This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (Jan/Feb 2014). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
In surveying both the past and present of the Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that grace our congregational singing today, the contribution of Martin Luther cannot be overstated. Most of us know that it was he, more than any other Reformer, who—having come to abhor what worship had become, a performance by the priest and a concert by the choir—kick-started the effort to return the Church’s song to the people in corporate worship.
But over the past 500 years or so, the truth about Luther’s reforms has, from time to time, morphed into legend. Dispelling five of the myths surrounding his musical efforts—and, especially, balancing a scholarly overcorrection for one such falsehood—helps us appreciate even more the important role he played in fostering the kind of passionate singing in worship that so many of us enjoy in the 21st century.
Myth #1: Luther was the first major theologian to propose reforms.
Actually, 100 years prior to Luther, Czech priest Jan Hus had begun to question the Church’s interpretation of significant doctrines and practices. And a generation before Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Italian friar Girolama Savonarola had called for renewal in the Church. Yes, Luther was the primary mover and shaker at the onset of the Reformation, but he was building on the work of a handful of reform-minded theologians who went before him.
Myth #2: Luther wanted to abolish all vestiges of the Catholic liturgy, much like the proponents of late 20th-century seeker sensitivity seemingly desired to remove all symbols of traditional Christian worship.
Not so. In many respects, Luther was a reluctant agent of change. The writer Raymond Abba refers to Luther as “the most conservative of Reformers,” one who was “slow to change anything in the mass which was not expressly forbidden in Holy Scripture.” Indeed, Luther expressed concern for “the weak in faith, who cannot suddenly exchange an old and accustomed order of worship for a new and unusual one.” Five hundred years later, Luther’s temperate approach to change surely serves as a marvelous model for all of us looking for worship renewal.
Myth #3: Luther’s goal was to stop immediately the use of Latin in worship in order for worshipers to use their own vernacular, in this case German.
In fact, Luther initially proposed only slight changes in the content, structure, and style of the liturgy, advocating a sermon in the common tongue but allowing for the rest of the service to be “in the old language of the church, sung by the priest and a choir, with the people sometimes entering in, if they knew the chant.”1
Myth #4: In an effort to make his case for the use of music the people could sing, Luther famously asked, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?”
It seems that however sympathetic Luther’s theology of congregational song might appear in hindsight to the question attributed to him, it is highly unlikely he posed it. Some scholars cite the 18th century’s George Whitefield or Charles Wesley as the original author, while others make a case for the 19th-century’s Salvation Army founder William Booth.
Myth #5: Luther raided the local drinking establishments for songs that would be familiar to the masses. Of all the misinformation about Luther, this myth is the most famous, to the extent that it has ascended to the rank of Common Knowledge. Paul Westermeyer, among others, has shown the association of Luther’s music with taverns comes from a misunderstanding of “Barform, a German word that means a poem with more than one stanza, each stanza in the form of AAB. It has nothing to do with bars in the sense of pubs.”2
That said, conventional wisdom’s folly thus allows some scholars to assert, with fervor, that Luther did not use popular music in bringing new songs to the Church—but often their arguments seem steeped in semantics and, particularly, latter-day connotations. On the subject of Luther and popular music, one writer considers popular music to be “mass produced with the intention of making vast amounts of money,” a money-changers-in-the-temple line of reasoning that would certainly make such music’s use in corporate worship problematic (if not, perhaps, historically inaccurate at every turn); Luther, with his well-known antipathy for indulgences, would never have associated himself with a process so linked to mammon.
Too, the well-respected hymnologist Erik Routley once lauded Luther’s discriminating musical sensibilities, opining that the “very last thing Luther was, or could have been, was what we now call an adapter of popular styles. He had no use for the ‘popular’ in the sense of the careless, or [in relation to] standards of ignorance.” Certainly, if “popular” means “careless” and “ignorant,” Luther did not use popular music.
Inclusive and Accessible
If, however, by “popular music” we mean music known and appreciated by the majority of the people (especially the laity), music accessible even to the illiterate by virtue of its familiarity, then Luther most definitely did use popular music. Evidence abounds—and for all of Luther’s discriminating musical taste, he was passionately and purposely indiscriminate where source music for his new songs was concerned. Historians attest that he mined the existing music of the Church, modifying tunes with his new theology. He utilized “school songs, children’s songs, folk-songs [and] carols,” one writer notes. Another praises Luther for his use of “well-known, well-liked secular tunes,” for which he set Christian texts.
Scholars still disagree as to the extent of Luther’s appropriations, but if, as respected musicologist Jeremy Begbie asserts, “it is going beyond the evidence to presume he regarded any and every style as suitable for church use,” it is no less true that Luther freed the Church’s song from what one writer calls “parochial exclusiveness,” in time pushing the stylistic and structural boundaries of acceptable congregational song significantly beyond where they had ever been pushed before. To be sure, if Luther did not specifically express in word his concern for the devil’s ownership of the best melodies, his deeds demonstrated a desire to do something about the situation nevertheless.
We’ve Got Rhythm
In addition to utilizing familiar melodies, Luther became a serious student of basic patterns of speech. Some scholars note that rhythmic “vitality was a distinctive trait” of Luther’s early congregational songs, distinguishing them from the isometric chorales that were the rage prior to his innovations. One writer even suggests that Luther went so far—in his effort to craft hymns in a manner that would resonate with the common man—as to query everyday people “when he went among them asking them how they would express certain phrases,” which “increased his own understanding of the type of syllabic singing which the people enjoyed.”3
The results—somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 hymns—speak for themselves. The most famous of Luther’s compositions, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” is a rendering of Psalm 46. Robert J. Morgan, in his wonderful Then Sings My Soul, notes that during times of difficulty and duress, of which he had plenty in the aftermath of his posting of the 95 theses, “Luther would often resort to this song, saying to his associate, ‘Come, Philipp, let us sing the 46th Psalm.’” Millions of Christians since that time have done the same.
Having, Harvey Marks notes, “rescued hymnody from its monastic existence and put it into the hands of the people” what Luther contributed to the Church’s corporate worship were psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, yes, but greater still, from psycho-emotional and evangelistic perspectives, a “new spirit that captured the interest of the people.”4 Five hundred years later—or, as Luther would have put it, “from age to age the same”—our best Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs continue to attest that “God’s truth abideth still” and “His kingdom is forever.”
Warren Anderson teaches communication arts and worship arts classes and serves as Dean of the Chapel at Judson University. He is also the Worship Pastor at the Elgin Evangelical Free Church, and serves on the editorial board of Worship Leader for which he writes a monthly column and special features.
1 Gordon Lathrop, “Luther: Formula Missae: Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg (1523),” in Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship, ed. Robert E. Webber, vol. 2, The Complete Library of Christian Worship (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 189.
2 Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church and Music (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 148.
3 William Lock, “The Chorale,” in Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, ed. Robert E. Webber, vol. 4, The Complete Library of Christian Worship, 258.
4 Russel N. Squire, Church Music: Musical and Hymnological Developments in Western Christianity (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1962), 113.