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Reformation Hymns

When Martin Luther (1483—1546) sparked a Reformation of the Church by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Church door at Wittenberg in 1517, he challenged the Roman Church’s doctrine and practice, but never its musical forms. The musical forms of the Reformation continued to follow in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The most significant change Luther made for hymnody was in insisting that singing be brought back to the congregation in their language—he wanted the hymns to be text-driven. So Luther advocated the writing of new texts in the vernacular and tunes that fit those texts, composed using the Church’s traditional musical forms. This lead Luther to write and encourage rich doctrinal hymnody like his classic work, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Even Luther’s tune to this text was written in the Judeo-Christian tradition, “woven out of Gregorian reminiscences.”1

The second characteristic of hymnody in the Judeo-Christian tradition was also prominent during the Reformation: Reformation hymnody was modest. Those who wrote hymn tunes wanted their music to be ordered and refined. Consider this example from Michael Praetorius (1571-1621):

Equality of measure is indeed to be preserved, lest the harmony be impaired or confused; for to sing without rule and measure is to offend God himself, who arranged all things by number, weight and measure.2

John Calvin (1509-1564) especially insisted that hymnody be modest in character. Calvin understood the danger of music to stir the passions so well that he prohibited the use of instruments in worship. A musician himself, Calvin was not against using instruments per se— he even allowed that they be used in homes for example; but he so wanted to guard against immoderate music in worship that he took the safe way and banned instruments in corporate worship altogether.

Calvin also banned hymns of human composure in favor of singing the Psalms, but again, this had nothing to do with musical form. Calvin was simply trying to direct the Church back to the Scriptures for its direction instead of the damaging doctrines of the Roman Church. Therefore, Psalmody thrived in the Calvinist churches for years to follow.

Because the Church had eradicated any significant pagan influences in the West, the Reformation Church no longer had to worry about being distinct from pagan culture in the same way as in previous times. The musical forms cultivated in the Church were passed down and used with the secular music of the day as well. Remember, by this time in Western history virtually all musical forms, whether in high culture or folk culture, had been cultivated from within the Judeo-Christian tradition. This meant that, similar to the situation of Old Testament Hebrews, the tunes used for folk love songs were of the same noble character as hymn tunes. As Peter Lutkin explains, “Even the love song of Luther’s time was a serious and weighty affair.”3  So-called “secular” culture was secular only in the subject matter of the text, not in the musical forms used.

I’ll use this opportunity to dispel one popular myth about Martin Luther. People often argue that since Luther used “bar tunes,” we should be able to use the kind of music played in bars today. However, these people confuse the common medieval “bar form” that Luther used in many of his hymns with tavern songs. “Bar form” was a common musical form that was nurtured in the Church. It is a form consisting of two identical musical lines followed by a contrasting section: AAB. Many of Luther’s hymns, like “A Might Fortress,” are written in this form, which has nothing to do with taverns.

Yet even though no prominently pagan culture existed in the West during this time, Reformation hymnody was still distinct from segments of secular culture that expressed values contrary to the scriptures. Sometimes, because of distracting associations, Reformation church leaders stayed away from some folk tunes even though the musical form itself was compatible with Christian affections.

A prominent example of this is Martin Luther’s use of a secular folk tune for one of his hymns. Contrary to popular belief, this was the only example of Luther using a secular tune, and even in this case, he eventually changed the tune because he “was embarrassed to hear the tune of his Christmas hymn sung in inns and dance halls.”4

Luther was also careful to avoid what he called “carnal” music—music that stimulated the base passions. He argued that good music could actually “wean [young people] way from carnal and lascivious songs, and interest them in what is good and wholesome.”5

The great English hymn writers, Isaac Watts (1674—1748) and Charles Wesley (1707—1788) fall loosely into this period of Judeo-Christian hymnody as well. Watts is often cited as a great innovator in that he was among the first in England to advocate the singing of hymns of human composure rather than just Psalms. While this is true (English Christians had followed Calvin’s example of singing only inspired Psalms), Watts’ “innovations” were nothing new— Christians had been singing hymns of human composure for centuries, and his work had nothing to do with musical form—all of his hymns were sung to the same tunes his church had always sung. Watts was working well within established Judeo-Christian tradition.

Most of the hymns we sing today from the Judeo-Christian tradition come from this period. No other period in church history has produced such a wealth of word-driven, modest hymnody, both in text and tune, that best express Christian affections distinct from the value systems of pagan culture.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach (1908), trans by Ernest Newman, 2 vols (Neptune City, NJ: Paganiniana, 1980), 1:16. []
  2. Syntagma musicum III, 1619 in Faulkner, p. 107. []
  3. Peter Christian Lutkin, Music in the Church (New York: AMS, 1970), p. 14. []
  4. Paul Nettl, Luther and Music (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967), p. 48. []
  5. Forell, Luther and Culture, 167. []