Early in his efforts to reform the worship of the church, he expressed in a letter to his friend Georg Spalatin, “Following this example of the prophets and fathers of the church, I intend to make vernacular psalms for the people, that is, spiritual songs so that the word of God even by means of song may live among the people.” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is blessed to own reproductions of Luther’s hymns, which are a testament to his commitment to congregational singing. Luther’s first attempts at hymn writing were published in a very small collection called Etlich christlich lider Lobgesang un Psalm (sic, 1523), nicknamed Das Achtliederbuch (‘The Eight-Song-Book’) because it contained only eight hymns, four of which were by Luther, the others by Paul Speratus. Speratus worked alongside Luther in 1523 but was later sent to Prussia to be a vital reformer there. Probably the most well known of these initial hymns by Luther is his paraphrase of Psalm 130, “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir,” known to many English worshipers as “Out of the depths I cry to Thee,” translated by Catherine Winkworth.
The following year, Luther published a more expansive collection, Geystliche gesangk Buchlein (sic, 1524, or Geystliches Gsangbüchlin), including 24 hymns by Luther, in cooperation with his friend and composer Johann Walter. This collection was unique in that Walter composed five-part harmonies to be sung by a choir. Luther was an advocate for congregational singing, with most of his collections containing unison melodies, but the choir arrangements were intended to help introduce the congregation to the new hymns. Additionally, Luther felt the part-singing would be attractive to the younger generation, “to wean them from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place.” Each voice part was published separately in small booklets. Luther, a skilled singer in his own right, preferred to sing from the alto partbook. Among the hymns in this edition were Luther’s renditions of the Ten Commandments, Simeon’s song (Luke 2:29-32), the Nicene Creed, and some adaptations of venerable Latin chants.
Luther’s most famed hymn, “Ein feste burg ist unser Gott,” known to English worshipers via Frederick Hedge’s translation, “A mighty fortress is our God,” was first published in a 1529 collection, Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert. Unfortunately, no copies survive, but the contents were repeated in a 1533 edition by Wittenberg publisher Joseph Klug. Modern Protestants might be surprised to hear the vibrant rhythms of Luther’s classic Reformation hymn as it was first published, versus the stately march it had become by the time of J.S. Bach. This collection contained 29 hymns by Luther, including an alternative version of the Latin Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy,” from Isaiah 6:3), “Jesaia dem Propheten das geschach,” which was later translated by Richard Massie as “These things the seer Isaiah did befall.”
Luther’s final collection was published in 1545, the year before his death. Geystliche Lieder Mit einer newen vorrhede, printed by Valentin Babst, contained 120 German hymns, 35 of which were by Luther, with his final revisions. Among the newer pieces were Luther’s two Christmas hymns, the longer “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her,” known in English as “From heaven above to earth I come” by Catherine Winkworth, and the shorter hymn, “Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schaar,” translated as “To shepherds as they watched by night” by Richard Massie.
Luther made good on his intentions to craft congregational songs in the German language, and this legacy is preserved in these facsimile editions, but moreso it is preserved in Lutheran churches and hymnals, where Luther’s corpus of hymns is still performed via carefully curated translations. Baptist hymnal compilers and worship leaders have generally limited themselves to “The battle hymn of the Reformation,” but this year’s grand anniversary is an opportunity to explore the greater breadth of Luther’s hymn writing.
To learn more, visit the Archives and Special Collections in the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.