Vol. 8, Chapter V (Cont’d) – Reformation of Public Worship


I. Luther: Deutsches Taufbüchlein, 1523; Ordnung des Gottesdienstes in der Gemeinde, 1523; Vom Gräuel der Stillmesse, 1524; Deutsche Messe und Ordnung des Gottesdienstes, 1526; Das Taufbüchlein verdeutscht, aufs neue zugerichtet, 1526. In Walch, X.; in Erl. ed., XXII. 151 sqq. Comp. the Augsburg confession, Pars II. art. 3 (De missa); Apol. of the Augsb. Conf. art. XXIV. (De missa); the Lutheran liturgies or Kirchenagenden (also Kirchenordnungen) of the 16th century, collected in Daniel: Codex Liturgicus Ecclesiae Lutheranae, Lips. 1848 (Tom. II. of his Cod. Lit.), and Höfling: Liturgisches Urkundenbuch (ed. by G. Thomasius and Theodos. Harnack), Leipz. 1854.

II. Th. Kliefoth: Die ursprüngliche Gottesdienstordnung in den deutschen Kirchen luth. Reformation, ihre Destruction und Reformation, Rostock, 1847. Grüneisen: Die evang. Gottesdienstordnung in den oberdeutschen Landen, Stuttgart, 1856. Gottschick: Luthers Anschauungen vom christl. Gottesdienst und seine thatsächliche Reform desselben, Freiburg i. B., 1887.

The reformation of doctrine led to a reconstruction of worship on the basis of Scripture and the guidance of such passages as “God is spirit,” and must be worshiped “in spirit and in truth” (Joh_4:24), and, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1Co_14:40). Protestantism aims at a rational or spiritual service, as distinct from a mechanical service of mere forms. It acts upon the heart through the intellect, rather than the senses, and through instruction, rather than ceremonies. It brings the worshiper into direct communion with God in Christ, through the word of God and prayer, without the obstruction of human mediators.

The Reformers first cleansed the sanctuary of gross abuses and superstitions, and cast out the money-changers with a scourge of cords. They abhorred idolatry, which in a refined form had found its way into the church. They abolished the sale of indulgences, the worship of saints, images, and relics, processions and pilgrimages, the private masses, and masses for the dead in purgatory. They rejected five of the seven sacraments (retaining only baptism and the eucharist), the doctrine of transubstantiation, the priestly sacrifice, the adoration of the host, the withdrawal of the cup from the laity, and the use of a dead language in public worship. They also reduced the excessive ceremonialism and ritualistic display which obscured the spiritual service.

But the impoverishment was compensated by a gain; the work of destruction was followed by a more important and difficult work of reconstruction. This was the revival of primitive worship as far as it can be ascertained from the New Testament, the more abundant reading of the Scriptures and preaching of the cardinal truths of the gospel, the restoration of the Lord’s Supper in its original simplicity, the communion in both kinds, and the translation of the Latin service into the vernacular language whereby it was made intelligible and profitable to the people. There was, however, much crude experimenting and changing until a new order of worship could be fairly established.

Uniformity in worship is neither necessary nor desirable, according to Protestant principles. The New Testament does not prescribe any particular form, except the Lord’s Prayer, the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, and the baptismal formula.

The Protestant orders of worship differ widely in the extent of departure from the Roman service, which is one and the same everywhere. The Lutheran Church is conservative and liturgical. She retained from the traditional usage what was not inconsistent with evangelical doctrine; while the Reformed churches of the Zwinglian and Calvinistic type aimed at the greatest simplicity and spirituality of worship after what they supposed to be the apostolic pattern. Some went so far as to reject all hymns and forms of prayer which are not contained in the Bible, but gave all the more attention to the Psalter, to the sermon, and to extemporaneous prayer. The Anglican Church, however, makes an exception among the Reformed communions: she is even more conservative than the Lutheran, and produced a liturgy which embodies in the choicest English the most valuable prayers and forms of the Latin service, and has maintained its hold upon the reverence and affection of the Episcopal churches to this day. They subordinate preaching to worship, and free prayer to forms of prayer.

Luther began to reform public worship in 1523, but with caution, and in opposition to the radicalism of Carlstadt, who during the former’s absence on the Wartburg had tumultuously abolished the mass, and destroyed the altars and pictures. He retained the term “mass,” which came to signify the whole public service, especially the eucharistic sacrifice. He tried to save the truly Christian elements in the old order, and to reproduce them in the vernacular language for the benefit of the people. His churchly instincts were strengthened by his love of poetry and music. He did not object even to the use of the Latin tongue in the Sunday service, and expressed an impracticable wish for a sort of pentecostal Sunday mass in German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. At the same time he desired also a more private devotional service of converted Christians, with the celebration of the holy communion (corresponding to the missa fidelium of the ante-Nicene Church, as distinct from the missa catechumenorum), but deemed it impossible for that time from the want of the proper persons; for “we Germans,” he said, “are a wild, rough, rabid people, with whom nothing can be done except under the pressure of necessity.”

So he confined himself to provide for the public Sunday service. He retained the usual order, the Gospels and Epistles, the collects, the Te Deum, the Gloria in excelsis, the Benedictus, the Creed, the responses, the kneeling posture in communion, even the elevation of the host and chalice (which he afterwards abandoned, but which is still customary in the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia), though without the adoration. He omitted the canon of the mass which refers to the priestly sacrifice, and which, since the sixth century, contains the kernel of the Roman mass, as an unbloody repetition of the crucifixion and miraculous transformation of the elements. He had previously rejected this “horrible canon,” as he calls it, in his “Babylonian Captivity,” and in a special tract from the Wartburg. He assailed it again and again as a cardinal error in the papal system. He held indeed the doctrine of the real presence, but without the scholastic notion of transubstantiation and priestly sacrifice.

He gave the most prominent place to the sermon, which was another departure from previous custom. He arranged three services on Sunday, each with a sermon: early in the morning, chiefly for servants; the mass at nine or ten; and in the afternoon a discourse from a text in the Old Testament. On Monday and Tuesday in the morning the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer were to be taught; on Wednesday, the Gospel of Matthew; on Saturday, the Gospel of John; on Thursday, the Epistle lessons should be explained. The boys of the school were to recite daily some Psalms in Latin, and then read alternately one or more chapters of the New Testament in Latin and German.

Luther introduced the new order with the approval of the Elector in October, 1525, and published it early in 1526. The chief service on Sunday embraces a German hymn or psalm; the Kyrie Eleison, and Gloria in Excelsis (Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr); a short collect, and the Epistle for the day; a hymn; the Gospel for the day sung by the Minister; the Nicene Creed recited by the whole congregation; a sermon on the Gospel; the Lord’s Prayer; exhortation; the holy communion, the words of institution sung by the minister (this being the consecration of the elements), with singing of the Sanctus (Isa_6:1-4, rendered into German by Luther), the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei (Joh_1:29) or in German “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (by Decius), followed by the distribution, the collection, and benediction. Omitting the canon missae, or the offering of the sacrifice of Christ’s body, the new order was substantially the same as the old, only translated into German.

Melanchthon says in the Augsburg Confession of 1530: Our churches are wrongfully accused of having abolished the mass. For the mass is retained still among us, and celebrated with great reverence; yea, and almost all the ceremonies that are in use, saving that with the things sung in Latin we mingle certain things sung in German at various parts of the service, which are added for the people’s instruction. For therefore alone we have need of ceremonies, that they may teach the unlearned.”

Luther regarded ceremonies, the use of clerical robes, candles on the altar, the attitude of the minister in prayer, as matters of indifference which may be retained or abolished. In the revision of the baptismal service, 1526, he abolished the use of salt, spittle, and oil, but retained the exorcism in an abridged form. He also retained the public confession and absolution, and recommended private confession of sin to the minister.

The Lutheran churches in Northern Germany and in Scandinavia adopted the order of Wittenberg with sundry modifications; but the Lutheran churches in Southern Germany (Würtemberg, Baden, Palatinate, Alsace) followed the simpler type of the Swiss service.

The Lutheran order of worship underwent some radical changes in the eighteenth century under the influence of rationalism; the spirit of worship cooled down; the weekly communion was abolished; the sermon degenerated into a barren moral discourse; new liturgies and hymnbooks with all sorts of misimprovements were introduced. But in recent times, we may say since the third centennial celebration of the Reformation (1817), there has been a gradual revival of the liturgical spirit in different parts of Germany, with a restoration of many devotional treasures of past ages. There is, however, no uniform Lutheran liturgy, like the Common Prayer Book of the Church of England. Each Lutheran state church has its own liturgy and hymnbook.


81. Prominent Features of Evangelical Worship

Taking a wider view of the subject, we may emphasize the following characteristic features of evangelical worship, as compared with that of the Latin and Greek churches:

1. The prominence given to the sermon, or the exposition and application of the word of God. It became the chief part of divine service, and as regards importance took the place of the mass. Preaching was the special function of the bishops, but sadly neglected by them, and is even now in Roman-Catholic countries usually confined to the season of Lent. The Roman worship is complete without a sermon. The mass, moreover, is performed in a dead language, and the people are passive spectators rather than hearers. The altar is the throne of the Catholic priest; the pulpit is the throne of the Protestant preacher and pastor. The Reformers in theory and practice laid the greatest stress on preaching and hearing the gospel as an act of worship.

Luther set the example, and was a most indefatigable and popular preacher. He filled the pulpit of the town church alternately with Bugenhagen, the pastor, on Sundays and week-days, sometimes twice a day. Even in the last days of his life he delivered four sermons from the pulpit at Eisleben in spite of physical infirmity and pain. His most popular sermons are those on the Gospels and Epistles of the year, collected in the Kirchenpostille, which he completed in 1525 and 1527. Another popular collection is his Hauspostille, which contains his sermons at home, as taken down by Veit Dietrich and Rörer, and published in 1544 and 1559. He preached without notes, after meditation, under the inspiration of the moment.

He was a Boanerges, the like of whom Germany never heard before or since. He had all the elements of a popular orator. Melanchthon said, “One is an interpreter, one a logician, another an orator, but Luther is all in all.” Bossuet gives him credit for “a lively and impetuous eloquence by which he delighted and captivated his hearers.” Luther observed no strict method. He usually followed the text, and combined exposition with application. He made Christ and the gospel his theme. He lived and moved in the Bible, and understood how to make it a book of life for his time. He always spoke from intense conviction and with an air of authority. He had an extraordinary faculty of expressing the profoundest thoughts in the clearest and strongest language for the common people. He hit the nail on the head. He was bold and brave, and spared neither the Devil nor the Pope nor the Sacramentarians. His polemical excursions, however, are not always in good taste, nor in the right spirit.

He disregarded the scholars among his hearers, and aimed at the common people, the women and children and servants. “Cursed be the preachers,” he said, “who in church aim at high or hard things.” He was never dull or tedious. He usually stopped when the hearers were at the height of attention, and left them anxious to come again. He censured Bugenhagen for his long sermons, of which people so often and justly complain. He summed up his homiletical wisdom in three rules: — 

“Start fresh; Speak out; Stop short.”

The mass and the sermon are the chief means of edification, — the one in the Greek and Roman, the other in the Protestant churches. The mass memorializes symbolically, day by day, the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world; the sermon holds up the living Christ of the gospel as an inspiration to holy living and dying. Both may degenerate into perfunctory, mechanical services; but Christianity has outlived all dead masses and dry sermons, and makes its power felt even through the weakest instrumentalities.

As preaching is an intellectual and spiritual effort, it calls for a much higher education than the reading of the mass from a book. A comparison of the Protestant with the Roman or Greek clergy at once shows the difference.

2. In close connection with preaching is the stress laid on catechetical instruction. Of this we shall speak in a special section.

3. The Lord’s Supper was restored to its primitive character as a commemoration of the atoning death of Christ, and a communion of believers with Him. In the Protestant system the holy communion is a sacrament, and requires the presence of the congregation; in the Roman system it is chiefly a sacrifice, and may be performed by the priest alone. The withdrawal of the cup is characteristic of the over-estimate of the clergy and under-estimate of the laity; and its restoration was not only in accordance with primitive usage, but required by the doctrine of the general priesthood of believers.

Luther retained the weekly communion as the conclusion of the regular service on the Lord’s Day. In the Reformed churches it was made less frequent, but more solemn.

4. The divine service was popularized by substituting the vernacular for the Latin language in prayer and song, — a change of incalculable consequence.

5. The number of church festivals was greatly reduced, and confined to those which commemorate the great facts of our salvation; namely, the incarnation (Christmas), the redemption (Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter), and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Ascension and Pentecost), with the concluding festival of the Holy Trinity. They constitute the nucleus of the Christian year, and a sort of chronological creed for the people. The Lutheran Church retained also (at least in some sections) the feasts of the Virgin Mary, of the Apostles and Evangelists, and of All Saints; but they have gradually gone out of use.

Luther held that church festivals, and even the weekly sabbath, were abolished in principle, and observed only on account of the requirements of public worship and the weakness of the laity. The righteous need no laws and ceremonies. To them all time is holy, every day a day of rest, and every day a day of good work. But “although,” he says, “all days are free and alike, it is yet useful and good, yea, necessary, to keep holy one day, whether it be sabbath or Sunday or any other day; for God will govern the world orderly and peacefully; hence he gave six days for work, and the seventh for rest, that men should refresh themselves by rest, and hear the word of God.”

In this view all the Reformers substantially agree, including Calvin and Knox, except that the latter made practically less account of the annual festivals, and more of the weekly festival. The Anglo-American theory of the Lord’s Day, which is based on the perpetual essential obligation of the Fourth Commandment, as a part of the moral law to be observed with Christian freedom in the light of Christ’s resurrection, is of Puritan origin at the close of the sixteenth century, and was first symbolically sanctioned by the Westminster standards in 1647, but has worked itself into the flesh and blood of all English-speaking Christendom to the great benefit of public worship and private devotion.


82. Beginnings of Evangelical Hymnody

I. The “Wittenberg Enchiridion,” 1524. The “Erfurt Enchiridion,” 1524. Walter’s “Gesangbuch,” with preface by Luther, 1524. Klug’s “Gesangbuch,” by Luther, 1529, etc. Babst’s “Gesangbuch,” 1545, 5th ed. 1553. Spangenberg’s “Cantiones ecclesiasticae,” 1545. See exact titles in Wackernagel’s Bibliographie, etc.

II. C. V. Winterfeld: Luther’s geistl. Lieder nebst Stimmweisen. Leipz. 1840. Ph. Wackernagel: Luther’s geistl. Lieder u. Singweisen. Stuttgart, 1848. Other editions of Luther’s Hymns by Stip, 1854; Schneider, 1856; Dreher, 1857. B. Pick: Luther as a Hymnist. Philad. 1875. Emil. Frommel: Luther’s Lieder und Sprüche. Der singende Luther im Kranze seiner dichtenden und bildenden Zeitgenossen. Berlin, 1883. (Jubilee ed. with illustrations from Dürer and Cranach.) L. W. Bacon and N. H. Allen: The Hymns of Luther set to their original melodies, with an English Version. New York, 1883. E. Achelis: Die Entstehungszeit v. Luther’s geistl. Liedern. Marburg, 1884. Danneil: Luther’s geistl. Lieder nach seinen drei Gesangbüchern von 1524, 1529, 1545. Frankf.-a-M., 1885.

III. Aug. H. Hoffmann von Fallersleben: Geschichte des deutschen Kirchenlieds his auf Luther’s Zeit. Breslau, 1832; third ed., Hannover, 1861. F. A. Cunz: Gesch. des deutschen Kirchenlieds. Leipz. 1855, 2 parts. Julius Mützell: Geistliche Lieder der evangelischen Kirche aus dem 16ten Jahrh. nach den ältesten Drucken. Berlin, 1855, in 3 vols. (The same publ. afterwards Geistl. Lieder der ev. K. aus dem 17ten und Anfang des 18ten Jahrh. Braunschweig, 1858.) K. Müllenhoff and W. Scherer: Denkmäler deutscher Poesie und Prosa aus dem 8ten his 12ten Jahrh. Berlin, 1864.

*Eduard Emil Koch (d. 1871): Geschichte des Kirchenlieds der christlichen, insbesondere der deutschen evangelischen Kirche. Third ed. completed and enlarged by Richard Lauxmann. Stuttgart, 1866-1876, in 8 vols. (The first ed. appeared in 1847; the second in 1852 and 1853, in 4 vols.) A very useful book for German hymnody.

*Philipp Wackernagel (d. 1877): Das deutsche Kirchenlied von Luther his N. Hermann und A. Blaurer. Stuttgart, 1842, in 2 vols. By the same: Bibliographie zur Geschichte des deutschen Kirchenliedes im 16ten Jahrhundert. Frankf.-a-M., 1855. *By the same: Das deutsche Kirchenlied von der ältesten Zeit his zu Anfang des XVII Jahrhunderts. Leipzig, 1864-77, in 5 vols. (his chief work, completed by his two sons). A monumental work of immense industry and painstaking accuracy, in a department where “pedantry is a virtue.” Vol. I. contains Latin hymns, and from pp. 365-884 additions to the bibliography. The second and following vols. are devoted to German hymnody, including the medieval (vol. II.).

*A. F. W. Fischer: Kirchenlieder-Lexicon. Hymnologisch-literarische Nachweisungen über 4,500 der wichtigsten und verbreitetsten Kirchenlieder aller Zeiten. Gotha, 1878, ‘79, in 2 vols. K. Severin Meister and Wilhelm Bäumker (R. C.): Das katholische deutsche Kirchenlied in seinen Singweisen von den frühesten Zeiten his gegen Ende des 17ten Jahrh. Freiburg-i.-B. 1862, 2d vol. by Bäumker, 1883. Devoted chiefly to the musical part.

On the hymnody of the Reformed churches of Switzerland and France in the sixteenth century, Les Psaumes mis en rime franaçaise par Clément Marot et Theodore de Bèze. Mis en musique à quatre parties par Claude Goudimel. Genève, 1565. It contains 150 Psalms, Symeon’s Song, a poem on the Decalogue and 150 melodies, many of which were based on secular tunes, and found entrance into the Lutheran Church. A beautiful modern edition by O. Douen: Clément Marot et le Psautier Huguenot. Paris, 1878 and 1879, 2 vols. Weber: Geschichte des Kirchengesangs in der deutschen reformirten Schweiz seit der Reformation. Zürich, 1876.

On the hymnody of the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren, see Wackernagel’s large work, III. 229-350 (Nos. 255-417), and Koch, l.c. II. 114-132.

Comp. the hymnological collections and discussions of Rambach, Bunsen, Knapp, Daniel, J. P. Lange, Stier, Stip, Geffken, Vilmar, etc. Also Schaff’s sketch of “German Hymnology,” and other relevant articles in the forthcoming “Dictionary of Hymnology,” edited by J. Julian, to be published by J. Murray in London and Scribner in New York, 1889. This will be the best work in the English language on the origin and history of Christian hymns of all ages and nations.

The most valuable contribution which German Protestantism made to Christian worship is its rich treasury of hymns. Luther struck the key-note; the Lutheran Church followed with a luminous train of hymnists; the Reformed churches, first with metrical versions of the Psalms and appropriate tunes, afterwards with new Christian hymns.

The hymn in the strict sense of the term, as a popular religious lyric, or a lyric poem in praise of God or Christ to be sung by the congregation in public worship, was born in Germany and brought to maturity with the Reformation and with the idea of the general priesthood of believers. The Latin Church had prepared the way, and produced some of the grandest hymns which can never die, as the “Dies Irae,” the “Stabat mater,” and the “Jesu dulcis memoria.” But these and other Latin hymns and sequences of St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, Fortunatus, Notker, St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas a Celano, Jacobus de Benedictis, Adam of St. Victor, etc., were sung by priests and choristers, and were no more intelligible to the common people than the Latin Psalter and the Latin mass. The reign of the Latin language in public worship, while it tended to preserve the unity of the church, and to facilitate literary intercourse, kept back the free development of a vernacular hymnody. Nevertheless, the native love of the Germans for poetry and song produced for private devotion a large number of sacred lyrics and versified translations of the Psalms and Latin hymns. As there were German Bibles before Luther’s version, so there were also German hymns before his time; but they were limited in use, and superseded by the superior products of the evangelical church. Philip Wackernagel (the most learned German hymnologist, and an enthusiastic admirer of Luther) gives in the second volume of his large collection no less than fourteen hundred and forty-eight German hymns and sequences, from Otfrid to Hans Sachs (inclusive) or from a.d. 868 to 1518. Nor was vernacular hymnody confined to Germany. St. Francis of Assisi composed the “Cantico del Sol,” and Jacopone da Todi (the author of the “Stabat Mater”) those passionate dithyrambic odes which “vibrate like tongues of fire,” for private confraternities and domestic gatherings.


German Hymnody before the Reformation

In order to form a just estimate of German Protestant hymnody, we must briefly survey the medieval German hymnody.

The first attempts of Teutonic church poetry are biblical epics, and the leader of the Teutonic Christ-singers is the Anglo-Saxon monk Caedmon of Whitby (formerly a swineherd), about 680, who reproduced in alliterative verse, as by inspiration, the biblical history of creation and redemption, and brought it home to the imagination and heart of Old England. This poem, which was probably brought to Germany by Bonifacius and other English missionaries, inspired in the ninth century a similar production of an unknown Saxon (Westphalian) monk, namely, a poetic gospel harmony or life of Christ under the title “Heliand” (i.e., Heiland, Healer, Saviour). About the same time (c. 870), Otfrid of Weissenburg in the Alsace, a Benedictine monk, educated at Fulda and St. Gall, versified the gospel history in the Alemannian dialect, in fifteen hundred verses, divided into stanzas, each stanza consisting of four rhymed lines.

These three didactic epics were the first vernacular Bibles for the laity among the Western barbarians.

The lyric church poetry and music began with the “Kyrie Eleison” and “Christe Eleison,” which passed from the Greek church into the Latin as a response of the people, especially on the high festivals, and was enlarged into brief poems called (from the refrain) Kirleisen, or Leisen, also Leichen. These enlarged cries for mercy are the first specimens of German hymns sung by the people. The oldest dates from the ninth century, called the “Leich vom heiligen Petrus,” in three stanzas, the first of which reads thus in English: — 

“Our Lord delivered power to St. Peter,

That he may preserve the man who hopes in Him.

Lord, have mercy upon us!

Christ, have mercy upon us!”

One of the best and most popular of these Leisen, but of much later date, is the Easter hymn,

“Christ is erstanden

von der marter alle,

des sul [sollen] wir alle fro sein,

Christ sol unser trost sein.

Kyrie leyson.”

Penitential hymns in the vernacular were sung by the Flagellants (the Geisslergesellschaften), who in the middle of the fourteenth century, during a long famine and fearful pestilence (the “Black Death,” 1348), passed in solemn processions with torches, crosses, and banners, through Germany and other countries, calling upon the people to repent and to prepare for the judgment to come.

Some of the best Latin hymns, as the “Te Deum,” the “Gloria in excelsis,” the “Pange lingua,” the “Veni Creator Spiritus,” the “Ave Maria,” the “Stabat Mater,” the “Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem,” St. Bernard’s “Jesu dulcis memoria,” and “Salve caput cruentatum,” were repeatedly translated long before the Reformation. Sometimes the words of the original were curiously mixed with the vernacular, as in the Christmas hymn, — 

“In dulci jubilo

Nun singet und seit fro!

Unsres Herzens Wonne

Leit in praesepio

Und leuchtet wie die Sonne

In matris gremio

Alpha es et O.”

A Benedictine monk, John of Salzburg, prepared a number of translations from the Latin at the request of his archbishop, Pilgrim, in 1366, and was rewarded by him with a parish.

The “Minnesänger” of the thirteenth century — among whom Gottfried of Strassburg and Walther von der Vogelweide are the most eminent — glorified love, mingling the earthly and heavenly, the sexual and spiritual, after the model of Solomon’s Song. The Virgin Mary was to them the type of pure, ideal womanhood. Walther cannot find epithets enough for her praise.

The mystic school of Tauler in the fourteenth century produced a few hymns full of glowing love to God. Tauler is the author of the Christmas poem, — 

“Uns kommt ein Schiff geladen,”

and of hymns of love to God, one of which begins, — 

“Ich muss die Creaturen fliehen

Und suchen Herzensinnigkeit,

Soll ich den Geist zu Gotte ziehen,

Auf dass er bleib in Reinigkeit.”

The “Meistersänger” of the fifteenth century were, like the “Minnesänger,” fruitful in hymns to the Virgin Mary. One of them begins, — 

“Maria zart von edler Art

Ein Ros ohn alle Dornen.”

From the middle ages have come down also some of the best tunes, secular and religious.

The German hymnody of the middle ages, like the Latin, overflows with hagiolatry and Mariolatry. Mary is even clothed with divine attributes, and virtually put in the place of Christ, or of the Holy Spirit, as the fountain of all grace. The most pathetic of Latin hymns, the “Stabat mater dolorosa,” which describes with overpowering effect the piercing agony of Mary at the cross, and the burning desire of being identified with her in sympathy, is disfigured by Mariolatry, and therefore unfit for evangelical worship without some omissions or changes. The great and good Bonaventura, who wrote the Passion hymn, “Recordare sanctae crucis,” applied the whole Psalter to the Virgin in his “Psalterium B. Mariae,” or Marian Psalter, where the name of Mary is substituted for that of the Lord. It was also translated into German, and repeatedly printed.

“Through all the centuries from Otfrid to Luther” (says Wackernagel), “we meet with the idolatrous veneration of the Virgin Mary. There are hymns which teach that she pre-existed with God at the creation, that all things were created in her and for her, and that God rested in her on the seventh day.” One of the favorite Mary-hymns begins, — 

“Dich, Frau vom Himmel, ruf ich an,

In diesen grossen Nöthen mein.”

Hans Sachs afterwards characteristically changed it into

“Christum vom Himmel ruf ich an.”

The medieval hymnody celebrates Mary as the queen of heaven, as the “eternal womanly,” which draws man insensibly heavenward. It resembles the Sixtine Madonna who carries the Christ-child in her arms.


German Hymnody of the Reformation

The evangelical church substituted the worship of Christ, as our only Mediator and Advocate, for the worship of his virgin-mother. It reproduced and improved the old Latin and vernacular hymns and tunes, and produced a larger number of original ones. It introduced congregational singing in the place of the chanting of priests and choirs. The hymn became, next to the German Bible and the German sermon, the most powerful missionary of the evangelical doctrines of sin and redemption, and accompanied the Reformation in its triumphal march. Printed as tracts, the hymns were scattered wide and far, and sung in the house, the school, the church, and on the street. Many of them survive to this day, and kindle the flame of devotion.

To Luther belongs the extraordinary merit of having given to the German people in their own tongue, and in a form eclipsing and displacing all former versions, the Bible, the catechism, and the hymn-book, so that God might speak directly to them in His word, and that they might directly speak to Him in their songs. He was a musician also, and composed tunes to some of his hymns. He is the Ambrose of German church poetry and church music. He wrote thirty-seven hymns. Most of them (twenty-one) date from the year 1524; the first from 1523, soon after the completion of his translation of the New Testament; the last two from 1543, three years before his death. The most original and best known, — we may say the most Luther-like and most Reformer-like — is that heroic battle- and victory-hymn of the Reformation, which has so often been reproduced in other languages, and resounds in all German lands with mighty effect on great occasions: — 

“Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott.”

(A tower of strength is this our God.)

This mighty poem is based upon the forty-sixth Psalm (Deus noster refugium et virtus) which furnished the key-note. It was born of deep tribulation and conquering faith, in the disastrous year 1527 (not 1521, or 1529, or 1530), and appeared first in print in 1528.

Luther availed himself with his conservative tact of all existing helps for the benefit of public worship and private devotion. Most of his hymns and tunes rest on older foundations partly Latin, partly German. Some of them were inspired by Hebrew Psalms. To these belong, besides, Ein feste Burg” (Psa_46:1-11), the following: — 

“Aus tiefer Noth schrei ich zu dir” (1523).

(Out of the depths I cry to Thee. Psa_130:1-8.)

“Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (1523).

(Help, Lord, look down from heaven above. Psa_12:1-8.)

On the second chapter of Luke, which is emphatically the gospel of children, are based his truly childlike Christmas songs, — 

“Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her” (1535),

(From heaven high to earth I come,)


“Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schaar” (1543).

(From heaven came the angel hosts.)

Others are free reproductions of Latin hymns, either directly from the original, or on the basis of an older German version: as, — 

“Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (1543).

(Te Deum laudamus.)

“Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, heiliger Geist” (1524).

(Veni, Creator Spiritus.)

“Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (1524).

(Veni, Redemptor gentium.)

“Gelobet seist du, Jesus Christ” (1524).

(Grates nunc omnes reddamus.)

“Mitten wir im Leben sind” (1524).

(Media vita in morte sumus.)

“Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist” (1524).

(Now we pray to the Holy Ghost.)

“Christ lag in Todesbanden” (1524).

(In the bonds of death He lay.)

“Surrexit Christus hodie.”

Among his strictly original hymns are, — 

“Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein” (1523).

(Rejoice, rejoice, dear flock of Christ.)

Bunsen calls this, the first (?) voice of German church-song, which flashed with the power of lightning through all German lands, in praise of the eternal decree of redemption of the human race and of the gospel of freedom.”

“Erhalt uns Herr bei deinem Wort,

Und steur des Papsts und Türken Mord” (1541).

This is directed against the Pope and the Turk, as the chief enemies of Christ and his church in Luther’s days.

The stirring song of the two evangelical proto-martyrs at Brussels in 1523,

“Ein neüs Lied wir heben an.” — 


is chronologically his first, and not a hymn in the proper sense of the term, but had an irresistible effect, especially the tenth stanza, — 

“Die Asche will nicht lassen ab

Sie stäubt in alten Landen,

Hie hilft kein Bach, Loch, Grub noch Grab,

Sie macht den Feind zu Schanden.

Die er im Leben durch den Mord,

Zu schweigen hat gedrungen

Die muss er todt an altem Ort

Mit aller Stimm und Zungen

Gar frölich lassen singen.”

(Their ashes will not rest and lie,

But scattered far and near,

Stream, dungeon, bolt, and grave defy,

Their foeman’s shame and fear.

Those whom alive the tyrant’s wrongs

To silence could subdue,

He must, when dead, let sing the songs

And in all languages and tongues

Resound the wide world through.)

Luther’s hymns are characterized, like those of St. Ambrose, by simplicity and strength, and a popular churchly tone. But, unlike those of St. Ambrose and the Middle Ages, they breathe the bold, confident, joyful spirit of justifying faith, which was the beating heart of his theology and piety.

Luther’s hymns passed at once into common use in church and school, and sung the Reformation into the hearts of the people. Hans Sachs of Nürnberg saluted him as the nightingale of Wittenberg. How highly his contemporaries thought of them, may be inferred from Cyriacus Spangenberg, likewise a hymnist, who said in his preface to the “Cithara Lutheri” (1569): “Of all master-singers since the days of the apostles, Luther is the best. In his hymns you find not an idle or useless word. The rhymes are easy and good, the words choice and proper, the meaning clear and intelligible, the melodies lovely and hearty, and, in summa, all is so rare and majestic, so full of pith and power, so cheering and comforting, that you will not find his equal, much less his master.”

Before Luther’s death (1546), there appeared no less than forty-seven Lutheran hymn- and tune-books. The first German evangelical hymn-book, the so-called “Wittenberg Enchiridion.” was printed in the year 1524, and contained eight hymns, four of them by Luther, three by Speratus, one by an unknown author. The “Erfurt Enchiridion” of the same year numbered twenty-five hymns, of which eighteen were from Luther. The hymn-book of Walther, also of 1524, contained thirty-two German and five Latin hymns, with a preface of Luther. Klug’s Gesangbuch by Luther, Wittenberg, 1529, had fifty (twenty-eight of Luther); Babst’s of 1545 (printed at Leipzig), eighty-nine; and the fifth edition of 1553, a hundred and thirty-one hymns.

This rapid increase of hymns and hymn-books continued after Luther’s death. We can only mention the names of the principal hymnists who were inspired by his example.

Justus Jonas (1493-1555), Luther’s friend and colleague, wrote, — 

“Wo Gott, der Herr, nicht bei uns hält” (Psa_124:1-8).

(If God were not upon our side.)

Paul Ebert (1511-1569), the faithful assistant of Melanchthon, and professor of Hebrew in Wittenberg, is the author of

“Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein,”

(When in the hour of utmost need,)


“Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’r Mensch und Gott.”

(Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God.)

Burkhard Waldis of Hesse (1486-1551) versified the Psalter.

Erasmus Alber (d. in Mecklenburg, 1553) wrote twenty hymns which Herder and Gervinus thought almost equal to Luther’s.

Lazarus Spengler of Nürnberg (1449-1534) wrote about 1522 a hymn on sin and redemption, which soon became very popular, although it is didactic rather than poetic: — 

“Durch Adam’s Fall ist ganz verderbt.”


Hans Sachs (1494-1576), the shoemaker-poet of Nürnberg, was the most fruitful “Meistersänger” of that period, and wrote some spiritual hymns as well; but only one of them is still in use: — 

“Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz?”

(Why doest thou vex thyself, my heart?)

Veit Dietrich, pastor of St. Sebaldus in Nürnberg (d. 1549), wrote: — 

“Bedenk, o Mensch, die grosse Gnad.”

(Remember, man, the wondrous grace.)

Markgraf Albrecht of Brandenburg (d. 1557), is the author of: — 

“Was mein Gott will, gescheh allzeit.”

(Thy will, my God, be always done.)

Paul Speratus, his court-chaplain at Königsberg (d. 1551), contributed three hymns to the first German hymn-book (1524), of which — 

“Es ist das Heil uns kommen her”

(To us salvation now has come)

is the best, though more didactic than lyric, and gives rhymed expression to the doctrine of justification by faith.


“Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”

(To Thee alone, Lord Jesus Christ)

appeared first in 1545, and is used to this day.

Mathesius, the pupil and biographer of Luther, and pastor at Joachimsthal in Bohemia (1504-65), wrote a few hymns. Nicolaus Hermann, his cantor and friend (d. 1561), is the author of a hundred and seventy-six hymns, especially for children, and composed popular tunes. Nicolaus Decius, first a monk, then an evangelical pastor at Stettin (d. 1541), reproduced the Gloria in Excelsis in his well-known

“Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” (1526),


and the eucharistic Agnus Dei in his

“O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (1531).


He also composed the tunes.

The German hymnody of the Reformation period was enriched by hymns of the Bohemian Brethren. Two of them, Michael Weisse (d. 1542) and Johann Horn, prepared free translations. Weisse was a native German, but joined the Brethren, and was sent by them as a delegate to Luther in 1522, who at first favored them before they showed their preference for the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments. One of the best known of these Bohemian hymns is the Easter song (1531): — 

“Christus ist erstanden.”

(Christ the Lord is risen.)

We cannot follow in detail the progress of German hymnody. It flows from the sixteenth century down to our days in an unbroken stream, and reflects German piety in the sabbath dress of poetry. It is by far the richest of all hymnodies.

The number of German’ hymns cannot fall short of one hundred thousand. Dean Georg Ludwig von Hardenberg of Halberstadt, in the year 1786, prepared a hymnological catalogue of the first lines of 72,733 hymns (in five volumes preserved in the library of Halberstadt). This number was not complete at that time, and has considerably increased since. About ten thousand have become more or less popular, and passed into different hymn-books. Fischer gives the first lines of about five thousand of the best, many of which were overlooked by Von Hardenberg.

We may safely say that nearly one thousand of these hymns are classical and immortal. This is a larger number than can be found in any other language.

To this treasury of German song, several hundred men and women, of all ranks and conditions, — theologians and pastors, princes and princesses, generals and statesmen, physicians and jurists, merchants and travelers, laborers and private persons, — have made contributions, laying them on the common altar of devotion. The majority of German hymnists are Lutherans, the rest German Reformed (as Neander and Tersteegen), or Moravians (Zinzendorf and Gregor), or belong to the United Evangelical Church. Many of these hymns, and just those possessed of the greatest vigor and unction, full of the most exulting faith and the richest comfort, had their origin amid the conflicts and storms of the Reformation, or the fearful devastations and nameless miseries of the Thirty Years’ War; others belong to the revival period of the pietism of Spener, and the Moravian Brotherhood of Zinzendorf, and reflect the earnest struggle after holiness, the fire of the first love, and the sweet enjoyment of the soul’s intercourse with her heavenly Bridegroom; not a few of them sprang up even in the cold and prosy age of “illumination” and rationalism, like flowers from dry ground, or Alpine roses on fields of snow; others, again, proclaim, in fresh and joyous tones, the dawn of reviving faith in the land where the Reformation had its birth. Thus these hymns constitute a book of devotion and poetic confession of faith for German Protestantism, a sacred band which encircles its various periods, an abiding memorial of its struggles and victories, its sorrows and joys, a mirror of its deepest experiences, and an eloquent witness for the all-conquering and invincible life-power of the evangelical Christian faith.

The treasures of German hymnody have enriched the churches of other tongues, and passed into Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, French, Dutch, and modern English and American hymn-books.

John Wesley was the first of English divines who appreciated its value; and while his brother Charles produced an immense number of original hymns, John freely reproduced several hymns of Paul Gerhardt, Tersteegen, and Zinzendorf. The English Moravian hymn-book as revised by Montgomery contains about a thousand abridged (but mostly indifferent) translations from the German. In more recent times several accomplished writers, male and female, have vied with each other in translations and transfusions of German hymns.

Among the chief English translators are Miss Frances Elizabeth Cox; Arthur Tozer Russell; Richard Massie; Miss Catherine Winkworth; Mrs. Eric Findlater and her sister, Miss Jane Borthwick, of the Free Church of Scotland, who modestly conceal their names under the letters “H. L. L.” (Hymns from the Land of Luther); James W. Alexander,Henry Mills, John Kelly, not to mention many others who have furnished admirable translations of one or more hymns for public or private hymnological collections.

English and American hymnody began much later than the German, but comes next to it in fertility, is enriching itself constantly by transfusions of Greek, Latin, and German, as well as by original hymns, and may ultimately surpass all hymnodies.