht of Brandenburg, Pope Leo X, Frederick the Wise, Staupitz, Karlstadt, Müntzer, Dürer, Ossiander, Bugenhagen and many others (many of them hymn writers).

The subtitle alludes to the deeper dimension of this brilliant book: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg. Leaver recounts this very important story of the development and impact of congregational singing in Reformation Germany in a narrowly focused, masterfully researched scholarly monograph. It is the latest volume in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies series. The story (summarized above) is developed with painstaking attention to detail by a leading scholar of the musical traditions of the Reformation. His account of what happened in the first decade or so in Reformation Wittenberg is developed with caution and presented with a degree of circumspection. He makes his case with a thoroughness and rigor that any scholar will appreciate and admire. But that takes a toll on the prose. Leaver’s 8 chapters are chock-full of German and Latin hymn texts and titles (some but by no means all of which are translated into English) containing several hundred footnotes; he includes five appendices. The book is in fact a detailed and comprehensive study focusing on the reevaluation of a specific 16th-century hymnal, published in Wittenberg in1526: Luther’s Enchyridion geistlicher gesange… (Handbook of Spiritual Song…), heretofore neglected in part because its existence was not rediscovered until the late 19th Century.

To illustrate the subtlety and focus of the book: Leaver spends several pages (especially chapter 6) proving that, although the only copy we have of this hymnal is the 1526 publication, it had to have had at least one, possibly two previous editions (leading to the conclusion that Luther’s first hymnal was published in late 1523). In chapter 7, Leaver discusses the importance of Luther’s liturgical reforms: he got rid of daily masses and reformed the office of daily prayer. In fact, morning and evening prayer were the context in which this new hymnody was “taught, learned and promoted” (143). In the final chapter he treats the much more well-known 1529 hymnal published in Wittenberg by Joseph Klug (Geistlich lieder, Spiritual Songs), where “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” first appears. Benefiting from additional years of experience, it is a “more carefully planned” collection of hymns, canticles, and prayers (160), emphasizing the need for the congregation to be involved not just in singing (important as that was), but in liturgical worship. While this hymnal became the cornerstone on which later Lutheran hymnals were built, it was in no way the first hymnal of vernacular congregational songs in Wittenberg.

Why all the fuss to tell a simple story about the importance of congregational singing to the Reformation in a single village? First, the original editions of Luther’s hymns are for the most part lost (hence the need for Leaver’s exhaustive historical detective work in subsequent editions, looking for references and allusions to earlier versions). Second, Luther scholarship is a crowded field. Thousands of Luther books (several hundred by Luther alone) and even more articles about Martin Luther exist. The number published in anticipation of October 31, 1517 is staggering alone (Luther seems to be as irresistible to modern day religious publishers as were his original works to the infant printing industry 500 years ago!). Leaver is not making his case in a vacuum. He is contending against some recent historians who argue that singing by Wittenberg congregations was a secondary development of the Lutheran Reformation prior to 1529 (Klug’s Spiritual Songs, containing “A Mighty Fortress”), and that it was formal choirs (singing traditional Roman Catholic music in Latin) that persisted in the early years.

Leaver’s alternative story, narrated in summary form above, is very convincing and has received high praise from church historians and liturgical and musical scholars alike. But because he is so careful, The Whole Church Sings is challenging for non-specialists to follow. Furthermore, because the titles and texts of Luther’s hymns have been translated inconsistently over the years and thus lack uniform English rendering, Leaver has cited them in German for the sake of consistency (Appendix 3 contains references to all of the hymns in the six major English language Lutheran hymnals). This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it makes the book more difficult to negotiate. While written clearly (abundant German and Latin titles and texts notwithstanding) so that a patient and persistent reader could follow the argument (and would benefit greatly by it), this book is most useful to scholars and serious students of the Reformation, and to those who care deeply about the Lutheran tradition of liturgy and liturgical song.

Rev. E. Quinn Fox, Ph.D.

National Presbyterian Church

Washington, DC

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