What do Louie Armstrong, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther have in common? They all initiated a revolution in the music of their time and culture. Louie Armstrong introduced New Orleans jazz to the nation and then to the world. Elvis Presley introduced rock and roll to the nation and then to the world. And Martin Luther introduced congregational hymn singing to the German church, and from there, to the rest of the world.
Today, practically all churches everywhere take hymn singing by the congregation for granted, but it was not always that way. In the Middle Ages the worship service consisted of the priest at the altar doing the entire service in Latin, a language the people in the congregation did not speak. The only music was a Psalm and parts of the liturgy. This too was chanted by the priest, also in Latin. In the Old Testament all the people sung Psalms, and it is believed that the early Christians did so also. But in time, the service came to be done only Latin, and only by the priest. In 1415, 68 years before Luther’s birth, the reformer John Hus was burned at the stake. A church decree warned his followers to cease from their singing in church, saying, “If laymen are forbidden to preach and interpret the Scriptures, much more are they forbidden to sing publicly in the churches.” I have a 650 page book on the history of Christian hymn writing, and the story begins with Luther. Luther translated the worship service back into the language of the people, and then he wrote the first hymns for them to sing. He changed the way we worship.
Before Luther, there was no such thing as a hymnal. The very first German hymnal came out in 1524 and contained 8 hymns, half of them by Luther. These hymns were so well received, and the demand for more was so great, that later on in that same year a second hymnal came out. This one contained 25 hymns and all but 7 were by Luther. After this the hymnals came pouring out, by Protestants and Catholics alike, and by the time of Luther’s death there were already more than 60 different hymnals containing hymns by many different writers. Luther’s hymns opened up a whole new era of music, and every hymn writer since Luther was influenced by his example. He has been called the Father of Evangelical hymnody. Everyone is well aware that Luther was a great theologian and reformer. What is not so well know is that he was also the Elvis Presley of his time, with his music being just as much in demand.
Luther once wrote, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits, it can drive out the devil and make people cheerful. With music one can forget all wrath, impurity and vice… Music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men, and anyone who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, does not deserve to be called a human being, and should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of pigs…”
Luther wrote about 40 hymns. Most of the tunes aren’t as popular as they once were and are not sung anymore, but one has become a classic. “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is one of the best loved hymns of all time. It is sung around the world by Protestants and Catholics alike. It is believed to have been adapted by Luther from the tune of a German folk song, perhaps even tavern song. Luther often borrowed popular melodies for his hymns, saying he did not want to ‘let the devil have all the good tunes.’ This would at times bring so much criticism, and the tune would be so closely associated with drunkenness, that in a few instances he was “compelled to let the devil have the tune back again” and write some other music. It does not matter where the tune of “A Mighty Fortress” came from, Luther wrote the words, and it gave the early Lutherans a song of their own. It has been called the ‘Battle Hymn of the Reformation.’ It was indeed a rallying cry for the reformers, sung in the streets by the crowds and by martyrs as they were burned at the stake.
“A Mighty Fortress” is based on Psalm 46. It was probably written in late summer of 1529, perhaps after a long period of depression, of which Luther had many. Mired in depression, Luther would turn to two of his most effective antidotes, music and the Bible. He had found spiritual comfort in Psalm 46, repeating over and over the words of verse one, “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.” That faith gave him the strength to withstand threats from the authorities to his life and safely, assaults of the devil on his spirit, and opposition by enemies and friends. In difficulty and danger, he would often resort to this song, saying to his associate, “Come Phillip, let us sing Psalm 46.” The song reflects Luther’s awareness of our intense struggle with Satan, his confidence in God, and his determination to remain faithful to the truth. “No strength of ours can match the devils might,” we sing, “But Christ holds the field victorious.” Luther himself needed the strength to be gained from the singing of his hymns.
This hymn was sung at Luther’s funeral, and the first line is imprinted on his tomb, which lies at the base of the pulpit in the Wittenberg church where he preached for many years.
Psalm 13:6 — I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
Ephesians 5:18b-20 — …Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Psalm 32:7 — You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for thee. Amen.
–Martin Luther, From Heaven Above to Earth I Come, v. 12