The Explanation we published two weeks ago was taken directly from catechetical materials developed by the General Council for the distinct purpose of educating Lutherans regarding the doctrinal integrity and catholicity of genuine Lutheran worship. Indeed, this Explanation of the Common Service, published in 1908, was dedicated to the “Young Lutheran who asks the meaning of the beautiful liturgy of the Lutheran Church.” In our introductory remarks preceding the explanation, we marveled at this. Lutherans these days don't educate their youth about Lutheran worship, and if they do, they don't do so in a way that extolls it's beauty as a work of Fine Art, nor do they do so in a way that reinforces its doctrinal integrity, nor do they do so in a way that embraces its catholicity. One of the bright shining exceptions to the lamentable reality that contemporary Lutherans no longer value their heritage of worship enough to bother passing it down to their youth, is the LCMS-affiliated organization, Higher Things. Outside of this organization, the best one can hope for is a one- or two-lesson explanation of Lutheran worship which neither extolls its beauty nor places value on its doctrinal integrity and catholicity, but uses the opportunity to deride our heritage by vaunting its status as “an adiophoron” and setting it on equal footing with just about any form of Sectarian Worship imaginable – as long as one wears the appropriate set of blinders as he goes about imagining. Yeah, sure, you can do it, but why would you want to? In answer to this one needs but a “reason,” and in the world of adiaphora that merely means “opinion.” Thus one “reason” is as good as another, and anything one can “justify” has open license attending it.
But we further asked the reader to notice the use of language this Explanation employed. It was not written for functionally illiterate Lutherans who find reading and understanding anything written above the sixth-grade reading level to be a hopeless struggle. On the contrary, being dedicated to the “Young Lutherans,” it was written to Lutheran Youth, and plainly assumed that they had command of their own language. If it was written above their level, then it served the noble purpose of lifting them out of their immature literacy and colorless task-oriented-use of language, through the rich vocabulary and precise grammar employed in the distinctive and enculturating language of the Church. Contemporary Lutherans, it seems, no longer value the uplifting qualities of higher literacy, either.
Regardless of what the so-called wise-men of contemporary times insist upon, I am not ready to succumb to such disrespect for others that my operative assumption is that they are all functionally illiterate. I don't think all, or most, or even a significant minority of educated Lutherans are just a bunch of dumb-dumbs who can't read. Some very-well may refuse to read anything more complex than a comic book, but that is a separate matter – a matter of sinful obstinacy, and perhaps even rebellion. It is not a matter of literacy. So today, we are going to continue our use of materials having high-literary quality to provide a brief explanation of Lutheran hymnody.
What is a Hymn? A Canticle? A Carol? An Anthem?
We begin with the source pictured at the top left: The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, by W. G. Polack – who was the chairman of The Lutheran Hymnal committee. This work first appeared in 1942, essentially accompanying the publication of The Lutheran Hymnal, and went through several revisions thereafter. It is a book which catalogs all of the hymns used in The Lutheran Hymnal, identifying their authors and sources, providing a history of the circumstances under which the hymn was written (if notable), reproducing the hymn in its original language alongside the English version which appeared in the hymnal and identifying (sometimes justifying) alternate readings from the original composition. It is considered a classic in the field of hymnology.
In the Introduction to this magnificent work, Polack answers the questions everyone has regarding the various words used to identify the music we sing at Divine Service. He writes:
- The Lutheran Hymnal contains 644 hymns, 16 spiritual songs, and, besides those included in the orders of matins and vespers, 8 canticles and chants. The term hymn in this connection is used in its special sense of church-hymn. St Augustine defined a hymn as “praise to God with song.” That is a very general definition. In the usage of the Church, in order to distinguish it from a carol, a spiritual song, an anthem, a gospel-song, or a canticle, the hymn has come to have a more specific meaning.
The term carol, originally a dance song, now signifies a popular, spiritual folk-song, usually of praise and joy. The carol originated in the later Middle Ages and was frequently addressed to the Virgin Mary. Carols are less formal than hymns, and sometimes are trivial and even nonsensical. They are ballad-like in character and include lullabies, shepherds’ songs, songs of the Wise Men, and sometimes are based on ancient legends connected with the life of our Lord or the Holy Family. A spiritual song is more formal than a carol and designates a song of a spiritual, religious nature. An anthem, according to Webster, “formerly, a psalm or hymn sung antiphonally, or responsively, is now a sacred choral composition, usually sung by a church choir, with words usually from the Scriptures.” A canticle, originally a little song, now refers to a non-metrical spiritual song or chant, sometimes a Scriptural song, sometimes a Scriptural paraphrase. Examples are the Gloria Patri, the Magnificat, the Te Deum, the Beatitudes. A gospel-song, in contrast to a hymn has been defined as “a religious exhortation to fellow-men.”
What then is a hymn? It has been rightly said that “it is much easier to say what is not a hymn than what is a hymn.” Certainly, there is no agreement among authorities as to what really constitutes a hymn; and yet, when we consult the latest hymnals published by the leading denominations in Great Britain and America, we find that these hymnals are closer to being collections of hymns than they have ever been before. And while the committee which edited The Lutheran Hymnal had set for itself a rather high standard as to what constitutes a hymn, yet, for obvious reasons that standard could not always be adhered to rigidly, for, as Prof. L. Blankenbuehler states in The Christian Hymn, “the line between the hymn and the spiritual song, an individualized, subjective lyrical poem or prayer, is at times very tenuous.”
If we were to venture a definition of a church-hymn, we could hardly improve on that by Harvey B. Marks, in his The Rise and Growth of English Hymnody: “A hymn is a sacred poem expressive of devotion, spiritual experience, or religious truth, fitted to be sung by an assembly of people.”
A church-hymn, then, must be a song, a popular poetical expression of that which the believers have in common. It must be true, Biblical, Christian, edifying, simple yet dignified in language, excellent in content and form, devotional in tone, churchly and congregational in viewpoint and sentiment. It must contain nothing that is untrue, questionable, unclear, uncouth, offensive. It must not be unrhythmical, humorous, sentimental, too imaginary, and too allegorical.
A true church-hymn is reverent in its language and by that token will inspire the singer with reverence. The reverent language of our best hymns is the result of their being thoroughly Scriptural and in perfect harmony with their lofty religious themes. True church hymns are objective in character. That does not mean that they are always “we” hymns. The use of the personal pronoun “I” and “we” in a hymn does not necessarily imply a lack of objectivity any more than does the use of “I” in the Apostles Creed. Nor does the fact that a Scriptural song is extremely subjective eo ipso mean that it must be condemned as altogether unfit for use by Christians. There are many such that are very properly loved and sung by God's children in their homes, in schools, and in social gatherings, but they are not churchly and congregational in character and for that reason are not true church hymns.
A true church-hymn is centered in God or in some great doctrine of our faith or is an expression of hope, faith, confidence, and reliance in Him or His Word. It must have Scriptural warmth and power. High liturgy quality should be there, but that alone does not make a poem a hymn. The vigor and strength, as well as the fervor of faith, must definitely be present in a true church-hymn. F. J. Gillman in his Evolution of the English Hymn reminds us of St. Paul's definition of the purpose of song-worship in the Apostolic church – “Teaching and admonishing one another,” and says: “A hymn has a teaching office and an office of mutual encouragement and edification, as well as an office of prayer and praise.”
(Polack, W. (1942). The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal. St, Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. pp IX-X)
Church-hymns ought to express the catholicity and heritage of Lutheranism
But this is not all that Professor Polack has to say about Lutheran hymnody. The collection of hymns itself also serves an important function – for its use over the years inculcates the unity of the church across time and space, and steeps Lutherans of successive generations in the rich Lutheran heritage of the finest in poetic and compositional creativity. Professor W. G. Polack explains, further:
- A careful study of The Lutheran Hymnal will show that, including the carols and spiritual songs, it contains 313 original hymns and 347 translations. The translations are divided as follows: From the German, 248; from the Latin, 46; from the Scandinavian, 31; from the Greek, 9; from the Slovak, 6; from the French, 2; from the Italian, 2; from the Dutch, Welsh, and Finnish, each 1. The original hymns may be classified as follows: British, 267; American, 45; Canadian, 1... These numbers are interesting. They indicate that the editorial committee covered a wide field in search of hymns suitable for inclusion in The Lutheran Hymnal without losing sight of the fact that the hymnal must be thoroughly Lutheran in content. For it goes without saying that purity in doctrine was the first and foremost concern, and a goodly number of the hymns which were altered in the process of editing were altered in the interest of doctrinal soundness.
When Dr. C. F. W. Walther and several of his associates in the forties of last century [19th Century] prepared the Kirchengesangbuch für Evangelisch-Lutherische Gemeinden... he gave the principles according to which the selection for that Gesangbuch was made, as follows:
- In the selection of the adopted hymns the chief consideration was that they be pure in doctrine; that they had found almost general acceptance within the true German Lutheran Church and thereby had received the almost unanimous testimony that they had come forth out of the true spirit; that they express not so much the changing conditions of individual persons as rather the language of the whole Church, because the book was to be used primarily in public worship; and finally, that they, though bearing the imprint of Christian simplicity, be not merely rhymed prose, but the products of a truly Christian poesy...
The editorial committee for The Lutheran Hymnal followed the same principles. As a matter of course, the great body of Lutheran hymnody (German, Scandinavian, Slovak, and American) was the first source on which it drew; the fact that the figures for the Scandinavian and Slovak hymns seem low is explained by the circumstance that much of the bulk of the hymnody of these groups is drawn from German sources. Even as Walther and his associates also chose hymns of Medieval Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Pietistic sources, so the editorial committee did likewise, centering its efforts naturally in the field of English and American Protestant hymnody, but drawing liberally also from the ancient Greek and Latin hymns. The results show that the children of God of all ages of our Christian Era and of all Christian lands have by their sacred song given splendid evidence of the unity of the saints.
In selecting the music of the The Lutheran Hymnal, the editorial committee also exercised extreme care so as to give the great musical heritage of our church, the Lutheran chorale, its due place, and at the same time not to ignore the excellent tunes that have become the heritage of the English-speaking Christian world. To its knowledge the committee has not omitted a single chorale suitable for congregational singing, some being included that are not generally known in the German Lutheran churches of America and Canada, but which were resurrected from the dust of the centuries as a result of the diligent research carried on by the music editors of English and American hymnals.
(Polack, W. (1942). The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal. St, Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. pp XI-XII)
Selection of Hymns for Divine Service is No Trivial Matter
One may be tempted to think that the selection of hymns on any given Sunday is a trivial matter, the free choice of the pastor having little restriction, whether of voluntary discernment or otherwise. It is true that, even in a Lutheran congregation which follows the historic liturgy and the church year, hymn selection is one of only two aspects of the Divine Service in which the pastor has freedom to chose the words that are spoken or sung. The second aspect is the words of the sermon itself. But just as he is not free to say whatever he pleases in the sermon, his choice of hymns for a given service is equally bounded by the need to maintain a unity of thought with the Propers and harmony across all aspects of the Service.
To briefly explain this, our next selection is taken from the Introduction of an indispensable tool: Concordance to The Lutheran Hymnal, compiled by E. V. Haserodt. This very handy book is what one would expect a concordance to be: an alphabetical listing of every word in every hymn of The Lutheran Hymnal, giving hymn number and verse for each occurrence. In the Introduction, Haserodt includes a few paragraphs justifying such a tool as an indispensable aid to the pastor, whose selection of hymns on a given Sunday is anything but arbitrary. He writes:
- The reason for using a regular and Fixed Order of Service in Public Worship is to assist the worshiper to glorify God and to edify the worshiper. To attain this purpose the Fixing of an Order of Service must be governed by certain principles. The finished product must have certain characteristics. Its steps must be logically progressive; hence, unity of thought must predominate in an Order of Service. All its parts must be in harmony with one another. There are certain fixed parts which never vary, but are to be used each Sunday, for example, the Confession of Sins and the Absolution, the Gloria Patri, etc. On the other hand, there are certain parts which vary from Sunday to Sunday. These variable parts are commonly called the Propers. The Propers include the Introit, the Collect, the Epistle, the Gradual, and the Gospel. These variable parts are governed by the church year and have been in use for many centuries. Although the Propers vary from Sunday to Sunday, they do not vary from year to year. Practically the only parts left to the determination of the pastor are the sermon and the selection of the hymns to be used during the service.
To have unity and harmony in the service and attain the purpose of public worship, it is imperative that the sermon and the hymns be in harmony with the thought of the day as expressed by the Propers. It is self-evident that unless extreme care and thoughtfulness are constantly used in the selection of the hymns, the unity and harmony of the service will be destroyed. Inappropriate hymns are discordant notes in the service.
(Haserodt, E. (1956). Concordance to the Lutheran Hymnal. St, Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. pg. V)
Christian Hymns and their Sources
Finally, we return to that great source of liturgical catechesis for Lutheran Youth, Explanation of the Common Service. Two weeks ago we published from the main body of this work, the explanation of the various parts of the Lutheran service. But one of the Appendices of this fine work includes brief descriptive details regarding the sources of great Christian hymns. We conclude our post today with that Appendix from the Explanation of the Common Service:
An Explanation of the Common Service (1908)
Board of Publication of the General Council of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America
Young Lutheran who asks
The Meaning of the
Beautiful Liturgy of
A HYMN is a sacred song. A Christian hymn is one that embodies Christian truth, or gives expression to Christian belief and feeling. “Know ye,” asks St. Augustine, “what a hymn is? It is a song with praise of God. If thou praisest God and singest not, thou utterest no hymn. If thou singest and praisest not God, thou utterest no hymn.”
There are two kinds of hymns, inspired and uninspired. The inspired hymns are all found in the Holy Scriptures. These are the Psalms and all of the Canticles, except the Benedicite which is found in the Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Bible, and the Te Deum, which is an ancient Christian hymn.
The inspired hymns are all Hebrew in form. The principal characteristic of Hebrew poetry is the parallelism or responsiveness between the two parts of each verse. For instance, in the second verse of the fifty-first Psalm, we read, “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity: and cleanse me from my sin.” Here the second clause parallels and balances the first, reproducing the same general idea, but in other words and with a slight variation in the thought. In Psalm 119:113, the two clauses are sharply antithetical. In Psalm 1:1, there is a regular progression in the thought. Again, the second clause supplies the reason for what is said in the first, as in Psalm 16:1, or it may state the results which follow, as in Psalm 23:1. On account of this parallelism, the psalms should always be rendered antiphonally, whether they be read or chanted, each verse being divided for this purpose by the colon.
With the exception of a few, which are numbered with the Canticles, the uninspired hymns of the Church have taken the form of compositions with metre and rime. In this the Church has followed “the universal promptings of human nature peculiar to no age, which in sacred compositions, as in others, looks for smoothness and ease, for the music of language, for the assistance to memory, and for something to rivet the attention; to which the music may form an harmonious accompaniment.”
For a long time the preference of the Church was for the Psalms of the Bible; and it is very probable that before the hymn found its way into the Service, it was in common use among the people. Only gradually, because of its value as a means of spiritual edification, did it win for itself a place in public worship. At first, the popular use of the hymn was confined to the heretics, who employed it in the spread of their false doctrines among the people. In self-defense orthodox writers composed numerous hymns, which finally displaced the songs of the heretics. Many of these ancient compositions are still in use in the East, and some of them, in translated form, throughout the Church.
Early Christian Hymnody
Among the very first composers and users of uninspired Christian hymns were the Syrians, whose language closely resembles if it is not identical with the language which was spoken by the common people of Palestine in the time of our Lord. The Syriac hymnody was rich and full, and in general use for a thousand years and more. The main stream of Church hymnody, however, takes its rise in the Greek Church of the East. The oldest of all Christian hymns is a Greek hymn of Clement of Alexandria (170-220). The later Greek hymnody reached its zenith at the close of the eighth century.
Latin hymnody originated in, and was derived from, the Greek hymnody of the East. The earliest names which can be connected with any Latin hymns, occur at the beginning of the fourth century. But from the fourth to the sixteenth century, the Latin is the main stream of Christian hymnody. It contains the best of the Greek, and was the inspiration of the majority of the first German hymns. Hundreds of the old Latin hymns, in translated form, are in common use in the Christian Church today.
The Influence of the German Reformation
“The Church hymn, in the strict sense of the term, as a popular religious lyric in the praise of God to be sung by the congregation in public worship, was born with German Reformation.” German hymnody surpasses all others in wealth. The number of German hymns cannot fall short of one hundred thousand. “To this treasury of 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 treasures of German hymnody have enriched churches of other tongues and passed into Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and modern English and American hymn-books. Luther was the leader in the reformation of the doctrine and the worship of the Church; he was also the first evangelical hymnist. “To Luther belongs the extraordinary merit of having given to the German people in their own tongue, the Bible, the Catechism and the hymn-book, so that God might speak directly to them in His Word, and that they might directly answer Him in their songs.” Luther's example inspired many others to compose evangelical hymns, so that by the middle of the sixteenth century a large number of them were in common use. After the period of the Reformation, German hymnody was constantly enriched. Where there are so many famous names which claim attention, space forbids more than the mention of the very greatest hymnist since Luther, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). In poetic fertility he greatly surpassed Luther, and his one hundred and twenty-three hymns “are among the noblest pearls in the treasury of sacred poetry.” The several English Lutheran hymnals now in use, all contain translations from the principal German hymn-writers of the last four centuries.
In Sweden, the first evangelical hymn-writers were the two renowned brothers, Olaf and Lars Peterson, the chief assistants of Gustavus in the work of reformation. But the greatest name in Swedish Hymnody is that of Johan Olaf Wallin, who at the beginning of the nineteenth century revised the hymn-book, contributing to it about one hundred and fifty hymns of his own. This book remains in the form in which he brought it out. It is highly prized by the Swedes, and is used everywhere.
Claus Martenson Tondebinder (1500-1576) was the father of Danish hymnology. He issued what was perhaps the first complete hymnary of the whole North. “The Hymn Book for Church and Home Worship,” which is in use in Denmark today, may be traced back through many revised and supplemented editions to Tondebinder's “Handbook” published in 1528.
The Norwegians have in the main followed the lead of Denmark in their hymns. Several hymn-books have been in use in Norway, but the one most generally used is “The Church Hymn-book,” edited on the basis of existing books by Magnus B. Landstad (b. 1802) and authorized in 1869. A supplement was added in 1892.
In Iceland, for a long time, the hymn-book consisted of translations of the earlier hymns of the Danish hymnary. It was published under the name of Graduale which was explained to mean Messu-saungs bok (The Mass-song Book). The last edition was issued in 1773. A new hymn-book, of the first rank among modern Lutheran hymn-books, appeared in 1886. The Bible Poems of Valdimar Briem (b. 1848), have placed him in the first rank among modern hymnists.
The earlier Scandinavian hymns were doctrinal, but the later are to a great extent expressive of religious sentiments, hopes and fears. Their plaintiveness is very marked, while the strength of their writers' personal faith is undeniable. The blending of the two, as in the illustration below, often produces a most pleasing result. That English hymnody might borrow with advantage from the Scandinavian, is not to be doubted, although at present but few translations are available for use. The following is a specimen, from the Danish poet Brorson, of the style of hymn which largely prevails in the North:
On Christ who died for me;
Sheltered by Jesus' passion
My soul at rest shall be:
'Tis there the life of heaven
Poor worthless I obtain;
Through what my Lord has given
The Father's love I gain.
No craft or deep invention,
No princely power or might,
Nor aught that man can mention
Of mocking or despite,
Nor weak nor strong endeavor,
Nor want's or sorrow's smart,
Nor death itself, shall sever
My soul from Jesus' heart.”
“The English hymn singing at the time of the Reformation was the echo of that which roused the enthusiasm of Germany under Luther. The most notable proof of this is found in Coverdale's Goostly Psalms and Spiritual Songs.” Most of the book “is a more or less close rendering from the German; and some of the finest hymns are Luther's.”
The three Wedderburn brothers, before 1546, published a translation of Luther's hymns into Scotch-English, with a paraphrase of Luther's Catechism. It is interesting to note that, long before Calvinistic versions of the Psalms were sung by the Scotch, they used such renderings of Luther's words as the following:
“And He, that we should not forget,
Gave us His Body for to eat
In form of bread, and gave, as sign,
His Blood to drink in form of wine;
Who will receive this sacrament
Should have true faith and sin repent;
Who uses it unworthily,
Receiveth death eternally.”
“Our baptism is not done all one day,
But all our life it lasts identical;
Remission of our sins endures for aye,
For though we fall, through great fragility,
The covenant, once contracted faithfully
By our great God, shall ever remain,
As oft as we repent and sin refrain.”
Very few original English hymns are of earlier date than the close of the seventeenth century, and the actual development of English hymns began among the Nonconformists, the Baptists and the Independents. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), who lifted English hymns out of obscurity into fame, may justly be called the father of English hymnody. After him, Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) may be mentioned. But the greatest English hymnist, and one of the greatest hymn-writers of all ages, was Charles Wesley (1707-1788). He is said to have written no less than sixty-five hundred hymns, and it is perfectly marvelous how many of them rise to the highest degree of excellence. It is an interesting fact that his brother John's little collection of Psalms and Hymns, which was one of the very first attempts at an English hymn-book, was published at Charlestown, while John Wesley was among the Lutherans in Georgia, in 1737.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the use of hymns was still a new departure in the order of divine worship in the Church of England. Until the middle of the century, the Dissenting element made up nearly two-thirds of the total contents of the hymn-books in use in this Church. Since then Church of England writers have greatly added to the number of English hymns, translating many of the best Latin and German hymns and producing many more of original composition.
America has already produced a large number of hymn-writers. Naturally, English Lutheran hymnody is yet in its infancy. However, the proposed “Common English Hymnal” for Lutheran congregations, contains original hymns by Joseph A. Seiss and Henry E. Jacobs, and translations by Dr. Seiss, Charles Porterfield Krauth, Charles W. Schaeffer and Harriet R. Spaeth.
Office of the Hymn
As St. Chrysostom says, “Nothing gladdens the soul like modulated verse – a divine song composed in metre.” It was Luther's purpose to inculcate the word of God in the hearts of the people by the use of song. The hymn as such is not intended to be didactic, and yet it is one of the surest means of conveying sound doctrine, and perpetuating it in the Church. St. Paul himself recognized the use of Christian song in teaching (Col. 3:16). Moreover, it is chiefly by the use of the hymn that the participation of the congregation in public worship is secured. The purpose of the hymn in the Service depends upon its position, although in general it may be said that its principal object is to awaken and stimulate devotion. Doddridge's hymns were sung as the enforcement of his sermons, and were probably given out from the pulpit, line by line. Sometimes the hymn serves as a preparation for what follows, as does the principal hymn in Matins; again it is the form in which the congregation appropriates what has preceded, as in the principal hymn in Vespers. The office of each hymn used in the Common Service, and the kind of hymn to be used, have been indicated at the proper places in this Explanation.