by Jason Braaten
Johann Gerhard, a 17th-century Lutheran pastor, wrote: “Luther gathered the principal and most necessary points of doctrine and comfort in beautiful German psalms and hymns, so that the simple too might make continual use of them–as has manifestly (praise God) come to pass, and no one can truthfully deny.”
The Lutheran opponents of Gerhard’s day agreed. Christopher Boyd Brown relates two instances in the opening pages of Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (New Haven: Harvard University Press, 2005). One “marveled at how securely Luther’s hymns had planted Lutheranism in Germany … to fill German houses, workplaces, markets, streets, and fields.” While another lamented that “Luther had destroyed more souls with his hymns than with all his writing and preaching.” In other words, the great hymns of the Reformation, indeed, Luther’s own hymns, enabled the theology of the Reformation to sink into the head and heart of all who sang them.
These hymns of the Reformation are treasures of our church. Hymns such as “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” (LSB 655), “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice” (LSB 556), “Salvation unto Us Has Come” (LSB 555), “O Lord, We Praise Thee” (LSB 617), “We All Believe in One True God” (LSB 953/954), “To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray” (LSB 768), “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (LSB 458), and many more. Sadly, they have, in many cases, been relegated to chests in the attics of our churches. Whether it is because they are long or unfamiliar, and thus seemingly difficult, our churches no longer sing with gusto the great heritage of theologically rich and musically beautiful hymns that our fathers in faith have bequeathed to us.
As we look to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let us crawl up into our church attics, bring down those chests and dust off those treasures. Let us rediscover the heart and soul of the Reformation–the great hymns of the 16th and 17th centuries. Let us sing our Lutheran faith so that it will be lodged, not only in our hearts and minds, but also in the hearts and minds of our children and grandchildren.
The Rev. Jason M. Braaten is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Tuscola, Ill.